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Reengineering library services for the digital age.

Abstract The digital age has changed the face of libraries forever and libraries must continue to change if they are to remain viable and respected institutions. The challenge is finding the balance between conservatism and technophilia

Charles Robinson sees five challenges facing libraries in the next decade

* How are we going to run two libraries simultaneously?' One is traditional .... the other electronic?

* Since we will need to operate two kinds of libraries, who will give up some of their money to us?

* ... we'll have to have all sorts of people to operate the electronic library. Even if we can afford them, they will have a major impact on our organisational culture.

* We have to retrain ourselves in a whole new area in order to assist the public to use these new services.

* Everyone's getting into the act: telephone companies, cable companies, and computer companies all want to be the public supplier of information and entertainment.[1]

It is technology, how we use it and when we use it, which lies at the heart of each of these challenges.

Libraries have always had the ability to respond to the challenges of technology, from the printing press of the middle qages to the print explosion of the twentieth century, to the digital `print' of today.

However, modern economic rationalism demands that libraries become more accountable for both the services they provide and the funds they expend. Such accountability requires libraries to investigate, analyse and, where necessary, change the methods and processes they have traditionally undertaken to justify their very existence to funding bodies.

How we meet these challenges in the next decade and beyond will determine the future viability of the library.

Many possible solutions will be suggested; some will be implemented. One such solution may be the reengineering of library services to take advantage of, and cope with, the effects of the digital age.

Reengineering: the definition of terms Reengineering library services for the digital age -- what does it mean?

Reengineering is 'the fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed'.[2]

In other words, putting $3000 worth of pc on someone's desk does not mean they have been reengineered for the digital age. It is not the technology itself which defines reengineering, but rather how that technology is used as part of the redesign of business processes.

Reengineering is about changing to the way we do things. Libraries need to note that the key terms within the definition are `fundamental', `radical' and `dramatic.' These are terms which are not often seen in conjunction with this profession, but which will need to be not just accepted but embraced as libraries move towards an uncertain future.

All library services are candidates for reengineering. Not surprisingly, when digital reengineering and library services are discussed, it is usually information retrieval and document delivery which takes precedence. In fact, most `digital library' or `elibrary' or `virtual library' projects currently undertaken concern these services.

However, for the purposes of this paper, I would like to take a more general view, involving both customer and support services.

The digital age is really about the electronic storage and transmission of information. For libraries, this provides either challenges or opportunities. Which, depends on each library's attitude; reactive or proactive, negative or positive, conservative or willing to take a risk. Successful libraries will see only the opportunities.

The digital age provides us with information, which has three facets: the abundance of information; the currency of information. and the accessibility of information. The abundance of information is currently best personified by the world wide web, a storehouse of almost uncountable pieces of data. Yet there are also CDRoms, external databases, internal database, office automation documents, digital images, audio files, video files and so on, all of which need to be managed by the library. And all this does not include the impact digital techniques, such as word processors and desktop publishers, have had in the proliferation of print material which confronts the library.

The abundance of information was an opportunity grasped by libraries after the postwar publishing boom. Libraries really did try to collect all significant information within the scope of their purpose, and they arranged interlibrary loan and resource sharing schemes (such as the Sydney subject specialisation scheme) to ensure a wide subject coverage locally. The digital age has, however, dramatically changed the focus of library collections. Access, not holdings, is now the key for libraries coping with the abundance of information.

The digital age has also had an enormous impact on the currency of information. Currency, here, means the period of time between the existence of information and its availability. Excepting live television and radio, where there is no delay between existence and availability, the digital age has provided the means of reducing the number of mechanical processes through which information has to travel from originator to reader.

The advent of the word processor and desktop publisher meant that the originator could prepare information much more quickly for dissemination. Cost effective desktop printing meant that the information could even be published and distributed locally, in small quantities, by the originator themselves.

The arrival of the world wide web means that the originator can now publish on a global scale without the traditional need for their information to be accepted as suitable for publishing. There is no doubt that under such circumstances, an increasingly important role for the librarian will be the validation of digital resources. Quantity is no longer a factor, as the web transfers the hardcopy printing of the document to the client.

Finally, and most importantly, is the accessibility of information. Because of its very nature, and particularly the indexing possibilities it allows, digital information is able to be accessed far more easily than traditional print resources. Simply compare a book index, with a full text index to see the difference.

This is not only true of web searching, where a librarian in Sydney can retrieve information from anywhere in the world, but also for the more humble CDRom or database, where large amounts of information may be accessed in a single process.

The very format of digital information also enhances its accessibility by making it easily transportable, either electronically or because such large amounts of data may be stored in small, lightweight packages.

Reengineering: the reasons why

`Libraries have been doing this for hundreds of years. You help people, you collect information, you organise it, and then get out of the way' Joe Jones Director, Internet Public Library.[3]

Libraries have always reengineered in response to the needs of the client and parent organisation. We are currently in the middle of a 50 year period of reengineering services from the very early automated processes of 25 years ago to the advent of the real digital library services a generation from today.

Why another 25 years? There are three reasons. One is to allow the technology to continue to develop to the point required. For example, the web is barely five years old; the electronic book, long spoken of, is still not capable of replacing the $10 paperback; and the internet infrastructure desperately needs upgrading.

The second reason is the user. While the academic library, with its closed, educated client base will no doubt accelerate towards 'digitality' the public library faces different challenges. There are still a large number of people in the community, 40, 50, 60 years old, with many years of information needs ahead of them, who may resist the development of digital library services. Are we really providing service to these users if we point them at a Windows 95/98/NT pc and leave them to it? The question of the NESB, aged, very young, mentally and physically disabled members of the community provide additional technological challenges along the way to the development of digital library services.

Finally, there is the library infrastructure itself. Again, those of us in metropolitan, relatively well funded services, sometimes forget that there are many other services significantly less advanced. Not all parent organisations are supportive of library services and this can be exacerbated if there is a corresponding lack of understanding of technological advances.

Libraries have always been service organisations -- it is their reason for being. So whatever reasons are given for reengineering, cost cutting, downsizing staff, new services, or meeting the challenges of the future, at the heart is improving the service we provide to our users. It is the fundamental purpose of reengineering to ensure that the library's investment in human resources is maximised.

To embrace the opportunities the digital age provides, libraries have to make sure that people are not performing tasks which can be better handled by machine. All staff, no matter their position, have a great capacity and willingness to accept responsibility and partake in decision making if given the opportunity. No automated system can duplicate these abilities.

However, reengineering may have an impact on the type of staff employed by a service. Two examples come to mind. One is the situation where or librarian or library technician has been undertaking tasks which the reengineering process identifies as better being able to be performed by an automated routine or unqualified staff. What happens to the librarian?

The other situation may arise as library management realises that the level of technology has grown so complex that it is no longer possible to expect the 'systems librarian' to cope. I am thinking here specifically of those services which have recognised the need for a systems administrator, but which have invariably selected a librarian with computer experience. It may become necessary to select an IT specialist who has little or no library experience. Given the relative market value of the two professions, library management may have to cope with dramatic changes in the organisational culture.

With library staffing levels often remaining largely static, or in some cases even under threat, the human resource becomes even more precious. If libraries are to produce the level of service now being expected by users, the prime function of reengineering must be to free staff from mundane tasks and allow them to exploit their skills and experience.

Starting to reengineer: the ILMS

The Integrated Library Management System (ILMS) or Integrated Online Library System (IOLS), as it is also known, lies at the centre of library technology. It is the collection of software programs, usually divided into modules, which control the cataloguing, circulation, acquisitions, information retrieval and various utilities which control the automated library services.

According to Vinod Chachra, the ILMS is currently in its third generation. First generation systems, developed in the 1970s, usually comprised individual modules which remained independent of each other. Second generation systems arrived in the 80s and are still the most popular installed base. A second generation system also comprised individual modules, but now they shared data. `The goal of third generation library systems is to organise, control, distribute and access information located within and outside the boundaries of the library.'[4]

The future of the ILMS is not certain.

Before the internet and the web took hold ...

the driving forces in software development

were primarily from the library profession

itself ... Marc ... Z39.50 ... Today [these]

forces are coming increasingly from outside

the library profession ... from HTML coding

to Java applets to web browsers.[5]

The pressures on system vendors are enormous, with some libraries demanding the implementation of current technology, others demanding development of working but outdated technology, and still others requiring a combination of the two as they evolve from the text based, serial systems to pc based, network configurations.

Given the large development cost of library systems, and the limited marketplace, the software becomes a compromise which provides complete satisfaction to few clients.

Reengineering a library service will almost certainly involve additional costs to tailor the library system to these specific needs. It is a fact that, at some point, reengineering will cost the library service money. It may be a case of spending money to save money, in which case the justification to the funding organisation is quantifiable. However, if it is spending money which will result in the intangible of 'improved' service, then the library may face a more difficult task of justification, particularly if the parent organisation is not always supportive.

As the ILMS will be at the centre of any technological reengineering, it is worthwhile asking if there are alternatives to the single vendor ILMS?

One solution may be for a number of libraries to form a consortium and purchase a system as a partnership. The perceived advantage of this method is that a consortium may have greater influence over the vendor in financial and other ways, and thus receive a better or more tailored product.

A second alternative is the multivendor ILMS. In many ways, this option has already arrived, with the library system expanding to include CDRom networks, the web, inhouse database developments, community information, office documents, image databases and so on. Single vendors can rarely provide the necessary expertise for all these areas. Libraries are becoming more experienced in the handling the difficulties which come with multivendor information technology.

The possibility of traditional ILMS modules being purchased from different vendors becomes more realistic as data exchange standards become more common. For example, a Z39.50 compliant opac from one vendor should work with any Z39.50 compliant system from another vendor.

There are obvious problems with such systems. One is support. In a multivendor environment, who is going to be responsible for identifying a problem? Will library staff be able to identify whether the problem is hardware or software, library server or pc server, application or operating system or database software? What win happen if neither vendor is willing to take responsibility for the problem? What if the hardware is also supplied by multiple vendors?

Another is the creation of the links between the modules: who is going to write and maintain this specialist software and are vendors going to be happy about providing internal information such as file structures?

The final problem may be inconsistent development of modules: what do you do if your acquisitions module is Z39.50 compliant, but the cataloguing module is not? What if the new circulation module is ready, but the financials utility is not?

One last alternative is the inhouse system which is written specifically for a particular library service. 'It was not too many years ago that a full service system vendor could emerge .. from a homegrown system. We think these days are over.'[6]

With the rapidity of technological development, the only realistic possibility for this last example would be a large library consortium which would be willing to invest the necessary development and maintenance costs to achieve a system which was a compromise only between consortium members and not hundreds of libraries across the globe. Such a consortium could be politically difficult to create and maintain. It may also be financially fragile, if member libraries leave the consortium. Where will the development funding come from?

The rarity of such consortia is perhaps the most telling proof that what may seem an ideologically attractive proposition is in practical terms, unworkable. Given such limited alternatives, libraries may expect to invest in the ILMS for some time to come.

With this in mind, the library must face three factors, when reengineering with an ILMS. One, already mentioned is that specific reengineering tasks will almost certainly require additional programming at extra cost. The second is that it `is very likely that most libraries will spend a great deal less on a one off basis every seven to ten years, as in the past, and rather more on regular annual purchases'.[7] Such annual purchases should place the library in a better position to adapt to technological developments, and thus implement reengineering requirements.

The last, and most significant factor is that libraries must learn to stop adjusting library systems to current practices and start adjusting the practices to the system. One unnamed library service, some time ago, spent so much time adjusting its downloaded catalogue record, that I wondered why it did not simply original catalogue everything!

The library service spends a considerable amount of quantifiable dollars on a new system and even more on the less quantifiable aspects such as training. It seems somewhat strange, then, that vendor X is inevitably asked whether process Y can be done in exactly the same way it has always been done. Such attitudes can make reengineering a more difficult task than it needs to be. If the library is used to taking advantage of technology, then reengineering will be more easily implemented, as a foundation of change has been established.

Reengineering: the little picture

If reengineering via the ILMS is the `big picture', then it is perhaps a timely reminder that libraries need to look at the 'little picture' as well.

The `little picture' is of significance for reengineering library services because libraries are, usually, a bulk transaction business. For example, Blacktown City Council Library Service issues about 1 million items annually, has about 500,000 opac enquiries and adds approximately 30,000 items each year.

In simple mathematical terms, if a service could save 10 seconds an item in the processing of 20,000 items, then a total saving of 55 hours can be made. At Blacktown, given the other duties a library assistant/technician is required to undertake (such as working on the circulation desk) that 55 hours represents about 3 weeks work for one staff member.

In technological terms, the 'little picture' example would be to find a situation where manual records are being kept alongside digital records. For example, most libraries input a bookplate into each item. These bookplates are used to identify the item as belonging to a particular library, but they usually also carry such handwritten information as barcode number, call number, cost, supplier and so on. Apart from the necessity for a library to identify its stock, every little piece of bookplate information is stored online. Is there an ongoing need for the bookplate? Certainly, there are times when staff find bookplate information useful and efficient. But against this occasional information access, the library must measure the cost of recording this information perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 times.

The other fine example of 'little picture' digital reengineering is replacing the manual keyboarding of data with the direct import of the same data in electronic format. The most common example of this is the downline loading of catalogue records from the Australian Bibliographic Network. Blacktown City Library uses yet another example. Library supplier, James Bennett, supplies the library with a kit diskette. The diskette contains the bibliographic data, in USMarc format, of all titles being offered as part of that kit. While the book selectors mark their choices in the printed catalogue which comes with each kit, the records in the diskette are imported into the library's Geac Advance System.

When it comes time to record the order data, acquisitions staff need only to retrieve the appropriate item, add order details such as number of copies, location and fund to complete the request. Lastly, when all requests for that kit have been finalised, a text file of the order is produced and emailed to Bennetts. The diskette service costs nothing and has resulted in an overall staff time saving for the library. While this is too isolated a process to be considered the `dramatic improvement' our reengineering definition requires, it acknowledges that the library service is aware of digital opportunities and is willing to embrace these, where practicable.

Reengineering: the practical example

In July 1994, Stanford University Libraries applied 'the principles of reengineering to the acquisitions to access processes in order to realise at least $750,000 cost savings from the technical services budget, while maintaining an improving efficiency, speed and quality of service'.[8]

In Australia, Griffith University in Queensland is currently undertaking a similar project.

The redesign team's final report recommends a

conceptual redesign that focuses on

eliminating duplicate transactions, using

technology and vendor services when possible

to increase efficiencies, and performing tasks

at the time or location which makes most


The acquisitions process is one prime process for reengineering as it consists of a large number of easily identifiable routines which can be compartmentalised and altered as required. A study of the acquisition system at one American university revealed two surprising facts which are relevant to most library services

The ... cost to acquire a monograph volume

came as a surprise ... because it is as

expensive as cataloguing, a cost that is being

questioned nationally.[10]

And it `is evident to this point the monographic acquisitions process has only been mechanised, and the tasks themselves have not been altered in any meaningful way'.[11]

At Stanford, a redesign team was established to investigate and report upon the reengineering process. Importantly, this team comprised members from all relevant sections of the service, including administration, acquisitions, cataloguing, systems, preservation and finance as well as representatives from a consultancy organisation. The advantage of such a wide ranging group is that it gives all affected staff input into the redesign process.

It is important to remember that reengineering is not just a question of adding technology. It is primarily a function of human resource management. If one group feels left out, then its negative reaction may endanger the success of the entire project. It is the people involved, not the machinery, which will determine ultimate success.

Communications between various levels of staff, therefore, should be of the utmost concern to library management during the reengineering period. Staff in a reasonably large service are likely to comprise people from a wide realm of ages, library experiences and personalities. Responses ranging from enthusiasm to distrust may be expected and will need to be addressed. Staff should have one or more liason points with the management committee to help ensure that there is open and honest communication between all interested parties.

The redesign team further enhanced staff involvement by conducting a `walk through' of current practices and interviews with relevant staff. Ongoing discussions with vendors, led the team to the conclusion that 63 per cent of monographs could be acquired at reduced cost. This translates to in excess of 30,000 items. One point which the team emphasised was to 'encourage risk taking and innovation'.[12] This attitude suggests to me that Stanford were willing to acknowledge that not everything would be perfect but that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Any scheme such as this is going to have its individual failures. By off loading many responsibilities from library staff to vendor staff, it is always going to be possible to identify a particular inappropriate title and ask how it managed to get through the system. And this will be particularly true, the larger the number of items involved. Indeed, Stanford identify this by stating that the `shift to vendor services and to automated services, and the reduction of checking stops will put processes and databases at greater risk for error'.[13] Such errors are inevitable and, while always being monitored, should only be of real concern if they begin to affect the overall quality of the service.

Once the Stanford redesign team had conducted its investigations, it identified eight process changes

1) Acquire shelf ready materials from vendors

2) Exchange data electronically with these same vendors: submit orders directly... arid receive electronic bibliographic, holdings and invoice information for all items supplied

3) Use automated batch services to repeat bibliographic searches when fuller copy cataloguing is needed

4) Consolidate the processes of receiving, and posting of payment for materials received and invoiced manually

5) Use standards based technology to support simultaneous pre order searching of local databases and bibliographic utilities: automate batch creation of order records as a result

6) Use technological enhancements to facilitate the activities of original cataloguing...

7) Decentralise certain categories of cataloguing maintenance

8) Check in all serials online in the service units[14]

Finally, the redesign team identified several implementation issues concerning this reengineering.

The first is the partnership between library divisions or sections. There may be financial and staff changes between divisions or sections within a division and possible loss of prestige if one section is badly affected or perceived to be badly affected and these relationships need to be handled carefully.

The second is the partnership between book vendors and the library. Importantly, it is suggested that because of the cost overheads involved in building online ordering, 'it is to our advantage to minimise the number of vendors we use'.[15]

Notably, Griffith University has built its system, initially around a single vendor. Quality control and staff training is identified as another issue. Quality control was discussed earlier and staff training was identified by Robinson at the start of this paper as one of the main challenges for libraries over the next decade.

Trailblazing efforts such as those conducted at Stanford and Griffith, and by many other libraries in many other areas, inevitably improve the profession as a whole. Such schemes become available to all types of libraries, the majority of which would not have been able to undertake the financial and staffing commitments required. The ILMS and book vendors are able to provide these additional services because they believe that they gain a competitive edge in the marketplace. The success of such projects prove that libraries can successfully reengineer current practices to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital age.

Reeingineering: the net

The internet is 'the greatest revolution in publishing since the printing press'.[16]

A library's greatest single purpose is the linking of an individual with the information they desire. Libraries have created this link by collecting and organising the information so that it may be retrieved when required.

Prior to the creation of the world wide web in 1992, libraries had struggled to cope with the vast amounts of print and nonprint material being published. Then the web came, and with it the potential to turn everyone into a publisher, if they so desired. Organisations have seized on the web as a cheap, efficient means of publishing information and disseminating it to their clients and the consequence has been a web that has grown from a handful sites in 1993 to literally millions in 1997.

Another aspect of the digital format and storage of this information is its transience. Cite a web address today and it may not be there tomorrow. Or the document may have been altered and resaved with the original information lost. Digital information is not yet being widely archived for posterity, although some schemes are now being implemented to overcome this problem.

Libraries have adopted the net as they do most new technologies, as a means o providing better service to their users. To this end, many libraries are developing `digital library' projects, most of which have the common theme of making information, such as the library catalogue, available across the web and providing this information to other services or directly to the user. Anne Kenney of Cornell University says

A lot of libraries are hoping that if they

develop digital libraries, they won't have to

build new buildings. But I don't think that's

where the payoff is going to come. It's going

to come from resource sharing, which will not

only increase access to information, but

eliminate much of the redundancy of


The net' offers the library the ability to become its own information provider and publisher, which will result in a new range of opportunities and challenges to be reengineered into current library practices. However, these services are just one side of internet access. They are about outsiders looking into the library. But libraries also have a responsibility to provide users within the system a way to get out to the internet. This is perhaps most true of the public library, which will hold much of the responsibility for providing digital information access and equity to all members of society. The internal question, then, is how will libraries reengineer services to allow internet access when it is needed.

The provision of internet access for users will always be a limited resource. It is simply a question of too many users for too few access points. How many libraries have such complete internet access that they do not need to arrange bookings? This is likely to remain true until internet access is as widely available as the telephone. For many libraries, the provision of a pc, and the space to put it, is still a considerable financial, spatial and training outlay. Some libraries, which have more than one access point, have reacted to this problem by allocating 'reference' and 'recreation' access. The 'recreation' access is available to anybody to search as they wish. The 'reference' access is provided in response to a user's specific information needs.

Such a solution seems the most appropriate, although it does imply that staff must make a judgement of the `worthiness' of the required information. 'All information is useful at some time to someone.'[18] Who should take priority? Someone researching the history of a particular bottle for their collection at home? The student completing an assignment? The sports fan whose primary interest may lay interstate or overseas? Or should access be on a democratic, first come, first served basis?

This problem will become more pressing and obvious as students from primary school onwards are indoctrinated to believe that the only `valid' information resides on the computer. The challenge will be for the libraries to continue to provide that link between user and information and to minimise the use of the digital link by those whose information needs may be able to be satisfied in another format.


The digital age has changed the face of libraries forever and libraries must continue to change if they are to remain viable and respected institutions. Libraries must find the balance between conservatism and technophilia.

The challenge ... is not to replace the library

as it has been with a virtual library ... We

will not move from a paper to bits. Rather the

challenge is to integrate digital information

into a massive paper based collection.[19]

The book is far from dead, with industry groups projecting continued sales growth. Until an electronic `book' can be created which duplicates the cost, durability and clarity of a printed edition, libraries will continue to collect, store and disseminate print information. And, as David Jones, the building consultant for the State Library of NSW, points out, there is the `potential of the library building to become a focal point for the community'.[20]

Lim also reminds us that libraries can be more than just data warehouses '[libraries] have an archival and preservation role; they are also cultural icons, and have a social role to play'.[21]

The final word, as did the first, belongs to Charles Robinson

Hey! We're in exciting times! We'll change,

we'll innovate, we'll experiment, we'll fail at

times, but nothing like this has happened to

reading and communication and knowledge

since the Gutenberg Bible. What an

opportunity! If you're not ready for it, get out

of the way![22]


[1] Robinson, C Five challenges in the next decade for public libraries Library administration digest 31(7) p49

[2] Hammer, M and Champy, J Reengineering the corporation: a manifesto for business revolution New York, Harper Business 1993

[3] Jones, J Internet public library : same metaphors, new service American libraries 28(2) 1997 p57

[4] Saunders, L A virtual interview with Vinod Chachra Computers in libraries 16(2) 1996 p59

[5] Dorman, D Observations on the North American library automation, marketplace American libraries 27(8) 1996 p42

[6] ibid

[7] Yeates, R Library automation : the way forward? in Program 30(3) 1996 p240

[8] Stanford University Libraries Redesigning the acquisitions to access process: final report of the Stanford Universities Libraries Redesign Team, 1995 diroff/ts/redesign/report/report.htm1 p1

[9] ibid

[10] Morris, D E, Resarcak, P and Rowley, G Monographic acquisitions : staffing costs and the impact of automation Library resources and technical services 40(4) 1996 p307

[11] ibid p3l7

[12] Stanford University Libraries op cit p3

[13] ibid p39

[14] ibid p4

[15] ibid p39

[16] Scully, P Local councils and the internet pubranch/papers/councils.htm

[17] Chepesiuk, R The future is here: America's libraries go digital American libraries 28(1) 1997 p48

[18] Latimer, J The age of the info entity .html

[19] Verba, S Annual report draft, Harvard University Library 1996

[20] Jones, D Time capsules or time machines: the challenges for public library buildings speech to the Country Public Library Association 1997 p3

[21] Lim, E The virtual library meets the virtual campus: strategies for the 21st Century Electronic dream? Virtual nightmare: the reality for libraries: 1996 Vala biennial conference and exhibition conference proceedings. Melbourne, Vala p35

[22] Robinson op cit p49
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Author:Grosvenor, Mark
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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