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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2018

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Vol. 38 No. 2 — March 2018
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN

Systems Migration: Opportunities Revamp Automation Strategies
by Marshall Breeding

A central consideration in selecting and implementing a new system is not just how well it performs current functionality, but its potential to enable the library to amplify its impact on its users through new services and the delivery of unique content across collections.
Moving to a new automation system brings a mixture of reactions to those who are faced with the challenges of migration and implementation. Switching systems should provide new capabilities and more efficiencies than the incumbent one. Selection and procurement processes should result in identifying the product best-suited to the needs of the library. But these migrations bring many challenges and considerable disruption. While some migrations run more smoothly than others, I’m not aware of any that have been carried out without some degree of frustration and adjustment. 

Even though each migration process comes with challenges that are unique to the library and systems involved, here are some general guidelines and strategies to consider.

Accept the Personality  of the New System

It’s important to recognize that your new system comes with its own character and will not necessarily perform tasks in the same way as the old one. This reality can be quite frustrating for library personnel who might be accustomed to existing workflows and procedures and who are thinking mostly about their position requirements as currently defined. The granularity of functionality available or even the conceptual approach may differ. Any automation system organizes its approach to resource management differently, reflecting different priorities in workflow design and different judgments in how much precision, and therefore staff time, should be devoted to any given operational task.  

Libraries often choose new systems when their work has changed, and they need automation tools that are better able to support current and expected shifts in strategic priorities. Academic libraries, for example, face a typical scenario involving the need for stronger tools for managing electronic resources in combination with the reduced processing of print materials. The overall workflow design of the newer genre of library services platforms aims to address such a shift in priorities. In this instance, it’s not surprising that the new system might not come with the detailed functionality for print resources as seen in an incumbent ILS. Staff members working with print resources might lament some omissions, but from a broader view, this can be a positive change since it enables the library to realign its allocation of personnel time to better match the current shape of its collections.

It is unlikely that any new system is going to exactly match the organizational structures created for the previous one. A migration can provide the opportunity to reassess the general organization of teams and departments as well as the duties assigned to individual staff members. This reassessment might follow a dual-layer approach. The first pass works toward mapping strategic priorities in resource management and related tasks into a revised organizational structure, including a possible reallocation of staff resources. The second pass takes the capabilities of the new system into consideration. It might introduce frustration and inefficiencies if the new staffing patterns do not line up with the inherent workflows associated with the new system. An organizational assessment is a two-way street. Any automation system must be expected to support the priorities of the organization using it, but the organization should also be willing to make concessions relative to the workflow patterns the new system was designed to support.

Data Cleanup Before Migration?

An imminent system migration often brings up the question of data cleanup. A library might realize that there are problems or inconsistencies that have encroached into its bibliographic database over time. It’s common to want to take measures to eliminate those errors prior to moving to the new system. That approach might make sense in some instances, but libraries may consider addressing data cleanup issues after the migration. In most cases, the new system will offer more robust tools for identifying and mitigating database errors. It is also difficult to anticipate how inconsistencies in data will stand out in the new resource management or discovery systems. A system migration will consume considerable time and resources. Adding a data cleanup project to the mix can be deferred unless there are specific problems that require more immediate resolution.  

Simplify

I have noticed in many libraries a pattern of continually adding to system configuration policies over time, resulting in an incredibly complex set of business rules. Circulation policies stand out as the largest offender. The policy tables that determine loan policies can continually expand as new kinds of materials or collection locations come into play. For systems with very complex loan rules, even staff members may not be able to anticipate the loan period that applies to any given item. The loan periods assigned can be even more baffling to patrons.  

A small set of loan policies can accommodate even multi-branch libraries with large multi-format collections. A lengthy set of policy statements with subtle differences in loan rules adds to the cost and complexity of managing the system. This likely makes little difference in the availability of materials. A migration to a new system might be a good opportunity to reassess loan rule policies and consider radical simplification.

Reassess Local Practices

Every library has its own unique qualities in areas such as its specialized collections, in the types of clientele it serves, and in the business requirements of its parent organization. These differences are often expressed in specific procedures that may vary from how other libraries approach the same task. These unique procedures can be challenging to support in an automation system. In some cases, you can devise workarounds to be implemented in a conventional system, or separate utilities or manual procedures may be implemented.  

The introduction of a new system can be a good time to review any unique workflows or procedures a library has in place. These distinctive tasks will inevitably be more expensive to incorporate into a comprehensive automation environment. While unique business needs must be respected, it is also helpful to consider if they can be achieved in alternative ways that might be more within the standard feature set of resource management systems. It’s important to determine if any one-off workflow arrangements truly represent business requirements of the organization or reflect personal preferences of current or previous library personnel. Maintaining quirky task workflows because of long-standing practice can lead to frustration in the long term, especially if the workarounds previously used cannot be accommodated by the new system. While I do not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to library automation, it should be relatively rare for a library to have unique procedures that are not shared among its peers in the broader library community. Adopting practices that are more consistent with other libraries should result in more reliance on what’s already built into off-the-shelf automation systems and less of a need to create library-specific local solutions.  

Productivity

It is important to have realistic expectations regarding productivity. Libraries should anticipate that overall productivity of its operations will diminish following a system migration. When the incumbent system has been in place for many years, library personnel will have mastered it. While the work done may not exactly fit institutional priorities—such as in the balance among print, digital, and electronic resource management—staffers can work quickly using familiar tools and interfaces. Productivity will normally drop for a period. But as training progresses, as new workflows are implemented, and as personnel gain more practice, efficiency will eventually meet or exceed that performed on the incumbent system. In some cases, it may take several months or even a year to achieve that threshold of efficiency.  

Customer Focus

The implementation of a new library automation environment will usually include a component operated by library personnel and a catalog or discovery service oriented to library users. An ILS or library services platform primarily impacts how efficiently library personnel can carry out their work. How it manages collections will also have a major effect on library users, such as in the quality of metadata produced and the features related to resource fulfillment. The catalog or discovery service has direct implications on how the library serves its users. In the overall balance of priorities, most libraries will give priority to the user-facing components of a new system. While staff issues are important, the library’s success will be measured more by the satisfaction of its patrons than by the efficiency of its personnel.

Keep Looking Forward

System migrations are not likely to transform a library’s capacity to service its users in any radical way. It’s important to modernize the technology systems that support the library’s work and deliver access of its collections to its users. Libraries naturally need the systems that enable them to manage their collections most efficiently and that truly address all the formats and media involved. The real opportunities for improvement can come a bit later. Once routine operations have been implemented on a new system, they can serve as a foundation to launch additional services for patrons that may not have been previously addressed. A central consideration in selecting and implementing a new system is not just how well it performs current functionality, but its potential to enable the library to amplify its impact on its users through new services and the delivery of unique content across collections.


Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.