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New tools for libraries bring chapter of innovation

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Library management systems are moving on, and will allow libraries to offer increasingly powerful information management and linking facilities, John Sherwell reports.

Libraries, particularly those serving the research and corporate sectors, have found their roles undergoing considerable change as their customers increasingly demand a service on their desktops. This changing role has been reflected in recent, major developments taking place in library management systems (LMS).

As the name implies, library management systems use computer technology to automate many of the more routine tasks carried out in libraries. They started as relatively simple online catalogues, which transferred the content of card or printed catalogues into computerised databases. As computer technology advanced, both in terms of hardware performance and software capabilities, library management systems became increasingly effective, both in terms of their functionality as administrative systems and in the range of services they offered to users.

Suppliers of LMS were well-represented at the Library & Information Show (LIS) held at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham UK, in April this year. Between them around 20 firms exhibited everything from small, PC-based systems suitable for schools to the largest systems used by multi-site public and academic library customers. As a frequent visitor to similar exhibitions for over a decade, I have been impressed with just how far LMS have developed, both in their technology and functionality.

Changing technologies

The first LMS were mainframe-based, and access was provided via a terminal session. Though the earliest command-driven interfaces were replaced by menu-driven systems, they were still only attractive to the most knowledgeable and determined user. The advent of PCs and the Windows operating system allowed the introduction of a much more user-friendly interface, but the result was still less than an ideal LMS tool. This was because the interface was not normally available outside the organisation's internal network, the client-server architecture introduced maintenance overheads and performance could be seriously affected by network congestion.

The widespread availability of web browser technology has enabled both of these problems to be solved. Access to library systems can now be enabled across the internet, with many national, public, academic, and specialised libraries making their catalogues available to the public. And the thin-client nature of the technology allows acceptable performance even across slow, dial-up connections.

LMS suppliers have taken advantage of this by introducing web-based technology, and most now offer a web-based search interface. Increasingly, complete systems are web-enabled, including all staff administration functions.

Interfaces and the Google effect

The introduction of web technology allowed the development of user interfaces that are simple to operate, and just as importantly widened access so that users could potentially use the LMS from anywhere in the world. The early web interfaces were modelled on existing Windows search clients and offered detailed search forms, allowing traditional library searching by author, title word, subjects and so on.

But it was not long before the 'Google effect' forced a rethink about the search interface, and now a number of vendors offer a 'one box' simple search as the default, with the option to select an advanced search with field-level searching and limiting. With Google or similar systems now forming many users' idea of what an internet search engine should look like, libraries and their LMS suppliers probably had little option but to follow suit.

Particularly in the academic and research sectors, rapid and seamless access to information resources outside as well as within the organisation is vital. This has been facilitated by the introduction of portal technology, in the form of customisable interfaces which can search, identify and deliver information from a wide range of sources, internal and external. Many LMS suppliers have evolved their web search interfaces into portals, notable examples being Fretwell-Downing's Z-Portal, which has recently been adopted within the NHS, and Sirsi's Rooms product.

These library portals are often highly customisable, and can be set up to remember an individual's preferences and presenting sources relevant to the individual user. Extra functionality can be included such as the use of alerting services, which notify users if items of interest are added to the system. They extend the library's range by placing a powerful information tool on the desktop of the individual user. It is no longer necessary to visit a library to gain access to a full range of services.

Full-text linking

Traditionally the library catalogue has comprised a database of metadata about the library collection, and the customer still needed to borrow or request the physical documents. The past five years have seen an accelerating trend towards providing the full text of documents at the desktop, as many libraries evolve into hosts for a hybrid of printed and electronic collections.

One method of full-text linking is to store metadata about documents within the LMS, and provide hyperlinks from these records to files stored inside or outside the organisation. These could be Word documents, PDF files, image files or HTML pages. To enhance access, some suppliers have introduced full-text linking of these attached files. For example, EOS offers an indexing package as an add-on to their core system. Payne Automation's Autolib goes further and integrates a web browser into its search client, making it possible to capture web pages or PDFs and automatically attach them to catalogue records, with the ability to index their content as well.

In the academic and corporate sectors, many organisations have negotiated licences to access electronic journals. Access to these resources has been facilitated by the full-text linking pioneered commercially by Ex Libris with their SFX system. This has been followed during the past few years by a number of other suppliers such as Endeavor and Fretwell-Downing, who have taken advantage of the emerging OpenURL Protocol to build full-text linking into their systems.

When a search yields relevant documents and the user follows the full-text links, the server uses the bibliographic information and stored rules regarding publishers' URL formats to generate an OpenURL request to the server where the full text is stored. If the user's organisation has licensed access to the full text source, then the document is delivered seamlessly to the desktop. It is also possible to display the library's own holdings, and to generate a document delivery request if licensed electronic access is not available.

The maturing of these technologies has enabled some libraries to take the radical step of relying entirely on electronic access, and disposing of most of their printed collections, for example the libraries at GlaxoSmithKline and BT (described in previous Research Information articles in Winter 2003 and Jan/Feb 2005).

Fully-hosted solutions

Libraries have contracted out some of their activities, to some degree, for decades, from building maintenance to the production of catalogue cards.

Now, in some cases, even the entire library service is being run by external organisations. One notable example is Instant Library's contract, won in 2001, to run the library service in the London Borough of Haringey. This philosophy has spread to LMS. Penny Bailey of Bailey Solutions sees the adoption of fully hosted models as one of the most significant current trends. Rather than commit to an up-front capital outlay to acquire a new system, followed by annual maintenance charges, many organisations will prefer to pay an annual subscription. Bailey Solutions has just launched its new LookUp product, a fully-hosted, web-enabled library system that is already attracting considerable interest.

The advantages to the customer are clear. There is no need to find the large capital sum up front for system or equipment purchase; annual subscription costs are predicable; the supplier takes care of system maintenance and upgrades; and the presence of a web-based application outside the organisation's firewall makes internet access straightforward. It is likely that other suppliers will increasingly offer this as an alternative to an in-house installation.

Other developments

Although the academic and research sectors have shown the most fundamental changes, the public library sector has also embraced new technology. The People's Network programme has brought internet access to the local library, and most library services are now offering access to their catalogues over the web. LMS suppliers have introduced such features as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to track library stock, and fingerprint recognition for facilitating borrower recognition. Self-issue is becoming a feature of the large library, just as self-checkout is making an impact in the supermarket.

Industry consolidation (or lack of it)

It is obvious if you regularly attend library exhibitions that there has been relatively little consolidation amongst suppliers. The 20 suppliers attending the LIS were only a small proportion of the industry, with some 110 suppliers listed on BiblioTech's website. This is in stark contrast to the dramatic slimming-down that has taken place among journal subscription agents, where a mix of medium-size and smaller firms that could be seen a decade ago has, through mergers and collapses, reduced to just two major competitors.

Whatever happens to the industry, LMS have come a long way in five years. The competitive nature of the industry means that features pioneered by one supplier are soon adopted, or surpassed, by others. As with the automobile industry, yesterday's optional extra soon becomes today's standard equipment. As a result of the greater flexibility and ease of customisation provided by web technology, and a continual development in functionality, LMS are now more than just a way of managing the library.

This continuing development of LMS has allowed libraries also to extend their role not only by distributing access to their existing collections, but by extending access to a much wider range of material outside the organisation. Many libraries have evolved into hybrids of print and electronic resources, and some have taken a further step by becoming almost wholly electronic. The new role of the LMS is now that of information portal or knowledge management system whose purpose is to steer users efficiently towards the information they need.

John Sherwell is a consultant with Digital Library Solutions, which specialises in library systems and technology.