In search of a new gold standard

October 10, 1997

Robin Yeates welcomes the latest developments in library information systems but calls for closer collaboration between librarian and user to fulfil demands

Libraries may be on the brink of a revolution in their use of computers. Unusually, librarians will not be the main people affected. New technology is enabling librarians to help academics and students manage information resources required for teaching and learning, and not just in the library building.

A 1994 report for the European Commission from KPMG found that "traditional library housekeeping functionality is no longer an issue for the libraries - they believe new systems development should be concentrated on the more effective provision of information to the end user". Powerful library systems with graphical user interfaces based on standard client-server technology have only become widely available in the past year or two, offering the prospect of access from personal desktop PCs and easier to use public terminals. Microsoft Windows is now offered by almost all suppliers as the standard user interface and Windows NT is the fastest growing server platform for smaller systems and new library network service functions.

Libraries have for 30 years required proprietary software capable of some of the most sophisticated information handling to be found in the computing industry. Some 20 companies sell Unix-based library management systems to public and main university libraries in the United Kingdom. A dozen niche businesses concentrate on standalone PCs or Novell local area network installations. In both markets information retrieval systems for handling full-text electronic documents or images are often sold separately by different producers.

Hardly any of these systems were designed to work together. None were primarily designed to meet the needs of the end-users of libraries. This is changing fast.

Library computer systems were islands unto themselves. They were populated by descriptions of stock items rather than items themselves; and by limited personal information about users, used only to issue and recall stock. Each terminal belonged to the library and was used for a single function, mostly by the staff.

Library catalogues now offer access in some cases to full-text documents and other full representations of printed works. New Java terminals and Network Computers, shown at the recent Libtech International exhibition, will not be primarily for staff use, but to service large numbers of campus users cost-effectively, allowing them to access the Internet and remote library services as well as internally held materials. These users may just as well be remote from the physical library building, using their own PC. Such information technology systems will form so-called digital libraries, which are evolving rapidly as a result of Electronic Libraries (eLib) research and new commercial library management, intranet and Internet products.

The Web promises to make library systems more visible to academics and students. However, this will take time. Only in the past year have online catalogues been given web browser make-overs, as software suppliers rushed to offer software to allow online public access catalogues to be used on the Web, although the level of sophistication and ease of management vary. Library staff are acquiring new skills.

To a much greater extent than previously, librarians now seek the co-operation of academic colleagues, publishers, trainers, graphic designers, suppliers and library users to refine their services. The challenge is to educate librarians and non-librarians in the scope for new forms of collaboration to improve levels of service. We must find ways of funding and implementing the new systems: we must enhance traditional library services and teaching and learning methods, which still have a significant role to play.

User interfaces need to be tailored to local environments. More important, the choice of resources available via the Web needs to be managed. Separate digital libraries need to be combined usefully into "virtual libraries" using communications standards such the Z39.50 information retrieval protocol and new metadata handling systems which can bring order to digital collections. Critical research work is underway at South Bank University with EU funding to develop new kinds of digital library management system to meet these needs.

Programming efforts of library system suppliers have been diverted to popular but crude web interface products for a year or more. At Libtech, only one library management system, Libero, was new to the UK market this year. Yet library IT is quietly providing scope for a massive revamp of library services. Collaborative research and development is now crucial. Libraries aim to serve users anywhere. Talk to your learning and information services staff about the exciting ramifications.

Robin Yeates is senior researcher and centre manager, Library Information Technology Centre, South Bank University.

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