Magazine article Online

Charting the Course for Online Innovation

Magazine article Online

Charting the Course for Online Innovation

Article excerpt

Information technologies have become so commonplace that we take them for granted. It is easy to forget that, even very recently, they were strange and threatening. They have become familiar and trusted only after a few farsighted people gave them the chance to prove their worth: people like Mike Halperin, Director of the Wharton School's Lippincott Library, who has always chosen the uncomfortable path toward progress. Turning an organization onto a new and uncertain course is laborious and risky, but we count on innovators like Halperin to pull the rest of us along toward new standards of information service.

The University of Pennsylvania libraries, which include Lippincott, are recognized for their position at the forefront of information technology, but this was not always the case. Halperin recalls that when he joined Lippincott in 1984, electronic information had but a small foothold. Mediated searching was the only online service, and just 50 hours of searching had been done the year before. Halperin undertook the task of redirecting the Lippincott program:

What I did was to introduce an entire electronic medium which hadn't existed to any extent before. All the resources were directed toward traditional print collections, but I changed that, and more of our resources are now directed toward electronic information.'

Lippincott's current array of services includes its online public catalog, mediated and end-user searching, CDROM databases, and a site database system with campus-wide access.

PAYING THE PRICE

Innovation on this scale exacts costs, or as Halperin says, There's a price to pay for being first." When Halperin began Lippincott's transformation, he notes, the staff made the first payment, "The staff, initially, was a little bit frightened because we didn't know what to expect." They discovered that building the modern library means work. Perhaps the biggest project was setting up the ABI/INFORM database in a local online system:

"It was a tremendous amount of work on the staffs part to put up this system. It took a year of tinkering to operate it as a LAN for end-users."

Wrestling with computers and database tapes wasn't the only struggle. One of Halperin's first new programs for Lippincott was free enduser searching, which he explains, . . . had political repercussions in other parts of the library system." Students from elsewhere in the university flocked to search at Lippincott while other Penn librarians were hesitant about the whole idea. Halperin recalls that ruffled feathers were smoothed and the rest of the Penn library system climbed on board:

"We worked it out and established a general policy on subsidized searching throughout the system.'

Halperin adds that his new directions were applauded by their beneficiaries, the users of Lippincott Library, Faculty were supportive and from the start students were enormously enthusiastic."

COMPLEX REALITY

Halperin is an energetic advocate of electronic information, but he fully understands that the complexity brought about by multiple systems is itself a cost:

"It is regrettable in that it is confusing for everyone: for my staff, who are going system crazy, and for the poor user, who comes in and says 'I want to do a computer search, and has to listen to us explain it for 15 minutes before he can begin to decide what to do.'

Lippincott's response is education. Halperin explains that each person on his staff masters a different system and acts as the trainer and resident expert for everyone else. …

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