Selections of an Automated System

By Rosemary Abbott

This article is based upon research carried out for a minor thesis. This was undertaken as part of a Master of Business in Information Technology at RMIT.

Since the mid-late 1980s, librarians have been placed under increasing pressure to automate their libraries' operations. This has particularly been the case with regard to school libraries.

The pressure in this area has come from a number of sources: school principals, the activities of professional associations, the influence of journal literature, marketing by computer system vendors and the move towards resource-based learning.

As increasing numbers of school libraries do automate their operations, the momentum builds for those who have yet to do so.

Many commercial products becoming available for use in school libraries assume the presence of computers in those libraries, eg., indexes such as Guidelines on CD-ROM cataloguing done by ASCIS and more general reference tools such as encyclopedias.

Increasing and more sophisticated telecommunications are widening the range of information accessible to those within schools; this is often best done through a resource centre and will require computers to access such services.

Another factor of concern to school librarians is that of shrinking staff. If current levels of service are to be maintained and new developments to be embraced, it will be necessary to review many manual procedures with a view to replacing them with automated ones. It can no longer be considered appropriate that those trained as teacher-librarians can spend their time on 'housekeeping' functions.

Automation of school libraries is now seen as not so much a matter of whether or not to go ahead, but how and when.

The research I carried out was concerned with determining the essential elements of a successful method of selection. This involved establishing the factors concerned, particularly successful strategies and developing a useful selection framework.

A case study involving a large independent school library was undertaken. This was used to generate hypotheses. A questionnaire was then designed and distributed to post-primary independent school librarians to test these hypotheses.

A number of strategies for selection emerged from the survey analysis. The differences in approach tended to focus on who was involved and how long selection took. Most librarians surveyed believed that their strategy had been successful. A common thread ran through the responses received.

Librarians prefer to be in control of the selection process. They prefer not to have the decision imposed upon them. Generally where the entire library staff is involved and interested, the process runs more smoothly. Those who had taken adequate time to plan found the selection easier.

Reading journal articles, conference papers and other literature is seen as a good starting point; it establishes a basis for more practical investigation.

Most librarians rely on their own knowledge in establishing goals/ objectives and requirements in a needs analysis.

Site visits ranked as the major method of investigation. These were generally accompanied by discussions with colleagues and vendor demonstrations. Relatively few investigations were assessed by means of a formal checklist. However, it was felt that this did not significantly diminish the chances of success.

The majority of librarians (86%) wrote submissions to support their desire to automate. Generally these were directed to the school principal.

The time taken to select varied enormously (from only weeks to ten years!) Respondents felt it was important to 'get it right' -regardless of how long this took.

Librarians who were involved in the decision-making had commitment to the success of the system chosen. Those happiest with their system were generally members of a user group. They felt they had input to vendors and could influence the development of the system.

Relatively few librarians would change the way they approached the selection process. Some believe it is easier now with a wider range of products and more sites to visit.

Few respondents to the survey had prior experience in the selection of an automated system. It was interesting that the higher a librarian's perceived expertise in the area, the higher the rate of satisfaction with the system chosen.

Where librarians stated they would not repurchase the same system, it was generally because a better product had appeared in the market place since they had purchased.

Ministry of Education recommendations appear to have some bearing on which systems are examined. However, when it comes to the selection itself, proven software and costs were generally considered more important. Some of the comments made by survey respondents may be of interest:

"Plan and evaluate progress."
"There is no perfect system."
"In the end, back your own judgement."
"Be open-minded, have goals."
"The commitment of library staff is essential."
"A needs analysis is essential."
"The final decision regarding selection must be made by the users."
"Look beyond the Circulation and Cataloguing functions."
"PR work is required; you need to explain the benefits of automation to the school community."

In conclusion, selection of an automated system is a lengthy and complex task. Most librarians surveyed believed that the combination of their own expertise and the support of their colleagues make success possible.

If you are about to launch yourself into this process, good luck! If there is any assistance I might be able to give you, feel free to ask.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the independent school teacher-librarians and librarians who responded so willingly to my survey. The level of this response was overwhelming and greatly facilitated my research.

Rosemary Abbott

Senior Librarian

Loreto Mandeville Hall