The Influence of Technology on Library Networking
Networking, the sharing of information resources, is dramatically enhanced by telecommunications networks. To continue their historic success in resource sharing, librarians must recognize both the potential and problems that result when the classic and modern concepts of networking merge. Successful cooperation is closely related to adherence to standards. In the electronic environment this is doubly true.
LIBRARIANS have been familiar with the concept of networking for decades. They have predicated a portion of their service goals on networking--the ability to obtain needed materials from other libraries. What has changed in the 1980s is the ability to carry out such resource sharing more efficiently with the use of telecommunications networks. Such progress is not without cost, however. In addition to the hard dollars associated with network connections, there is perhaps a greater cost in the form of adherence to standards. Successful cooperation is directly related to librarians' willingness to conform to cataloging standards, interlibrary loan standards, and the like. As the technology of electronic communications pervades increasing amounts of our work, the question of cooperation is seen to rest on shaky ground. Technology changes networking. To continue their historic success in resource sharing, librarians must recognize both the potential and the problems resulting when the classic and the modern concepts of networking merge.
A Bit of History
Librarians were drawn into telecommunications systems at a remarkably early stage, and for the most part, remained quite unaware of the development itself. From the start, telecommunications services were folded into the access and use agreements of OCLC and RLG. Libraries purchased such services with little knowledge or understanding of their capabilities or potential. Had the deregulation of the telephone company not occurred, librarians would have lived in well-served, but ignorant bliss several years longer than they did. Deregulation, coupled with the need to move increasing amounts of information ever faster, threw librarians into a marketplace they were ill-equipped to handle, a marketplace unprepared to handle librarians' demands for systems that were both reliable and easy to use. The standard by which librarians measured their telecommunications options was, and remains, far above that accepted in the computer world. Library administrators may be ignorant of how OCLC, for example, delivers a product to their catalogers desks, but they do know it is reliable enough to base an entire operation on with little fear of serious technical failure. In computer jargon that is known as a production system and is rare in the telecommunications world at large.
A second factor comes into play when we look at the merger of networking and telecommunications, namely standards. As the library community and the computing/programming community cross paths, there is genuine wonder in the latter about the existence and use of the MARC record. In a world with a consistent lack of conformity (note the multiple variations of programming languages and the variety of electronic mail address formats), the notion that thousands of libraries conduct their daily business along well-defined norms is a marvel. As one looks back over the history of library standards, it is truly remarkable that libraries cooperated in adhering to the MARC format, with all its fields, subfields, and codes, often with little or no idea of the eventual benefits to be reaped years down the road. The immediate benefit of receiving catalog cards in sorted and alphabetized order used only a small portion of what was required to catalog a book in full MARC format. It was labor saving enough, and future use of the rest of the record was apparently accepted on faith. The profession owes the creators of MARC an incredible debt of thanks, yet we must now ask, "Where do we go from here? …