Technology Opens Doors For Librarians and Patrons

New technologies present many great opportunities and challenges for libraries. Not surprisingly, computers have replaced traditional 3" x 5" card catalogs in most libraries across North America. Through an Online Public Access Catalog, or OPAC, patrons can quickly find books and other materials relating to a desired topic and determine whether the items are available at that library (or a nearby one). Library staff, meanwhile, can efficiently manage their collections and better point students in the right direction for a research project or other assignment.

In recent years, libraries also have realized the benefits of online databases -- on both CD-ROM and the Internet -- that contain full-text articles from newspapers, magazines and academic journals. Some institutions have started to digitize their major collections, creating "virtual libraries" that can be visited by anyone around the world. Yale University, for example, collaborated with IBM to digitize thousands of photographic negatives in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. As a result, scholars from far away who wish to view the images avoid the time and expense associated with traveling to the New Haven, Conn., campus.

This article surveys several turnkey systems for acquisitions, cataloging, public access, circulation and card production. Where appropriate, educators share their experiences with certain products. For a comprehensive listing of vendors, see this issue on T.H.E. Online. Readers also may want to "check out" various books dealing with library automation, such as OPAC Directory: A Guide to Internet-Accessible Online Public Access Catalogs (call Information Today, 609-654-0266) and Local Area Networking for the Small Library: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians (call Neal-Schuman Publishers, 212-925-8650).

Follett Software next month will release new versions of its widely used automation software, Circulation Plus and Catalog Plus, for Windows 3.x. The Windows products support the 856 electronic MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) tag and eight-character holdings codes. A simplified Circulation Desk guides staff through check-in, checkout, holds, fine calculations and more. Johnsburg High School in Johnsburg, Ill., beta tested Circulation Plus and Catalog Plus this fall, and librarian Kathy Kucik commented, "The new interface is extremely user friendly. The research process is much faster now." Follett Software also is putting the finishing touches on WebCollection Plus, which will allow patrons to search the OPAC, submit hold and interlibrary loan requests and link to cross references from any location via the Internet.

Specifically designed for K-12 libraries, Alexandria 4.0 from COMPanion employs a transaction-based client-server architecture that significantly increases processing speed and network performance. Requests are sent directly to the Data Station, a PowerPC server, leaving the client machine ready for results. Multi-threaded technology enables the Data Station to handle many simultaneous queries. "Placing a Data Station at each school in a district eliminates the down-time that occurs when there is one central server," said Bill Schjelderup, COMPanion's president. "If one server g'es down, the other libraries can continue to share resources and access information with their own servers. Plus, processing is faster because the work is shared between servers."

Another cross-platform product, Winnebago Spectrum comes as an integrated circulation and online catalog system or as two independent programs, Spectrum CIRC and Spectrum CAT. The software complies with the Z39.50 information retrieval standard and supports TCP/IP. If you purchase a Winnebago Value Pack for Elementary, Middle or High Schools, the firm will fully load and index your student and USMARC records, guaranteeing at least 98% accuracy. Customers receive free training (in the continental U.S. and Hawaii) as well as technical support over the phone, fax or Internet.

With Chancery Software's Library Pro 2.0, librarians spend less time teaching people to use the system and more time managing their collection. Powerful features can be hidden from volunteers and students who have simpler needs. Library staff may assign any number of items to a Custom Collection and set unique circulation policies. An Internet plug-in for Library Pro enables searches by title, author or keyword from a standard Web browser. By entering a password, patrons also can view a list of overdue books and outstanding fines.

Nichols Advanced Technologies' Athena 97 library automation system now offers three search options: single-term search, Boolean search and Visual Search. Visual Search allows patrons to click on icons to view recommended or new titles, access CD-ROM databases or launch applications such as a word processor. The product ships with over 100 Visual Search buttons, and staff can create as many more as they like. "The ability to pre-design searches is such a time saver," said Phil Stohrer, a librarian at West Middle School in Portage, Mich. "I had a class come in to the library looking for Newbery books, and instead of directing 30 individual students on where to find them, I configured an icon in Visual Search. It made their time in the library much more beneficial for them and for myself."

Last spring, Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Va., completed the massive effort of converting all 230 libraries to a workstation-based system that relies on the INLEX/3000 from Data Research Associates (DRA). The project involved building more than a million item records in less than 18 months; designing an extensive Wide Area Network throughout the county; and upgrading all personal computers within the libraries to 486 or higher models. DRA this quarter will unveil a new object-oriented distributed client/server system that has been certified as "Year 2000 safe." Linda Sue Dauphin, Fairfax's library information services coordinator, indicated that DRA technicians have worked closely with the district to ensure a smooth transition. "DRA has successfully maintained the integrity of our existing product, while providing us with a logical migration path so we can continue moving forward."

Higher education institutions may want to consider a library automation system tailored for their distinct audience. Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., recently decided to convert to Voyager, Endeavor's information management system for academic and research libraries. Voyager replaces NOTIS (Northwestern Online Total Integrated System). "The purchase of the Voyager system represents a major commitment by the university administration, information technology division and the library to enhance library service in the 21st century," stated librarian David Bishop. Serving over 17,700 students, Northwestern's combined collections total more than 3.7 million volumes.

The State University of New Jersey this semester installed SIRSI's UNICORN system in its libraries. According to librarian Marianne Gaunt, the system fits nicely with the university's sophisticated network, which includes more than 10,000 computers on three campuses. Version 9.0 sports a new module called Outreach Services to better serve patrons who cannot visit the library in person. "UNICORN integrates in one system a World Wide Web-based online catalog, a circulation control system with self service options, acquisitions, fund accounting, cataloging and check-in and control functions," said Gaunt. "Our users will be able to access the full-text of digitized materials, sound recordings, maps and other visual images. In addition, our librarians will be able to gather data on the growth and use of the collections that will guide future decision making."

With a growing number of publishers issuing electronic editions of their journals, more libraries are exploring high-tech methods for document delivery. Community college, university and public libraries in Florida, along with the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) and OCLC, are building an electronic library to support distance education programs. "The goal is to meet the academic needs of distance learners by delivering information to them when and where they need it," noted Clark Maxwell, Jr., executive director of the Florida Community College System. Thanks to the Distance Learning Library Initiative, funded largely by the state, students off campus will be able to seamlessly explore a comprehensive electronic collection of bibliographic, abstract and full-text resources. OCLC FirstSearch offers end users more than 60 databases to search, including WorldCat, a merged catalog containing roughly 36 million records in eight bibliographic formats.

Some educators predict that libraries will gradually supplant all their printed materials with electronic versions. Of course, there are advantages to digitized collections. First, because patrons never touch valuable holdings, the risk of loss, damage or theft is reduced. Librarians also can provide greater access to materials while protecting them from unauthorized reuse. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency have awarded nearly $25 million in grants to universities for the development of new approaches to creating and managing digital libraries.

Both private companies (such as IBM and Apple) and non-profit organizations (such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) have contributed money towards digital library projects. The California Digital Library, launched this fall, aims to integrate the holdings of the nine UC campuses and provide international access to the collections via the Internet. The charter collection will focus on science, technology and industry, building on existing technologies and digitized materials.

In coming months, look for the Internet to play an even larger role in libraries. The Clinton Administration has called for all educational institutions to be linked to the National Information Infrastructure by the year 2000. Thanks to the Universal Service Fund, or "E-Rate," schools can now receive significant discounts on telecommunications products and services. Observers expect that the FCC ruling will enable the vast majority of libraries to get online, thereby opening the doors to endless "stacks" of information.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.