Just in time economics regulate the data race

October 13, 1995

New complexities and tight budgets will force libraries to embrace full automation, Tony Durham argues.

Not all the changes occurring in libraries can be explained by technology push. As far as librarians are concerned, the Internet is a rare example of a solution looking for a problem. For the most part, change in academic libraries is being driven by economic pressures. There are more students than ever, and increasingly they are taught by resource-based methods which require the library to provide books, journal photocopies and multimedia CD-Roms. Now the library may also have the task of laser-printing customised textbooks or course packs on demand.

Tightening budgets, and moves to charge academic departments for library services which were formerly free, are turning librarianship into a branch of business management. The new administrative demands and the pressure to be more efficient are compelling libraries to use everything information technology can offer, whether it is electronic tags to keep track of their books, or databases to keep track of their customers' preferences.

Most libraries use library management systems which in theory provide computer support for every aspect of the library's operation. But the countless paper forms and yellow sticky notes still to be seen in library offices suggest that the automation process is still incomplete. And now there are new complexities, like CD-Rom licences, to deal with.

The future of electronic publishing hinges on economic and business issues. Technically-aware librarians see it as a potential money-saver and regard publishers as the laggards.

"It is not only the Pounds 350,000 a year we spend on the journals, it is the other overheads as well," says Keith Renwick, head of library technical services at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Heat, light, shelving, building space, and the physical handling of journals all cost money. The statistic that everyone quotes, the killer argument for "just in time" retrieval of electronic journals instead of "just in case" acquisition of printed ones, is that only 10 or 20 per cent of journal articles are ever consulted. Therefore, as much as 90 per cent is wasted not only of the journals themselves, but of the heating, lighting and cleaning bills and the very bricks and mortar of the library's periodicals department.

Books will be with us long after periodicals have dissolved into electrons, but trade in books is increasingly conducted by electronic methods. From an office in a former bus factory in Islington, Brian Green administers Book Industry Communications, a forum which brings together such varied interests as the Booksellers Association, the Library Association, the Publishers Association as well as individual booksellers, publishers, libraries and library suppliers. He is trying to promote paperless trading over electronic networks - electronic data interchange, as it is called. BIC has encouraged the book trade to adhere to standards in EDI, and since one-country standards have little future, it maintains links with its equivalent European organisation, EDItEUR.

The international standard called Edifact is a generic standard for businesses of all kinds. BIC supports Edifact, but it took additional work to define electronic forms and transactions suitable for the book trade. The book trade might, for example, benefit from a standard for tables of contents such as those held on Blackwell's Book TOC database.

EDI requires both trading partners to operate suitable computer systems. "In the case of higher education, it's down to the library systems vendors to incorporate it into their systems," says Mr Green.

In practice this means a library automation system with a acquisitions module which, instead of printing out an order to be mailed to the supplier, gets on the line and transmits the order electronically.

BLCMP, a non-profit company set up by a group of libraries centred on Birmingham, serves more than 60 libraries of which at least 30 are in universities and ten in colleges. It encouraged its customers to embark on electronic trading by including EDI software in its Talis library automation system, and by linking its customers to its own clearing-house which in turn is connected to the United Kingdom's two main electronic book-ordering agencies, First EDItion and TeleOrdering.

It may not seem a big advantage for a library to have one point of contact instead of two, but BLCMP also connects to EDI networks abroad. Cost comes into it too. "It reduces the cost from First EDItion's point of view," explains BLCMP's Frances Richardson. While First EDItion would have charged libraries for using its system, BLCMP throws in the service as part of the annual support cost of Talis.

Now BIC is campaigning for standards in electronic tagging, so that tags could be bound into books when they are manufactured. The tags widely used today are simple anti-theft devices costing a few pence, which trigger an alarm if removed from the bookstore or library without first being deactivated. The new data-bearing tags are more expensive but they can hold enough information to identify a book uniquely. In a library, tags might be programmed with the International Standard Book Number and an accession number. These numbers would be the key to full information about the book, held in the catalogue and the library automation system.

With libraries losing eight to ten million books a year worth Pounds 150 million, and bookstores losing 2 to 3 per cent of their turnover to theft, security is a powerful argument for using electronic tags. But the new data-bearing tags also promise to reduce costs and improve efficiency wherever books are stocked and handled.

"You could scan along the shelves and stocktake," Mr Green points out. This would be useful not only to libraries and booksellers but to publishers, who often do not know exactly what they have in their warehouses.

A feasibility study carried out for BIC came down in favour of tags using electromagnetic technology rather than the rival radio frequency system. The study's author Brian Llewellyn urged that standardisation work should begin now, though it could be five years before data-bearing tags are widely used.

The traditional library acquisitions department is geared up to acquire physical assets in the form of books and journals, but electronic media are different. "It's from holdings to access, this change," explains Keith Renwick at UMIST. "I feel the organisational structure of libraries will have to change to take account of this."

The licence for an online database or CD-Rom permits certain people to use the information in certain ways. In many libraries, the process for buying such licences bypasses the department which orders the books and journals.

Librarians complain that licence agreements contain terms which are difficult to enforce. Many academic libraries open their doors to outside readers, a tradition which is valued by independent researchers and visiting scholars. However, libraries which buy electronic publications often find that only members of their own institution are licensed to use them. No printed book or journal carries such a restriction.

This can be a problem when, as in most libraries, the computers are in public areas and accessible to any library user. UMIST has solved the problem by the inelegant device of issuing passwords to authorised users. Some libraries simply turn a blind eye.

Librarians confront the eternal issue of how far an institution can be responsible for the actions of its students. UMIST recently acquired the Pounds 8,000 set of British Standards on 36 CD-Roms, plus the dedicated PC and Pounds 1,900 high-resolution monitor needed to view the documents. The licence forbids copying the material to floppy or hard disks - with some justification, since standards are legal documents and digital copies could be altered. The software used to read the CDs prevents copying.

Users may print documents from the CDs, but the licence requires them to destroy the printouts after 30 days. "There is no way that a library offering the service can enforce that," says Mr Renwick. The library's duty will be fulfilled, he argues, by informing students of the licence terms. Since the software only issues a warning once, when it is started up, this will mean putting a notice on the library wall.

Librarians could probably find ways of complying with any reasonable licence terms. Their complaint is that each information publisher has its own terms and it is impossible to devise a single set of procedures which will accommodate all the variations. Publishers do not habitually mount raids on libraries suspected of infringing the small print in CD-Rom licences, but there is the unnerving precedent of the software industry, where organisations such as the Federation Against Software Theft regularly pounce on businesses alleged to be copying software illicitly.

Competition among library system suppliers has led them to branch out into new areas such as campus-wide information systems, with terminals all over the campus providing everything anyone might want to know about the university and its courses, plus local cinema listings and bus timetables and of course the library catalogue online. The departments and organisations which provide the information can enter it directly into the system, typically in the form of word processor files, so the library staff can mount an impressive service without doing all the work themselves.

But proprietary systems have taken a knock from the World-Wide Web, and libraries are being elbowed aside by university computing services in the struggle to be the information hub of the campus. Usually it is the computing service, rather than the library, that runs the Web site that makes the institution globally visible on the Internet.

BLCMP has installed a campus-wide information system at the University of Birmingham. But now the demand for such systems is from another quarter. "Now it is more the public libraries that are interested in a community-wide information system," Ms Richardson says.

Martin Stoll of the market research firm Chambers and Stoll has studied the use of library management data in academic and public libraries. He observes that library systems were originally designed to keep track of books, not customers. Every business today tries to understand its customers, sometimes in great detail, but librarians do not always find this easy with systems which, in some cases, wipe the record of a borrowing when the book is returned.

Libraries are keeping fairly good track of the use of monographs, Mr Stoll says, but they know very little about the usage of serials, which account for 50 to 60 per cent of library acquisitions by value. And that would surely be useful information. Librarians may feel they can limit the damage caused by rising costs and static budgets, if they cancel the least-used journals first. After all, supermarkets order more of what sells, and take slow-moving lines off the shelves. But practices unremarkable in the grocery trade can cause outrage in an academic library. Libraries are still expected to hold stock "just in case".

When space-strapped Sussex University library wanted to move 600 books to the store, academics protested that any of the titles might, some day, be needed.

If libraries gathered data about their members and the books they borrow, they could build that essential business asset of the 1990s, a customer database. Members who have regularly borrowed photography books might find themselves the targets of a selective mailing when a new photo gallery opens in town.

The people who would most like access to library customer databases are publishers. They would like to know who is using their books and journals. Even if they had access to the data, it is unlikely that publishers would want to keep a file on every student. But lecturers, who tell the students which textbooks to buy, are juicy targets for precision marketing.

The technology exists, and though academic libraries have their own non-commercial ethos, every organisation begins to behave more and more like a business as finance rises to the top of its priorities.

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