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High-tech business embraces new library technology

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IT and communications companies are expected to lead the way in new technology but does this extend to their internal systems? In the case of the library at global telecoms firm BT, the answer is yes, writes John Sherwell

If you were to transport anyone working in a corporate library and information unit 30 years ago to one of today's libraries, they would be astounded at the changes in the ways in which the service is delivered. Long shelf runs of expensively-bound journals have been replaced by access to their electronic equivalents. The card catalogues that gave access to the library collection have become today's library management systems. These are not only administrative tools for library staff, but also provide a gateway to resources both within and outside the organisation. And, although the telephone is still ubiquitous, typewriters have disappeared to be replaced by a PC on every desk.

Information provision has changed just as radically. No longer does the information scientist have to search through bound volumes of abstracts and indexes to carry out a literature search. Online databases have evolved with increasingly friendly interfaces, putting the capacity for simple searches on the researcher's own desktop. Current awareness no longer means scanning journals and preparing printed bulletins, but can now be satisfied by automated news feeds straight to the user's mailbox.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) have had a dramatic effect on the way library services have been delivered. So how have ICT companies themselves responded to the challenge of re-engineering their library services? A good place to start is BT, a company that has diversified over the past two decades from being primarily a telecoms business to being a global IT player. This was exemplified by its recent tie-up with Yahoo! to cement its position as a major player in the internet hosting business. It provides a good example - and an early one - of how library and information facilities have had to rise to the challenges of both changing technologies and changing corporate direction.

BT currently employs some 100,000 staff worldwide, 20,000 of whom would be classed as management or technical. These include some 7,000 software engineers. BT's main research centre is based at Adastral Park near Ipswich, UK and this houses around 4,000 staff, including 300 researchers.

BT's library, managed by David Alsmeyer, started life as a traditional corporate library and information unit, with an extensive collection of printed journals, books and other materials. This was primarily used by on-site technical and managerial staff. The researchers have always posed the greatest demands on the service for in-depth technical information, while managerial staff required a broader approach looking for more general, easy-to-access information.

The winds of change
But this library model changed around 15 years ago when a management-led rethink within BT resulted in a major realignment of research focus. This meant that the existing library stock and services no longer matched the new corporate objectives, and pressures on budget, space and headcount all threatened the continued existence of the library. Protests from research staff, leading to a transfer of management responsibility from finance and administration to the research directorate, saved the library from closure - but changing user needs, restrictions on physical space and budget, and the loss of staff meant that a dramatically new strategy was necessary.

Alsmeyer described the subsequent process as 'a complete redesign process to free up resources and to provide the best possible service within the budgetary resources available'. Fortunately, advances in ICT at the time meant that a radical new approach was becoming feasible. The first year was spent planning the downsizing of the physical collection, and developing an end-user inter-library loans (ILL) system. Each area of the service was questioned, even when it meant dropping or replacing longstanding library practices. Significant staff time was freed up by outsourcing all ILL services to the British Library, and stopping all photocopying of articles from the library's own journal collection. A transformed digital library was introduced. This initially provided access to the INSPEC database and some of the limited number of electronic journals available at the time but has been expanded and enhanced over the years as more resources have become available.

Around 11 years ago, the general availability of the internet and modern browser technology provided a simpler way to deliver services and access to information sources. The library's website, as well as giving access to online databases, is a gateway to a reduced book collection and other sources such as electronic books and training course details. Links to the full text of journal articles from online search results were provided as a result of an in-house initiative because commercially-available solutions to full-text linking such as SFX were not available at the time. A personalised library portal was also launched, giving users access to the full range of library information resources throughout BT.

The initial stock of 800 journal titles has now been slimmed down to around 200, which are mainly in the news/popular computing areas, and only a few key research titles have been retained in hard copy. The IEL electronic library, which is produced jointly by the IEE and IEEE, has been licensed for access by BT staff and provides a suite of electronic journals. Licence agreements have also been negotiated with major suppliers such as Elsevier and Wiley to provide access to their electronic titles. The INSPEC database still provides the main information resource in the technical area, whilst the ABI/Inform database performs a similar function for managerial and commercial topics.

The library space itself has evolved from primarily a physical information resource into an on-site amenity area, providing an attractive environment for staff that otherwise spend their working day in front of a PC. Here, they can relax with the collection of news or computing magazines, consult the small book collection or access the available electronic sources. The library gives distributed access to its services for its customers, so it is no longer necessary for them to come to the library. Alsmeyer commented that, although the way library staff deliver services has changed radically, their roles have changed less because the users within BT have always liked to retrieve and access their own information.

Although the original drivers for change were largely negative, Alsmeyer said that the outcome for the library has been overwhelmingly positive. 'Whereas we were purely a local library with a fixed population, now we are a global one, with an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 users across the UK alone. We have achieved a much higher visibility,' he explained.

Looking forward
And although much has already been achieved with the online library, Alsmeyer is also looking towards the future. BT is currently a partner in the Semantic Enabled Knowledge Technologies (SEKT) project, which is funded under the EU's 6th Framework programme. This will use the core technologies of Ontology-based Metadata, Human Language Technology and Knowledge Discovery to support the development of knowledge workplaces where the boundaries between document management, content management and knowledge management are broken down, and where knowledge management is an effortless part of day-to-day activities. Appropriate knowledge is automatically delivered to the right people at the right time at the right level of detail via a range of user devices. BT's library will take part in one of the case studies, which is aiming to develop a semantic capability for the library over the three-year timescale of the project. This should give users the ability to enhance the content of the online library themselves, using semantic techniques to ensure that it is added appropriately.

Many of these developments will be familiar to users of other corporate libraries, but, at the time it was developed, the BT electronic library was ground-breaking. Other organisations were starting to use selected electronic resources, but none had taken the radical step of replacing the existing physical library with a completely online equivalent. BT was a pioneer in the development of the online library concept, showing that libraries need no longer be constrained by their four walls or physical collections. The rapid pace of ICT development ensures that other organisations are increasingly adopting the same approach to ensure that their library services can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

John Sherwell was a digital library specialist with GlaxoSmithKline until 2002 and now runs his own consultancy, Digital Library Solutions, which specialises in library systems and technology.