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Library Tech Strategies: Efficiency or Innovation

Computers in Libraries [October 2011]

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Copyright (c) 2011 Information Today

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Abstract: How libraries use technology to manage their work has been one of my key interests. I follow with great interest the developments of new library automation products and discovery services, especially with respect to how they help libraries operate more efficiently and to achieve their strategic goals. I’m also interested in how libraries can use technology in creative and innovative ways that enable libraries to offer new kinds of services or to revitalize an existing activity in a way that becomes more interesting and appealing to library users.


How libraries use technology to manage their work has been one of my key interests. I follow with great interest the developments of new library automation products and discovery services, especially with respect to how they help libraries operate more efficiently and to achieve their strategic goals. I'm also interested in how libraries can use technology in creative and innovative ways that enable libraries to offer new kinds of services or to revitalize an existing activity in a way that becomes more interesting and appealing to library users.

Is the need to be efficient contradictory with the impulse for innovation in technology? While it might initially seem that the mandate to automate in ways that maximize an organization's cost savings might also subdue its creative spirit, I think that efficiency and innovation go hand in hand. In this month's edition of the Systems Librarian, we'll explore some ways of employing technology in ways that help the library make best use of its resources, but in ways that color outside the lines of traditional work patterns.

Use technology matched with the Library

One of the most important considerations in the interplay between efficiency and innovation lies in lining up the right software to match the library's priorities. In these times, it's essential for libraries to embrace the technologies best suited to help them accomplish their work. As I have written many times, what libraries do has changed considerably over recent years, and often the automation products upon which they rely have lagged behind current realities, much less anticipated future directions. Libraries need automation systems well aligned with their current and anticipated priorities. To service a modern library, automation systems need to be just as adept at managing licenses to electronic resources as they are in dealing with physical materials; they need to handle the loan of an e-book with the same efficiency as the circulation of a physical item. One of the most inefficient scenarios involves ongoing reliance on software that results in the library to allocating its resources out of synch with its strategic priorities.

Not all libraries may immediately need new automation solutions beyond the current generation of print-focused systems. Some indeed do deal mostly with print materials. Many of the libraries that serve rural areas and smaller communities continue to be oriented mostly toward printed books and may not yet see great demand for e-books or e-journal collections. I anticipate that over time ever more libraries will face the need to more adeptly manage the non-print aspects of their collections.

But whether your library's collection and the emphasis of its services lean toward electronic materials or print, it's essential to have the technology infrastructure that provides efficient automation tools. Though a long-term strategy more than a short-term fix, a library needs to ultimately gravitate toward automation products optimized for its workflows and strategies.

Collaborative Work Models

Libraries should continually find ways to work as a community and less as isolated organizations. Cooperation has long been one of the strengths of libraries, but often it's not taken to its fullest extent. Cooperative cataloging, for example, has been standard practice for ages, and most automation systems support workflows that allow libraries to make use of existing bibliographic records rather than create new ones from scratch. It's common, however, to make local changes to records, not reflected on the master shared record, usually to conform to local practice and standards that may be different than that of the national or global level. Yet, many different libraries often end up making the same corrections or enhancements to records within their local systems. Additional degrees of efficiency can be gained through minimizing local cataloging through pushing more bibliographic enhancements to the national or international level.

Some of the next-generation automation systems take this model of shared cooperative work models to even higher levels than the traditional model of copy cataloging, eliminating the local automation system and its store of catalog records, replaced by globally shared bibliographic services. We see this more radical collaborative work model planned or instantiated in OCLC's Web-scale Management Services, in the Community Zone of Ex Libris' Alma platform, and in the Web-Scale Management Solution recently announced Serials Solutions. Each of these next-generation library services platforms has its distinctive approach, but aims to gain efficiencies through eliminating redundant efforts performed across multiple local systems.

It seems to me that one of the most important ways for libraries to gain efficiencies involves finding ways not to repeat work done in another library. If a given work has been described in one library, others should benefit from that effort. There should always be convenient mechanisms for improving and enhancing records to encourage broad sharing rather than forcing each library to make their own improvements in isolation. Such a community-oriented workflow should apply not just to bibliographic records describing the books and journals, but to knowledge bases of e-journal holdings, collections of digital materials, or any other body of metadata.

Radical simplification

Workflows and automation parameters should be pared down to their most simple and elegant form. I often see libraries create incredibly complex automation scenarios, anticipating every possible contingency and circumstance. Complexity increases the cost and can decrease the efficiency of operational activities and can cause confusion for the users of library services. It's important to ensure that each additional notch of complexity or distinction made that introduces additional processing steps, requires different policies or rules deliver tangible value. Library users may not understand or benefit from much of the nuances of complexity that seem so important to those of us who work in the library and that may actually detract from the overall daily efficiency.

An example of this kind of operational complexity involves the loan rules configured into circulation modules. Libraries develop policies regarding what items patrons may consult, but not borrow and the duration, restrictions, fines, and penalties that apply to loaned materials. The typical circulation module of a library automation system will allow the library to establish a policy matrix that calculates the terms of a loan based on the category of the borrower, the type of material, its location in the library, or other factors.

These circulation policies should be designed to help the library to establish a set of business rules that optimize the use of its collections. Libraries deem some types of materials too valuable to be taken out of the library, such as might apply to rare books and manuscripts in a special collections area or reference material that needs to be readily available for consultation by librarians and researchers.

While it's great that most library automation systems can handle an arbitrarily number of loan rules, it's not necessarily so great when libraries create very complicated circulation policies. Especially when a library system spans multiple branches and facilities, it's tempting to offer customized loan policies according to the preferences of each. I've seen some loan policies so complex that even the circulation personnel may not recall all the different variations and reasons why some loan periods are different than others. Rules added at different times for reasons that made sense at the time can accumulate over the years to result in an overly complicated environment. A more simple set of policies would result not only in clear straightforward policies well understood by patrons and staff alike, but would also reduce the complexity involved in operating the automation environment.

While I've picked on the circulation system as an example, other areas of the library may likewise suffer from excessive layers of complexity. There may be many areas of the library's operations that may benefit from taking a step back and looking anew at the workflows associated with its routine activities and the ways that they are supported by technology, paring away unnecessary steps to design a more simple and elegant procedure.

Enabling Self-service and Automated handling

Libraries can also find significant savings in their workloads through providing the means for their users to perform some tasks themselves through self-service. This idea isn't at all novel these days with businesses of all sorts shifting to increased reliance on consumers taking on tasks formerly accomplished by their own personnel. More and more libraries have implemented self-check, either in response to the need to reduce their personnel costs or to redeploy valuable staff members away from repetitive and rote tasks to other activities that may make a more direct and positive impact. Moving away from the traditional circulation transactions handle at arms length across the service desk can allow library personnel to mingle more among the users in the library, taking a more proactive approach to answering questions, providing research assistance, or providing other services.

Many libraries now also offer automated tools for access to materials not held by the library through direct consortial borrowing or unmediated—or less mediated—interlibrary loan requests. Such systems open up access to an ever larger universe of materials to library users with lower operational costs relative to alternative scenarios where library personnel handle each request.

I would hope that as libraries increasingly introduce self-service that they strive to retain or enhance the spirit of engagement with their users, and not become impersonal institutions, as we see in banks, retail outlets, and other businesses. Savings in labor accomplished through self-service should enable more resources to be available for library-sponsored programs, workshops and training opportunities, community engagement and outreach activities, more in-depth and personalize research support, and any of a host of other services that in the future may define the nature of the library more than the lending of items from its physical collections.

Self-service can be accomplished in many different ways. While RFID has become closely associated with self-service workflows, it's also important to keep in mind that it can also be implemented with barcodes. Self-check stations and automated return and materials handling systems are available that work with materials identified by barcodes, RFID, or in hybrid settings. RFID technology enables additional capabilities that offer some increased efficiencies and may support some kinds of new and innovative ways for libraries to manage and provide access to their physical collections. The ability for RFID to identify collection items in proximity without direct contact enables more efficient ways to perform inventory, to enhance the security of materials, and to work with automated material handling systems in more sophisticated ways. Some libraries are experimenting with, or have implemented smart shelves with built-in RFID scanners that constantly monitor their inventory, flagging items placed out of order, issuing alerts for items missing that haven't been check out, or even flashing an indicator to assist users locate an item identified in a catalog search.

As libraries consider RFID, they need to pay close attention to the ongoing movements now underway regarding standards. Following a period when much of the library RFID installations relied on proprietary techniques for encoding data, we're now seeing considerable movement internationally in defining and deploying standards that will allow materials tagged in one library to be read by any other library with which it interacts through interlibrary loan or consortial borrowing. Solid standards will also protect library's investments in RFID tags, and especially the labor involved in placing and encoding them in each item of their collection, as they need to purchase new equipment or change suppliers. In recent months, the ISO 28560 standard has been published, with a core part that applies universally along with 28560-2 and 28560-3 that present alternative rules for encoding data in the tag. In the United States, NISO has proposed the adoption of 28560-2. In broad terms, we just at the beginning of the conversation regarding RFID standards, with a long road ahead before most libraries are able to transition to standards-compliant tags and equipment.

These topics of mission-appropriate technology, community-based workflows, workflow simplification, and self-service represent just a sampling of the ideas that libraries can explore as they develop strategies to become more efficient, and that open avenues for new innovation and creativity. Each of these areas presents new opportunities for progress as well as threats for libraries if we don't respond. In these times where there seems no relief in sight for constrained library budgets, it's essential to carve out any possible efficiency, and more importantly, to find ways to amplify the impact of our services on our users, to strengthen bonds of engagement, and to reinforce the relevancy and value of what we do.

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Publication Year:2011
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 8
Issue:October 2011
Page(s):28-30
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Online access:http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/sep11/Breeding.shtml
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:16152
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:2011-10-08 12:14:37