|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 recordsa technical and
a political headachewe 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
In no time (well,
time), I had created a prototype for the interfacea 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 placea working proof of concept for the servicewent
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 userskind enough to
complete step one of the pseudo-interlibrary lending processcan 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 itproud 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"
"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 barrierstime
and spacethat 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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.