Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 1 January 2001

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COMING FULL CIRCLE
Today North Carolina, Tomorrow the World
by Andrew Pace

I was in the next town over when I decided to stop at the Blockbuster to rent a movie. "I'm sorry," said the manager, "you'll need to sign up at your local Blockbuster in order to use your card here." Grudgingly, I made my way home. After work one evening, I stopped at my Blockbuster. "I'm sorry," said the pimple-faced clerk, "you'll have to come back between nine and five, when my manager's here." Boy, was I frustrated and ... Wait a second, that wasn't the Blockbuster, it was a university library!

Getting a video shouldn't be easier than doing academic research. Nevertheless, some library users have to jump through more hoops than a dog-show poodle just to get the privilege of borrowing a simple text. Like the analogy above, we send our users back home, quashing the serendipity that often leads to knowledge. We make them go to the "Main Library," as if this administrative distinction meant anything to them. With half a dozen credit cards or thousands in loans from Sallie Mae, we educate/scold the user with $5 in fines about becoming a patron "in good standing." But just when logic seemed to be escaping us, the wise directors of the University of North Carolina Libraries (There are 16 schools in the UNC System, and contrary to popular belief, NC State is one of them.) mandated that a better system be put in place.
 

Baby Steps, Giant Leaps
To enable reciprocal borrowing, short of buying a union catalog and converting half the state to another system, we had to get creative. Now you folks in Ohio or Georgia or the like can skip ahead a bit; you've been doing this for years. While I might agree that OhioLink is a shining beacon to us all, we must all be allowed our baby steps. So, the task was given to the Automation and Networking Committee, a subcommittee of the University Librarians Advisory Committee. No offense to those of you in circulation services, but I think that approaching the problem systematically (i.e., technically), as opposed to procedurally and philosophically, helped hurtle us past some traditional barriers. We were charged with making it easier to borrow from other libraries, to tear down bureaucracies such as separate borrower cards, convoluted circulation policies, permission forms, and centralized processing.

After dismissing pie-in-the-sky ideas like a shared union database of patron records—a technical and a political headache—we settled on (in retrospect) a simple plan. Every library was already using a "View your own record" feature; why not allow access from other libraries to this feature? The public interface is easy to use, and it contained all the information needed to determine a user's eligibility to borrow. It was so simple, that it was brilliant. INNOPAC sites would not have to learn DRA's circulation module, and DRA sites would not have to learn Horizon. Instead we would aggregate our own public interfaces, built for ease of use in the first place.
 

Faster Than You Can Say, 'Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement'
In no time (well, some time), I had created a prototype for the interface—a map of North Carolina, on which users click on their schools to be connected to their public patron record interface. Another link, for staff who need assistance in determining a patron's standing, gives log-in instructions, contact information, and screen shots of sample records showing where to find the important information about a patron. The policy groundwork for the service had already been laid 12 years before in the first iteration of the UNC reciprocal borrowing agreement, but this new model of authentication broke new ground because it completely decentralized the authentication of users and gave the power of authorization to the lending library, rather than the home library.

The library directors liked the idea so much that we were given the go-ahead for a pilot service. We arranged a much-needed session with the various heads of the circulation departments, and with the technical solution in place, we ironed out the necessary policies. I have always believed that technology happens faster than policy, and this case was no exception. But I also believe strongly that having a prototype in place—a working proof of concept for the service—went a long way toward gaining faster acceptance of the idea.
 

Naughty, Naughty Patron ...
Now admittedly, I am not a policy wonk. I hate reading instructions, I hate small print, and I cringe whenever I hear someone utter that progress-killing phrase"worst-case scenario." What's wrong with imagining best-case scenarios? (Anyone who knows me well is laughing now because they know what a cynic I am at heart, but I have always contended that cynical and optimistic are not mutually exclusive human qualities. In fact, I think they complement each other.) I think we have too many rules that set up unnecessary barriers to good service. Libraries are great at dreaming up worst-case scenarios. Most of the policy discussion hinged on one question only: What do we do with a "bad patron" who wants to use the reciprocal borrowing service?

The biggest challenge we faced in creating the service had to do with gleaning enough information from a patron record to determine that Henry or Grace or George is a patron in good standing. It's probably a good thing for libraries that I am not in public services, because if you ask me, anyone who wants to go out of her way to borrow a book from a nearby (or faraway) library is a patron in good standing. Nevertheless, the good standing information is there, and I was placated by seeing two radical aspects of the service make their way into the agreement. First, it is always up to the lending library to decide whether or not to lend a book. Second, the users—kind enough to complete step one of the pseudo-interlibrary lending process—can return the books to any other library in the system.

It's too early to gauge the service's success, but I am proud that we did it—proud that technology and policy could blend together to create a real service for our customers, and proud that serendipity and decentralization can win the day. And I'm prouder still that we did it all not with the worries of "net-lenders" vs. "net-borrowers," but with the assurance that it was the right thing to do for our users. The kinks are not all worked out, and publicity for the service is still light, but it has been the most productive cooperative endeavor, considering its scale, of which I have ever been a part.
 

Next Stop, the World
Now I could stop there, but I am high on the feeling of good librarianship. If there's anyone who can make cooperation work on a global scale, it's libraries. Picture this: Library cooperation is off the charts. Libraries are building the systems that vendors will one day sell. Florida Atlantic, MIT, Stanford, NYPL, and others are building systems that they will share with other libraries at cost ... The year is 1975. Richard De Gennaro called the 1970s the "golden age of library cooperation and cooperative networks" ("Library Automation and Networking," Library Journal, 108(7)). This golden age was brought to a close by recession, reduced funding, a general communication problem between librarians and technicians, and the growing prominence (and dominance) of a few library automation vendors.

But if the '70s were our golden age, then the first 10 years of the new millennium could be our renaissance. We have come full circle, and without the old barriers—time and space—that made cooperation difficult. The Internet is our new vehicle. Any one cooperative effort could easily take up the space of an entire issue of CIL, but here are a few that I think will usher in our renaissance.

Open Source: Open source initiatives, especially those devised specifically by and for libraries, are gaining momentum and popularity. (You must visit http://www.oss4lib.org.) Like the 1970s, libraries are building products themselves, and again, they are sharing the fruits of their labors at cost (usually no cost, if you keep in mind that "free software" is like a free puppy or free speech, and not like a free meal).

SPARC: The scholarly journal initiative (You can learn more at http://www.sparc.org.) is challenging traditional publishing models and creating real competition for the scholarly and societal publishers who have made our professional existence more expensive, if not more difficult. SPARC, and the people behind it, are agents of change, earning a prominent place among the initiatives found at http://www.createchange.org. This effort seeks to reclaim scholarly communication for faculty and librarians.

Docster: Daniel Chudnov posed an equation that could change our lives forever: Napster + Libraries = Docster ("Docster: the Future of Document Delivery," Library Journal 125 (13) Aug 2000, 60­62). Napster, Chudnov tells us, "... doesn't care about Dublin Core or MARC. It doesn't need a circulation module. It doesn't even matter what kind of computer you have." We are this close to a completely decentralized solution to document delivery that will change how we work, find things, license things, and deliver things. If you don't believe me, take a look at what the good folks at Groovenetworks.com are already planning.

Building Earth's Largest Library: Steve Coffman proposed the library's answer to Amazon over a year ago (Searcher 7(3), Mar 1999, 34­37) and showed the response to it shortly thereafter (Searcher 7(7), Jul/Aug 1999, 28­32). To some it was the ultimate solution, to others, the Tower of Babel. To me, though, the Earth'sLargest Library is evolving based on what we are already doing every day. We can't draw accurate road maps before the roads are built, but somehow, the roads seem to come together anyway. Can we build the Amazon of libraries? Can we deliver and distribute knowledge like a Fortune 500 company? Why not? Whether we intend to or not, we are already building our future through cooperation and collaboration. Open Source + SPARC + Docster + Us = The World's Biggest Library.

Frankly, cooperation is cool and collaboration is fun. Taking all the glory for a project or solution can be rewarding too, but cooperation well done is far more enriching, both personally and professionally. Whether altruistic or profit-seeking in our endeavors, our profession likes to share its fruits, and this fact makes us uniquely poised to take on the world.
 
 

Andrew K. Pace is assistant head, systems at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He acts as the primary liaison between the Systems Department and the Department for Digital Library Initiatives. His e-mail address is andrew_pace@ncsu.edu.
 

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