Instant access, distant library

November 10, 1995

Israeli universities have installed a powerful and multilingual national online cataloging system, reports Helena Flusfeder.

Since the 1980s Israel's universities have shared a library automation system that allows users, by pressing a few computer keys, to locate bibliographic information held thousands of miles away.

However, this was not always the case, says Avner Navin, director general of Aleph-Yissum, the research and development company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was his company that developed Aleph (Automated Library Expandable Program Hebrew University of Jerusalem). The system is an online, real-time integrated library management system, that combines an access catalogue with a circulation system.

The original cataloguing system in Israel was primitive. Before 1967, the Hebrew University had 26 small departmental libraries scattered all over Jerusalem. Each time a reader requested books, the "storeroom method" was used to find them and they were brought to the reading room.

After 1967, the Hebrew University built an additional campus on Mount Scopus in the northern part of Jerusalem and a new social sciences and humanities library was opened. Navin explains that they had to "find a method of putting all of the catalogue cards of the individual libraries on the computer". It had to be a system that was suitable for the open shelf method that was to be used in the new library.

Organisers were faced with the task of unifying 220,000 bibliographic records on 400,000 volumes from 26 libraries with separate catalogues and different systems for subject indexing and shelving. They soon "realised that this enormous task could only be accomplished with an automated system and set about investigating the market for a ready-made package," says Susan Lazinger, head of the library and a part-time lecturer at the graduate school of library and archive studies at the Hebrew University. The 400,000 books were to be reclassified according to the system of the Library of Congress.

However, it was not so simple. Existing systems available in Israel were inadequate. There was no system able to handle both Hebrew and Latin character sets, and it was clear that one would have to be developed. "We knew it was going to be a national system for all the libraries because of the need to have a system that could deal with two alphabets," says Mimi Hupert, head of readers' services at the library on the university's Mount Scopus campus. The alternative approach, to adapt an imported system to the local market, was fraught with problems and likely to be expensive.

There were several parallel attempts to create a national automated cataloguing system for the country's university libraries. One was an automated cataloguing service - an Israeli version of the British Library's Marc database - that did not get off the ground. Around the same time, the possibility of establishing a national bibliographic centre was raised in the library subcommittee of the committee responsible for distributing government funds to universities.

Meanwhile, staff at the administrative services department of the Hebrew University were commissioned to adapt concepts from an earlier library management system. The team continued to develop the system, which provided computer support for cataloguing and information retrieval as well as the circulation of books. They designed new modules for managing the library's periodical holdings and for acquisitions of both books and periodicals.

The final product was Aleph, a multi-lingual program that includes cataloguing, the creation and maintenance of authority files, circulation and an online public access catalogue with sophisticated search functions. Hebrew and English text are both displayed correctly, with Hebrew reading from right to left, and English from left to right.

The system was tried out in the academic year 1980/81 at one of the Hebrew University's largest departmental libraries, the Kaplan library of social sciences, with 100,000 volumes. Three public access terminals were placed near the catalogue and students began to use the online system.

The original idea had been to build and maintain a national catalogue on a central computer located at the Hebrew University. It was to be the hub of a centralised network, tying in the nation's research libraries via the Isranet data network. Local library functions were to be supported over the same network. However, by 1984 this proved to be impractical.

Instead, the planners decided to have a decentralised database, allowing each library to maintain its own bibliographic data and authority files. The unified master file was broken up into individual library files. The new and final structure of Aleph enables users at any library to access the catalogue of any other library, but it does eliminate the possibility of a networkwide search with a single command.

Today, the user can enter a string of search codes and in a second command add the codes of other libraries to be searched. For example by typing in : F wtl (find word in the title) and appending codes for university libraries elsewhere in the country, within a few minutes it is possible to search in several different locations for the same titles.

Judy Levi, a trained librarian who develops software at Aleph Yissum, demonstrated the system. "It gives me the facility to send out for information, as well as to run the administration of the library including circulation, and order a book," she said.

With a minimum 286 PC, users in Israel or abroad can search any of Israel's eight university libraries through the Internet. Readers coming in through the World Wide Web can access the Aleph program. Searching by author, title or subject, they can get a detailed list of publications, with full information about each book or periodical and its availability. Aleph is described as an integrated system: the user can access both the union list of monographs (books) and the union list of serials (periodicals) and at the same time check whether the book or periodical is available and order it.

Levi says: "We managed to create a system that can compete in quality with the systems developed outside Israel." She said they were competing with the leading British and American specialists in the library automation market.

The government planning and grants committee for higher education institutions decided to support this national decentralised catalogue, on condition that all libraries use the same system and that the software be developed and maintained centrally by Aleph. Those university libraries which agreed to purchase equipment would be linked by a communications network, which could some day allow their separate catalogues to be merged into a national catalogue.

Aleph's team of librarians, systems engineers, analysts and programmers designed a program capable of linking up the country's eight universities in a network. They opted for flexibility and built the network without any central point of control.

Between 1983 and 1988, encouraged by government incentives, all of the country's universities bought the program.

The program is also used in colleges, teacher training colleges, public libraries, and in one case, a library for the blind. It has found favour in the Vatican libraries for its ability to handle different scripts. Aleph-Yissum started to sell the product abroad in 1989, mostly in Europe. 200 libraries in countries have bought it.

Navin estimated that the minimum cost for an Aleph system for one library is $25,000, including terminals for eight users. The system at the Hebrew University can now offer service to 300 people simultaneously.

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