Lowering the Threshold for Automation in Small Libraries: Successful Technology Implementations Most Often Involve a Partnership between a Library and an External Support Organization

Article excerpt

It's striking to me that here in the U.S.--the world's wealthiest country--so many small public libraries in rural areas and small towns either rely on outdated systems or have no automation at all. We have some of the world's most technologically advanced libraries, but we also have some for which state-of-the-art technology tools remain out of reach. As I track the automation trends in libraries, I have been concerned for a long time about how many public libraries in the U.S. lag behind in automation and that these "have nots" are skewed primarily toward those that support small communities. One of the outstanding challenges today is reducing the barriers that impede small libraries with very limited resources from having access to technologies that can help them deliver better services to their communities.

Automation Trends for Small Public Libraries

A recent pass through my lib-web-cats directory of libraries shows 728 public libraries in the U.S. with no automation, plus another thousand or so still using PC-based products that have not been developed or sold for many years (324 with Winnebago Spectrum, 446 with Circulation Plus, and 210 with Athena, for example). These figures should be taken as approximate; some portion of these libraries may have moved on to newer systems that have not yet been reported. Almost all of these underautomated libraries serve populations of less than 20,000 persons. As I monitor the automation trends of the small public library sector, I notice also that many of them implemented older PC-based systems quite some time ago and have yet to move on to new systems. Once automated, it seems that even these now unsupported products meet their basic needs and that changing to a new system would require both financial resources and new system training. In many cases these libraries are working with a PC-based system that may have been implemented more than a decade ago and has not been updated or upgraded since.

The patterns for library automation vary in the U.S. from one state to another. In some states most public libraries have access to automation through either statewide initiatives or through regional consortia. Many small libraries benefit from being able to participate in a shared library automation system at affordable cost levels, often subsidized through state grants or other opportunities. In other states, however, political and economic realities result in most small public libraries implementing automation independently rather than in large collective groupings. It seems that when small libraries face automation on their own rather than joining in shared systems, it increases the likelihood that they will be either without automation or underautomated.

International Comparison

This scenario contrasts with what I observe in other countries. As I study public libraries in other parts of the world, I am impressed that in many countries, all libraries--large and small--have access to high-quality automation systems. Especially in Europe, governmental authorities provide library services to all the communities within their jurisdictions, including full-featured automation systems. While recent years have led to often severe cutbacks in hours or numbers of service points, I have not seen erosion in the near-universal automation of European public libraries. I've recently had the opportunity to learn firsthand about broad-based automation programs in other countries as well. In Iceland, almost all the libraries in the country, national, public, academic, and special, participate in a countrywide implementation of Aleph from Ex Libris Ltd. In Chile, the BiblioRedes project is automating all the public libraries in the country through a shared environment based on an Aleph ILS and a catalog based on the open source VuFind.

But these success stories should not be taken as the norm in other regions. In many parts of the world, small libraries struggle to have even the most basic automation systems support their work. …