Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 2 • February 2002

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Can You Build It? Yes You Can!
by Janet L. Balas

I am certain that when CIL's editors picked this month's theme, Home-Grown Technology Solutions, they intended that this issue would inspire and encourage librarians everywhere to undertake their own projects. While the issue may have its intended effect for many, I am sure there are others who will become depressed while reading these marvelous success stories, believing that there is no possibility that they could ever have enough vision, enough technical expertise, enough time, and, yes, even enough money to attempt, let alone succeed, in developing an innovative, totally home-grown solution that would merit inclusion in a technical magazine.

A technology project doesn't have to be large in scope, nor does it have to chart unexplored territory, in order to be successful. I believe that a successful technology project is one that meets the unique needs of a specific library with its own particular population of users. When technology was first making its way into the library, employees and users often feared automation projects, believing that the new technology would be a great leveler, limiting services to only those that were routine and could easily be automated. In the early days this may have been true, and these first-generation systems seemed to demonstrate that a "one size fits all" solution could perhaps be more accurately characterized as "one size fits some." Information technology has grown more sophisticated, however, and librarians and patrons have grown more demanding, insisting that technology solutions have the flexibility to meet their libraries' unique needs. This is the promise of technology, and new applications are coming closer to achieving the ideal of providing "unlimited sizes to fit all."

This ideal still hasn't been achieved, however, in most current library technology applications, so many of us must turn to home-grown solutions to meet the needs of our users. Sometimes these projects are large and stunningly innovative, while others are smaller, focused on a particular gap in service. Both large and small projects can do a spectacular job of improving services—as long as they are the right solutions for the individual library and its users. Since many of you may still be feeling overwhelmed by all the enthusiasm for grand innovation, we'll look at some Web sites that point you to home-grown solutions—both large and small—that may help you find realistic ideas.

Innovation in the Library
When I was beginning my research for this column, I was astounded to find that there was a site that was tailor-made for this topic. The site is named, most appropriately, Innovative Internet Applications in Libraries, and offers links to the Web sites for projects that vary both in scope and design. The projects are divided into categories including Ages & Stages for those designed for special segments of the service population, Books and Reading Lists for Web-based reader's advisory services, Catalogs and Directories for examples of different formats for the old-fashioned library catalog, and Local Databases for local information projects. The "My Library" Personalized Interfaces section of links stresses customization, while providing electronic access to unique materials is the focus of the Special Collection & Online Exhibits section. Projects that provide online counterparts of familiar library services such as library instruction, guided tours, reference desk services, and well-known forms (such as those for interlibrary loan) are listed in the Tutorials/Guides, Virtual Tours, Virtual Reference Desks, and Web Forms sections. There are also links to siteshelpful to librarians who are planning technology projects in the Site News & Evaluation and the Miscellaneous Helpful Sites for Cybrarians sections.

The authors of this site urge librarians to explore the various project sites, especially because some of them include narrative descriptions of the projects that are very helpful. My library has been making determined efforts to provide new services to teens, so I was very interested in the teen-related projects of other libraries, and I spent time examining each of those aimed at this population. I also enjoyed the virtual tours of many libraries. Particularly impressive was that of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, with its use of QuickTime VR to provide panoramic views of its lovely botanical gardens. It might be reaching a bit to say that it is the next-best thing to being there, but seeing these beautiful gardens in this format has caused me to put this library on my "must visit" list for the next time I travel to the West Coast.

Best Practices in Canada
The Internet makes it easier for librarians to learn about exciting innovations in other countries. Canada has documented some of its library technology projects on a Web site titled "Best Practices" 2001—Innovative Internet Use in Canadian Public Libraries. The projects are divided into the following categories: community partnerships, supporting local economic development, electronic service delivery, and content creation. I was particularly intrigued by the proposed "Bookboat" complex of the Prince Rupert Public Library.

The Bookboat is not solely a technology project, but it would be just about impossible to design a library these days without information technology as an integral component of the plan. The project leaders are making use of the Web while Bookboat is in the planning stage in order to involve potential users in the design. Their vision is explained on the Web site, and interested parties are invited to submit their questions and observations through an electronic feedback form. Responses to comments from the public are included on the site. As I said earlier, I find this project intriguing and I plan to visit the Bookboat Web site from time to time to check on its progress.

Innovators Win Awards
Another way to learn about interesting projects is to visit library awards sites on the Web. LIANZA, the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, offers the 3M Award for Innovation in Libraries. This year's finalists and the winning entry are described in a press release available on the LIANZA site. It also had links to two of the three finalists, but, unfortunately, there was no link to the winning project. One of the projects, by the Manukau Institute of Technology Library, titled Get Ready Go, was a PowerPoint comic strip introduction to using library resources. Not a large project, certainly, but easily within the reach of many librarians looking for a new way to connect with reluctant users.

Consult with Your Library Automation System Vendor
Since most librarians lack the expertise to write their own automation systems but still know exactly what they want from a system, many have worked with their vendors to customize their automated systems to meet their individual libraries' needs. A good way to learn about these projects is to visit your library system vendor's Web site. It will often highlight innovative projects. The SIRSI Corp.'s Web site, for example, has a customer spotlight feature that highlights special achievements. Many vendors also sponsor electronic discussion lists for their customers, and customization questions and solutions are a frequent topic for discussion. Sometimes a small tweak to a system can make all the difference in the world to users, and these discussion lists can help you tweak successfully.

Is Linux Right for You?
I am sure that there are many technology enthusiasts who enjoy the challenge of a large project. While these ambitious types may not always have the opportunity to "go where no librarian has gone before," they would at least like to go where few librarians have gone before. A relatively new course in library automation is the use of Linux. Eric Sisler, of the Westminster Library, has developed a Web site titled Eric's Linux Information based on his experience implementing Linux in his library.

Another site for librarians interested in using this platform is the site. Linux-in-libraries is an electronic mailing list that covers its use in academic, public, and special libraries. Archives of this recently organized list are maintained on the Web site, as are the archives of the earlier mailing list, Linux4lib. A list of resources is also available, and the list owners encourage participants to send in any resources they find useful so they can be included on the site.

The Library of the Future
Planning a successful project involves looking ahead to possible new uses of information technology in the library. Research related to Internet resources and digital projects is featured on a special page on the Internet Library for Librarians site. The projects are described as "significant and special," so they could be characterized in many cases as broad-based research initiatives rather than specific projects. But the research results in many of these undertakings, such as the Cooperative Online Resource Catalog (CORC) from OCLC, which explores the cooperative creation and sharing of metadata, will have important implications for library technology in the not-too-distant future. Librarians who are looking ahead should be aware of current research in information technologies and its application in libraries.

I hope those of you who were intimidated by the thought of developing your own home-grown solutions are feeling a bit more confident now that you realize that not every project has to change the library as we know it. Yes, some home-grown technology plans do require significant technical expertise and an abundance of time, energy, and determination. Others, however, may be less ambitious in scope, but are no less successful if they meet the needs of the libraries and their users. Good ideas are out there to help us find solutions for our library "homes," and with the Internet we can share our innovative solutions with libraries around the world.
Resources Discussed

Innovative Internet Applications in Libraries

Welcome to the Huntington VR Tour

"Best Practices" 2001

Waterfront Bookboat Complex

Media release, 3M Award for Innovation in Libraries

Get Ready Go

SIRSI Corp.—Clients

Eric's Linux Information

Internet Library for Librarians—Library Projects

Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or
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