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Thursday, February 14, 2013

The History of Automation at the Public Library: A Look Back and to the Future

Posted by Alana T. and Deanne H.
Our Fearless Leader, Deanne H.
The EPL has been part of the new IL Heartland Library System since last year (for more info, visit our previous post).  The next step for the consortium is adopting a new library automation system called Polaris at the beginning of April (for important dates, see our website).

The EPL staff have been busy training and preparing for the upcoming changes.  Last week, I sat down with our Director, Deanne H., and we discussed what patrons needed to know and her thoughts on the new system.  Originally, I thought I would post the highlights to the blog, but the conversation was so interesting, discussing adoption of new technologies at the EPL, that I decided to post it in its entirety.

Alana:  In a few weeks patrons are going to temporarily lose their holds (book requests) as we upload information to the new automation system.  It seems so easy to go online, or call us, and request an item – a few days later, a patron has the item in hand.  We’re going to have a week or so when that system doesn’t work.  But it wasn’t always so quick and easy.  When you started at the EPL (1980), how did people put holds on books?

Deanne:  There were two ways.  If the EPL owned something we (the staff) went to the card catalog, found the location on the shelf; if the book wasn’t there, we knew it wasn’t in.  The staff member then had to look for the book card.  Back in the day, there was a pocket in every book and there was a card that listed title, author, fiction or non-fiction .  When the book was checked out, the card was inter-filed in this giant drawer as big as my desk, maybe a bit smaller.  It was filed by author for fiction, or Dewey # for non-fiction.  If a patron requested a book that was checked out, you had this little metal clippy thing that held the patron’s name and phone number. When the book came in, you would pull the card out of the drawer and you would see a patron had a hold on it.  Then you called them, as we do now.

Interlibrary loans back in the golden oldies was basically the same as what we use now.  Back then, you filled out a piece of paper.  Sometimes we requested specific titles, but we did a lot of subject requests.  In those days the EPL was a much smaller library.  Maybe we had 40,000 items then; we have over 100,000 items now.  So, if somebody came in and they needed five sources about tornados, we might not have everything.  For interlibrary loan requests, we would fill out a paper with as much detail as possible what a patron needed.  The patron needs this, but maybe not this, and they need it by this date.  We would send that to the Lewis & Clark System headquarters.  They had a HUGE card catalog for every book in the system and they would fill the requests.

Alana:  So that means, when we cataloged a book we would have to make two cards for every book…

Deanne:  Yes. And somebody had to file them.  What that meant is that the System had lots of employees and a collection of their own.  You could order directly from them, or they could find who owned a book and request it.  A very quick turnaround for interlibrary loan would be about two weeks.  Expectations were different and patrons had to be prepared.  Obviously even back then, kids doing assignments would not be prepared.  They would say, “What, you don’t have anything?”  And we would try really hard to find something.  We would bypass the System and call libraries and ask, “Do you have this?  Do you have such and such on your shelf?”  In some cases, a staff member would drive places and get items for patrons. 

Alana:  You’ve just described the old-fashioned method of requesting items, but we did become automated and gradually adopted new methods.  What are your memories of that process?

Deanne:  We automated in 1986 here.  We weren’t the first library.  I think East Alton went first and we were third.  It was a HUGE process to envision this online thing and not everybody did it at the same time.  It was a massive cooperative effort and we’re still doing that.

First, we had to barcode and enter all that information (about each book) into the computer.  We did that with the assistance of System staff, and in many cases, staff from other libraries.  Everyone would go to help get all those items entered, and then it would be someone else’s turn.  When we went online that first day, East Alton staff came here and helped us because they had been online several months.  So when the next library went online, we sent staff members.  It was planned that way. 

There were some libraries that waited – everybody didn’t leap in right away.  There were libraries who didn’t automate for years because their boards thought that the decision didn’t best serve their taxpayers.  It was frightening and it was expensive.  In 1986 our population was a bit over 13,000; we were still a small community.  Automation was a significant portion of our budget. 

Alana:  Did it make a difference right away? 

Deanne:  It made a difference in the speed of getting patrons the things that they wanted.  The biggest selling point was seeing what everybody (other libraries) had.  There was so much there.  This wasn’t the internet (not until 1995), but it was new and exciting!  People were really nervous in some ways.  For quite some time we had computers, but we were still keeping our card catalog.

Just as there are discussions now (about digitization), there were big discussions in the 80's and early 90's about what we were losing as we let our card catalogs go.  And it is the case that we lost a lot.  Technologies and libraries change, and overall, these are positive changes.  

However, an online catalog will not, has not, and in my opinion, will never really reflect our local collection.  With a card catalog you can catalog for your community.  With MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) records, and particularly with a big consortium, we all have to use the same format.  Everyone has to be trained the same, enter the data the same way, use the same format.  With a card catalog, foof on that!  You could do what you wanted, and we did.  Take Sara Coventry as an example, nobody knows her outside of Edwardsville (she was Director of the EPL from 1891-1937 and is occasionally sighted in the building).  We could have a subject heading, Coventry comma Sara.  We could make up our own subject headings, and often we did.  We would hear from patrons that they were looking for x instead of y.  We could use both, and all kinds of ‘see also’ cards. We had a huge catalog that reflected how people were searching in Edwardsville, and they loved that.  There was a lot of info in a card catalog and that was wonderful.

Alana:  When I was in college, even grad school, I still used card catalogs.  I had a friend that, when we were given assignments, would go to the library and pull all the cards on the topic (to prevent others from using the sources).  He was horrible.  But, you can’t do that anymore!

Deanne:  Oh my gosh!  Yes, access is 100 million times better – absolutely.  Have we lost something?  Sure.  We kept the card catalog for several years, but we weren’t deleting or adding to it.  We reached a point where we just didn’t have the staff or resources to do it.

Alana:  In a way that’s similar to what is happening now.  Technology, financial issues and expectations are affecting how libraries work. 

Deanne:  Absolutely.  At one time there were, 13 library systems in IL.  Librarians could easily come together and discuss issues that reflected their geographic area. Then there were 10, then eight for a long time, then six, and now there are three.  That is absolutely money driven . And we just don’t have a choice.  Numbers of employees keeps dwindling, dwindling, dwindling.  We now have a consortium  encompassing two thirds of the state and we can’t all sit together.  We’ve elected people to make decisions for us.  People in the SHARE group (Sharing Heartland's Available Resources Equally) are doing the absolute best job they can do in the spirit of what works best for the group as a whole.  Does that mean it is always the perfect fit for the EPL?  No it doesn’t.  But we have to make a choice.  

Has money become a driver in technology change?  Money has always been important in the public library world.  There just isn’t money for supporting multiple systems.   There is this absolute expectation (from library patrons) that you can get the information or item you need you need very, very quickly.  If not, why not?  How can that be?   In order to give good service to our patrons, we have to belong to a consortium and we have to have a good automation product.

Alana:  How was the new software chosen?

Deane:  The SHARE group looked for a company that really had a track record and a demonstrated ability to manage a consortium this large.  This is potentially, or is currently, the largest consortium of multi-type libraries (public, school, academic & special) under one automation system in the country!  Cost was also an issue. Vendors had the opportunity to give presentations, show all the bells and whistles.  People voted and Polaris got the vote. 

Alana:  So, when we go through the whole change at the end of March, it’s not going to be just us (libraries close by) uploading information, it’s other systems, too.

Deanne:   I’ve heard the 10 million mark stated.  I think within Gatenet (our previous system)  it was 4 million items, so it will be almost 3 times as much.  My understanding is that everyday, all day, they are loading all kinds of things.  Millions of patron records and millions and millions of bibliographic records.  And also making sure that it’s all there and working.  There may be some hiccups.  In many ways it could be a bigger undertaking than automation in 1986. Well, I shouldn’t say that.  It seemed like such a monumental undertaking back then, when you go from nothing...  There were no computers in the building when I started!

Alana:  Overall though, except for the period of the switchover, things aren't going to change too much for patrons.

Deanne: The system will be larger, but the process will be the same.  Request and delivery-wise there will be three concentric circles.  If something is available in Carbondale and Glen Carbon, obviously we want it to come from Glen Carbon.  In the beginning, there will be some bumps in the road, a few delays.  

The online catalog that patrons see at home is going to change.  It will be similar to what they have now, but it will look more like what they see when shopping on the internet.  There will be images of books and more information about the books.  

It’s exciting!  People will have to be very patient with us.  We're all experiencing the learning curve.  Our patrons have a high service expectation and we’ll be trying our utmost.  We'll be okay, we have the greatest staff and the greatest patrons.  But we may need a lot of chocolate… 

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