The quest for Seren-dipity

October 13, 1995

All library databases may soon be linked, Iola Smith reports. A Bangor project plans to enable lecturers and students in Wales to use all the principality's library materials. The Pounds 350,000 Seren (sharing of educational resources in an electronic network) project is part of the Pounds 15 million electronic libraries programme managed by the funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee.

The aim is to allow academics to access the database, request documents and articles and then receive the required items electronically via their desktop computer.

"It is an ambitious project, that we hope to complete within three years," says its co-ordinator, Ian Lovecy, Bangor's director of information services. "It differs from comparable projects in England because our aim is to ensure that existing material available in Wales is utilised first. Only after establishing that items are unavailable in the principality will users of our system turn to outside sources such as the British Library."

He is convinced that the all Wales network (which will include the libraries of the universities of Wales and Glamorgan, plus higher education colleges in Cardiff, Wrexham, Gwent, Swansea and Carmarthen) will provide a cheaper service than the British Library.

"The British Library charges about Pounds 4.25 for delivering documents," explains Dr Lovecy. "We hope to provide an electronic service for about Pounds 3 per document. We believe this is feasible because we won't have to include the cost of purchasing documents in the calculations. That's because everything available on Seren already exists in at least one library in Wales."

He is uncertain whether or not the new system will be faster than the British Library. If all requested material can be delivered electronically, then it will be. But that depends on the problem of copyright.

At present, only material out of copyright can be delivered this way. But Dr Lovecy hopes that Seren will be able to come to an arrangement with specific publishers.

Although Seren is being co-ordinated at Bangor, two other higher education institutions in Wales are involved in developing the software. North East Wales Institute in Wrexham is developing the technology to transport material between institutions. And the University of Wales Cardiff is providing the software that would allow users to search databases and receive the desired material on their desk.

When complete - the target is two years - pilot tests will be run to ensure that the software is working correctly. A lecturer will type in key words (such as subject and author) and Seren will do the rest. It will scan selective databases, and inform the lecturer of all articles by the requested author on the topic. The lecturer will then select the material he wants, and the computer will check whether it is available in the lecturers own institution. If not, Seren will locate it elsewhere in the system. Then, if it can be transferred electronically (assuming the copyright issue has been sorted out) it will be relayed directly to the lecturers office.

Seren's creators will develop the accounting software to ensure that the appropriate individual and the research programme or department is charged for the service. When the pilot testing is complete it is hoped that the project can be extended out of university libraries to public libraries in the principality. University libraries currently supply public libraries with material via the interlibrary loan service. But it is expected that the new system will be easier to use than the current method based on ISBN numbers because users will only need key words to access the system, instead of ISBN numbers.

"This should be particularly useful for people wishing to obtain Welsh language material from the 1940s and 1950s," Dr Lovecy explains. "Books and documents from that era were published without ISBN numbers, and so are very difficult to trace."

Seren's developers are convinced that the system is the way ahead for increasing integration between university and public library. The National Library is also expected to join. Its non-copyright material will be included from the beginning. But, as a copyright library, its legal position will have to be sorted out if the remainder of its material is included.

Seren should help university library budgets. "I'm spending 80 per cent of my budget - Pounds 410,000 out of a total of Pounds 491,000 - on periodicals," Dr Lovecy says. "It's unrealistic, and I may have to cancel some."

The hope is that under a copyright agreement, the electronic library will release more resources for the much needed purchase of books. By the end of the three-year development phase, Seren's devisers believe that they will have created a valuable model that could be emulated. It is expected that it will be offered free to academic institutions and sold to public libraries.

It could be adopted in England as the pattern for a regional lending scheme. That would link proposed regional research libraries with public libraries in their catchment area. As the software is being developed bilingually in English and Welsh it could be appropriate in a European context. There are plans to foster partnerships with academic institutions in Ireland which use the Iris library system.

Research protocol calls on the Iris system are similar to those being developed for Seren, so the two systems could be linked. A further incentive is the fact that both Welsh and Irish universities have a wealth of material on Celtic languages and culture.

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