Database Management Software for Library Lists

By Young, Philip H. | Computers in Libraries, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Database Management Software for Library Lists


Young, Philip H., Computers in Libraries


Database Management Software for Library Lists

With the appearance of specialized software vendors in the library marketplace, it is easy to forget that general purpose packages can meet a wide variety of library needs. Upon analysis, it turns out that many of the library processes and procedures susceptible to computerization are lists of various kinds. Database management systems (DBMS) such as dBASE and its work-alikes are ideal for manipulating lists, which, with their related data, become records and files. In many cases, DBMS software can be configured easily for these common but important library applications.

Sophisticated DBMS packages permit database programming at a variety of levels of complexity. However, they also default to generic screens that are simple to use, even if not customized for each application. The value here is that it is quick and easy to create a very usable product with virtually no programming skills. If customizing of screens and output is needed, it can be added later, but in most instances the generic product fulfills the need. Both librarians and library users are generally more interested in results than in packaging.

Reserve List Example

A good example of DBMS software use is the library reserve system at Krannert Memorial Library of the University of Indianapolis. We are a small, academic library and typically have less than one thousand items on reserve at one time.

dBASE Assist Mode

With our dBASE III Plus software, I built a simple database using the "Assist" mode to handle the formerly manually maintained reserve item lists. The database structure included four fields: professor's last name, title of item, item number, and last semester to remain on reserve. The number of fields was kept to a minimum to speed data entry. We found only the professor's last name was needed in all but a few cases of name duplication. In those cases, the first name initial was added to distinguish faculty members and, thus, an extra first name field was avoided. The titles of reserve items could be abbreviated or shortened since recognition by students, not full bibliographic information, was all that was necessary.

In the past reserve materials at this library were grouped by faculty member's name or class on the shelves. This practice caused problems when the same items were needed by different faculty members simultaneously. In reworking the reserve system, a simple sequential item number system with access provided by a printed list was determined to be preferable.

Initially, we used handwritten lists until the dBASE software provided an improvement. Using the structure described above, the data could be typed in once to generate a variety of use-specific lists. At first, we produced two lists for student use in requesting reserve items: by faculty member's name and by title. Thus, a student could have us retrieve an assigned item directly by identifying its title, or he/she could simply look up the professor's name and find all items on reserve for him or her.

One problem that arose was with the faculty's manner of referring to reserve items in class. Often a reserve item was referred to by something other than its true title -- for example, a photocopied chapter would be referred to by the book title. We have worked with faculty to alert them to this discrepancy. In the future we hope they will use the same reference on their syllabus and in class, permitting us to correlate our printout with their nomenclature.

One Printed List

In practice, we found that students usually ask for items by their professor's name rather than by title. We decided we could manage with only the one printout by professor's name. I considered having another field for the class title or number but decided that a printout under the faculty member's name would be sufficient. This procedure would cut out an input step as well as a need for standardized vocabulary or numbering of courses to ensure complete listings. …

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