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Working toward transparency in library automation

Computers in Libraries [February 2007] The Systems Librarian

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It's my firm belief that we need transparency with regard to the automation systems used in libraries. Transparency "implies openness, communication, and accountability" (according to Wikipedia). As a library develops its automation strategy, whether it involves licensing software from a commercial company or going with open source software, it should have abundant information about the organizations it will potentially acquire technology from and about the collective experiences of other librarians.

In aggregate, libraries spend at least half a billion dollars per year on automation products and services. The vast majority of those funds originate from nonprofit or taxsupported organizations. In my view, there shouldn't be many secrets regarding what systems were acquired by what libraries. Data on how libraries spend public funds on their automation systems should be readily available. In reality, companies rarely reveal the actual amounts that librarians pay for automation systems and executives keep close tabs on their customer lists.

Further, librarians need to have access to information about the financial interests of the companies they do business with. Who are the owners and major investors that determine the product and development strategies? Without a good understanding of a company's business strategy, it's difficult for a library team to evaluate its suitability as a partner in automation. This reflects my view that the relationship between a library and its automation vendor goes beyond the simple procurement and maintenance of software; it is a long-term, cooperative, and strategic endeavor.

As librarians make decisions regarding automation software and services, they should have convenient access to information about how other libraries have done in similar circumstances. It's important to know the current trends-what systems continue to experience strong sales and which are in decline. Empirical information on what other libraries are using provides important clues to help find the right match between library size and type and a suitable automation system.

You can always ask vendors to supply reference sites that have implemented the product you are considering, but you can bet that they will name the customers that have had smooth implementations. A more objective approach would give you access to a comprehensive customer list so you could select the ones closest to your own profile.

In times past, many vendors made public listings of all their customers. In recent years, however, those listings have disappeared from the companies' Web sites, apparently out of concern that these would be used by their competitors. The Library Corp. is one of the very few major library automation companies that continues to share a comprehensive list of sites that run its systems.

Use My lib-web-cats as a Tool for Transparency

For almost a decade now, I have been building a database of libraries and automation systems they use. This database originated as a component of the 1996 Mecklermedia Internet World's World Wide Web Yellow Pages that I edited. I compiled the section on libraries. That list was the seed for "lib-webcats" ( cats), which has been available on the Web since 1997. Today, lib-web-cats includes listings of 26,559 libraries.

One of my main goals with lib-webcats is bringing more transparency to the realm of library automation. Since information on the deployment of automation systems isn't readily found in other sources, I find it worthwhile to make it available through my site.

From its beginning, I've offered fields in lib-web-cats for the ILS currently used in a library, the year it was implemented, and for the previous systems and their implementation dates. From this information, you and I can follow the migration trends for the libraries represented in the database. You can see what systems were sold in any given year, what systems have faded away, and which ones continue to prosper. You can view the trends by library types and sizes. By limiting the queries to collection size or population of service area, you can get a picture of fairly specific sectors of the library automation arena.

There's an Expanding Array of Automation Products

Today, the basic integrated library system represents only one aspect of many libraries' overall automation environment. Academic libraries especially invest in a number of add-on products related to managing and delivering digital content. Accordingly, I've recently added fields for some of the other automation products finding their way into libraries, including link resolvers, metasearch products, electronic resource management modules, and alternative interfaces. So far, the information regarding these products in lib-web-cats is fairly sparse, but I'm working toward a more complete representation.

This database will never be finished, but as it grows it becomes ever more useful. I'm interested in making the database as comprehensive as possible, beginning with libraries in the U.S. and expanding internationally as time allows. Increasingly, I've been developing ways to add and update libraries systematically and in groups rather than one at a time. All the public libraries in the U.S. have basic entries in lib-web-cats, thanks to data made available through the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). I was able to download this data and write a Perl program to check for existing entries and load any that were missing. The program tagged each entry with the identifiers that NCES uses for each library, making it easier to perform future batch updates. I'll be systematically adding data on Canadian libraries in the near future.

Although I was able to create skeletal entries for each public library facility, the process didn't include information on the automation systems used by the libraries. So while each U.S. public library is represented, I have a lot of work to do to add ILS info to each listing. Prior to loading the NCES data, the lib-web-cats database was fairly up-to-date with respect to the libraries and consortia running the topflight automation systems used by larger public and academic libraries. Most of the catch-up involves smaller public libraries.

Revealing Automation Trends in Rural Libraries

The process of updating lib-webcats for these smaller public libraries colored my view of the state of library automation in the U.S. Prior to this exercise, I thought that most public libraries were well automated. As it turns out, while most public libraries in medium to large cities have full-featured automation systems, there are thousands of small, often rural, public libraries that have no automation system or that use a stand-alone, PC-based one. I'm seeing that a large percentage of these small libraries have no Web site at all or just a minimal, single-page site. For many small libraries, their listing in libweb-cats is their most complete presence on the Web.

Many small libraries have Web sites, but no links to their online catalogs. Many of these sites include an email address to contact the library. For these, I routinely send a gentle message requesting that they confirm the accuracy of the entry and that they send information regarding their automation system. I'm amazed at the number of these email addresses that are no longer valid. This provides further evidence that small rural libraries get by with a minimal level of technology. I'm not casting this in a negative light; a small library with a collection of a few thousand books serving a community of a few hundred people doesn't necessarily need a complex automation environment to provide excellent services. Nevertheless, I'm very much interested in knowing which libraries operate without automation systems.

Working Toward More Comprehensive Data

I'm hoping to complete the lib-webcats updates for U.S. public libraries over the next few months. Then we will be able to see how the library automation scene in this sector really shakes out. It will be interesting to see the national market share of each of the automation systems. This is information that hasn't readily been available before.

To the extent that lib-web-cats systematically makes information available about automation systems used in libraries, it contributes to the transparency that I believe is important to engender in the industry. I hope that readers will participate in this effort by checking their libraries in the database and supplying any missing data.

The library automation arena stands at the cusp of several important changes. Industry consolidation, strategic acquisitions by major private equity firms, and breakthroughs in open source library automation stand to effect significant changes over the next few years. Now is the time to gather data and to closely track the trends so that librarians will be well informed and better prepared to deal with the changes that lie ahead.

View Citation
Publication Year:2007
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 27 Number 02
Issue:February 2007
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:12444
Last Update:2024-02-24 23:51:30
Date Created:2007-03-08 17:46:08