Using the Lib-Web-Cats Directory: This Tool Can Be a Big Help When Selecting a New Automation System. (the Systems Librarian)

Article excerpt

One of my many library automation tasks is maintaining the lib-web-cats directory, which I started about 5 years ago. This site is mainly used by the general public to find libraries and their catalogs on the Web, but it also serves as a tool for tracking automation systems. I've recently redesigned the site, and it now has a new URE (http://www.librarytechnology.org/libwebcats). lib-web-cats is a completely voluntary, nonprofit endeavor. I maintain it to support my interest in library automation and to provide a service to those who find it useful.

According to ALA, there are about 13,000 public and academic libraries in the U.S. alone. lib-web-cats currently lists about 6,000 libraries worldwide and is growing fairly rapidly. At this level, it can't be considered a comprehensive resource, but it offers a significant sample of libraries--especially among those in North America--which makes it a reasonable tool for studying automation trends.

lib-web-cats does a fairly good job of listing libraries--academic, public, medical, law, and government agency--that have publicly available Web sites and online catalogs. Keeping track of corporate, K-12, church, and small libraries is much more challenging since many of them can't be found on the Web. So even though there are thousands of these institutions, they have only sparse representation in lib-web-cats.

While lib-web-cats' Basic Search page aims to take general users to library Web sites in the most efficient way possible, the Advanced Search page offers tools for doing comparative analysis and automation trendspotting. One of the main data elements in each record lists the automation system that's currently used by each library; another set of fields holds information on any previously used system. The service also records the date that a library implemented its system. This data, used in conjunction with other facts that are recorded about each library--such as type, collection size, country, state, and affiliations with consortia and other organizations--allows users to track automation trends.

Since lib-web-cats is less than a comprehensive data set, I treat the trends that I see as informal indicators. The site is useful, but not definitive. Keep these caveats in mind as you use it.

Finding Reference Sites

As an academic discipline, library automation has few devotees lately. It's more of a practical interest that comes to the fore when one gets involved in selecting a new system. That's when a tool like lib-web-cats is especially useful.

One of the key steps in choosing a system is to find peer institutions that have direct experience with it. From these institutions, it's common practice to select a handful of reference sites for more in-depth review. One might conduct a telephone interview with key staff members at that library or pay a visit to examine their system.

Finding libraries that have previously gone through the same system migration can be a big help. Not only can the staff members share their overall impressions of the product, but they may still have the software tools that were used to extract data from the old system and import it into the new one.

lib-web-cats can help identify reference sites. When performing queries by type and collection size, you get a broad list of results. You can then enter your current system and those in your short list of considerations. This query will find libraries that have already gone through the same migration. The city, state, and country categories can then be used to narrow the set of reference sites to those that are nearby.

Systems Gaining Ground

While it's always important to look at all functionality aspects when choosing an automation system, it's also important to know which products are currently successful in the marketplace. Regardless of how good a system might be, a small customer base makes the selection riskier. …