THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
Library Technology International
by Marshall Breeding
Director for Innovative Technologies and Research
Vanderbilt University Libraries
I’ve been extremely fortunate over the last few years to have had the opportunity to travel to many different parts of the world and speak and work with librarians in many countries. It has been great to have the chance to see first-hand some incredible libraries that demonstrate creative approaches to library services, innovative uses of technology, expansive resource sharing, and pragmatic approaches to library automation. Let me give you a quick tour.
Yonsei Samsung Library
I went on a trip that took me to Taiwan and South Korea in May of this year. I visited the Yonsei Samsung Library in Seoul, South Korea, only a week or so after it re-opened following the construction of a major new addition. This new library makes a striking impression through both its spectacular technology and the way that it incorporates many different types of spaces to foster collaborative learning.
From the moment you enter, the technology grabs your attention. Oversize flat-panel, touchscreen monitors present themselves throughout the lobby, each set up for different services. Imagine walking up to one of these large panels to search the library catalog, no keyboard involved. You mostly touch and point your way through exploring the catalog, with a visual keyboard appearing on the screen when needed. I’m not sure that it’s any faster or easier, but it’s definitely more fun and interesting than the conventional approach. An even larger panel presents an interactive map that guides users through the library. Remember the way that the daily newspaper used to be hung along a wall in public places so that passers-by could read the daily news? This library captures that experience virtually by devoting large panels for walk-up browsing of assorted newspapers. Also in the lobby were multimedia tables with large computer panels as the surface. Here you could plug in your USB stick to view and manipulate photos, documents, or other digital files; play games; or perform any of a variety of digital tasks. As we walked through the library, around each of these tables was a group of students engaged in projects or games.
The Yonsei Samsung Library offers abundant opportunities for computer use in almost any configuration you can imagine. For those who bring their own, the laptop lane offers dozens of places to plug in for power and high-speed networking. Countless computer workstations equipped with all sorts of software and information products are available in configurations for either individual or group use. The library naturally offers wireless networking access everywhere.
The library seems designed especially for collaborative learning. In one area, glassed-in, soundproofed group study rooms allow groups of students to work together without disturbing others or being disturbed. An auditorium, well-equipped for video and sound, looked like it could accommodate a class of 100 or more.
The multimedia facility pulled out all the stops. In this area dozens, maybe hundreds, of workstations for viewing DVDs, VCDs, and content from internal video servers were available. Some students seemed to be viewing DVDs for class projects. I noticed that many students, some intently taking notes, were watching classroom lectures. I didn’t find out if all lectures are available this way, but this seemed to be an incredibly popular service. The multimedia center also allows students to create content. A few workstations were set up for video editing. The library offers a fully equipped studio, with various video and still cameras, professional lighting equipment, high-end audio, and a lecture set with blue-screen background and a control room capable of monitoring and mixing more than a dozen channels.
Sure, the library has a large collection of books also. You’ll find most of these in the original building. This new facility really focuses on providing a full range of user spaces, on fostering collaboration, on providing digital content, and on offering tools to manipulate and create content. This new building and the services it contains virtually epitomize Library 2.0.
National and University Library of Slovenia
In June of 2006, I visited with librarians at the National and University Library of Slovenia, usually called the NUK for its Slovenian name, Narodna in Univerzitetna Knjiznica. This library serves both as the central library for the University of Ljubljana and as the national library. This dual role involves incredible challenges in its responsibilities for the collection, access, and preservation of the Slovenian cultural heritage and in providing resources required for the support of academia. The building, designed in 1930 by the renowned architect Joze Plecnik and built in 1941, makes quite an impression with its distinctive mixed-stone exterior and black marble interior. Library staff mentioned, however, that while Plecnik was a great architect, he didn’t really understand libraries and that staff members really struggle to work within the spaces as they provide modern library services.
Besides concepts of architecture that soar beyond my limited artistic appreciation, the NUK provides an outstanding example of work in creating digital library resources and in its involvement in resource sharing at national and international levels. The library has made great strides in the creation of the Digital Library of Slovenia (www.dlib.si/dlib_eng.asp), which includes digitized textual materials including scholarly and professional articles, photographs, books, sheet music, manuscripts, posters, and sound recording.
The most impressive aspect of what I learned in my visit to the NUK involved the automation and resource sharing environment in which it participates. Slovenia has become a world leader in the development of an automation environment in which virtually all the libraries in the country participate. The automation model involves close ties between the national library and the public libraries.
The organization responsible for the development and administration of the automation environment used throughout Slovenia and in surrounding countries is the Institut Informacijskih Znanosti Maribor (IZUM), located in Maribor, near the border between Slovenia and Austria. Since the mid-1980s, IZUM has been at work developing an automation system called Cooperative Online Bibliographic System and Services (COBISS) that provides a combined catalog for the NUK, all public and school libraries, and some special libraries throughout Slovenia. IZUM has been able to take the project forward as technologies evolve. The original COBISS system created in the 1980s was superseded by COBISS2, and now the development of COBISS3 is well underway. The current redevelopment effort involves a migration to Oracle, object-oriented architecture, and other infrastructure improvements.
Through the work of IZUM, the libraries of Slovenia not only gain access to national-level resource sharing opportunities, but they have managed to do so self-reliantly, without having to purchase automation systems from commercial vendors. The use of COBISS now extends well beyond Slovenia. Other countries formerly part of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia, have also adopted COBISS in a similar nationwide model and form a larger resource sharing network called COBISS.Net. Similar implementations are underway in Kosovo and Albania. Of the former Yugoslav republics, only Croatia has elected not to adopt COBISS. The National Library of Croatia selected Voyager in 2006.
More than 500 libraries currently participate in COBISS.Net, providing library automation services to the libraries and incredible access to resources to the residents of the region (see http://home.izum.si/izum/oIZUMu/o_izumu_eng.htm).
Delft Public Library
I recently returned from a trip to the Netherlands to speak at various library venues. If you’re at all interested in libraries, you cannot go to the Netherlands without visiting the DOK Library Concept Center in Delft. This library takes the business of marketing libraries and exploring new ideas seriously, even sending its librarians out on international expeditions. This group, known as the Shanachies and including Erik Boekesteijn, Jaap van de Geer, and Geert van den Boogaard, traveled coast-to-coast across the U.S., creating a video documentary from interviews they gathered about library concepts and perceptions. These efforts continue through their continued international travels and local outreach. I met the Shanachies in Monterey, Calif., at the Internet Librarian conference last year, and it was great to have a chance to visit the DOK, which they have helped make internationally famous. The DOK isn’t constrained by the normal way of doing things, but rather it draws on concepts from bookstores, retail, and other businesses to make using the library fun and to provide a high quality of service. The DOK aggressively markets everything it does, drawing in ever more users for its services. The physical building isn’t enormous, but it is designed to be very user-focused. It’s inviting, comfortable, and chock-full of objects, spaces, and activities that stimulate one’s interest in reading, listening, and exploring.
Like most libraries, the DOK lends and provides services for books and magazines, and it really excels at video, music, and art. In all of these departments it doesn’t focus so much on organizing and housing materials like a traditional library but on displaying them in ways that make them most inviting for use. The library operates with as few rules as possible. The DOK has an ample collection of books, with sections for adults and children—it also has a special room, toned in red, for romance literature.
Books represent only a portion of the library’s services and collections. Its music and film department offers a large collection of DVDs, CDs, and other media. Banks of video monitors contribute to the richness of the experience as they play selections from the collection. Visitors can enjoy some of the games available in the DOK on platforms such as the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, as well as Mac or PC-based games. In the hometown of Johannes Vermeer, it’s not surprising that the DOK has built a great art department. While the typical library may offer books about art, the DOK makes artwork available for loan, though I didn’t see any original Vermeers in the circulating collection. The department also offers a variety of art classes taught by library staff and local artists.
Programmers at the DOK have also created their own automation system, finding that the products available lacked the ability to provide support for their more innovative approach to library functions. The public interface offers a crisp look, laden with features of the next-generation catalogs, including faceted navigation, relevance-ranked results, and “Did you mean?” suggestions. The automation system developed at the DOK seems at least on a par with other systems available, including both the proprietary and open source alternatives.
Other Innovative Libraries
I want to briefly mention a few other international libraries I’ve visited lately. While in China last year to teach at a weeklong leadership institute, we had a tour of the Xiamen University Library. What impressed me most about this library was its attractive and well-organized building, its large collections of Chinese and English books, and the challenges that it faces in managing diverse languages. For Chinese libraries, Unicode isn’t an option. Xiamen itself, especially at night with its neon-lined buildings, stands out as one of the most interesting and distinctive-looking cities I’ve visited. It glows with almost as much neon as Las Vegas—but without the gaudiness.
The public areas and the exhibits at the National Library of Austria in Vienna epitomize a library’s involvement in the presentation and preservation of a country’s history and heritage. It offers incredible woodwork, frescoes, walls lined with tiers upon tiers of ancient books, hidden doorways into the inner workrooms, sculptures, scrolls, and displays of the gems of the collection. We didn’t get a chance to see much in the way of what the library does with technology, but it stands out as the most picturesque and photogenic.
In Taiwan earlier this year, I visited the National Chung Hsing University, where I spoke to a group of library school students and librarians. While in Taichung, we paid a brief visit to Tunghai University Library, meeting up with a colleague who works in the acquisitions department. We got the full tour of the National Taiwan University Library in Taipai. Highlights of this library include its multimedia center with its TULIPS video-on-demand system, a special collections department that has uniquely preserved many materials from the era of the Japanese occupation, and the Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples Resource Center, which features materials and art of the indigenous culture that still continues in Taiwan. The National Central Library, Taiwan’s national library, maintains large and important collections from Taiwan and China and is carrying out some large-scale digitizing projects.
Other libraries I visited included the Rotterdam Public Library, which hosted the master class at which Stephen Abram and I spoke, which was convened by the DOK. Although time didn’t allow for a complete tour, the Rotterdam Public Library, as a large municipal library, embraces many of the same concepts as the DOK does for its smaller community. DOK serves Delft, with its population of about 95,000, while Rotterdam’s population stands at about half a million residents. Delft Technical University stands out for its very distinctive architecture. Sculpted into a hill, largely covered by grass, and capped with a conical spire, both the interior and exterior of the library embody interesting shapes and qualities. A multistory wall of books with a deep blue backdrop pervades the library with the distinct atmosphere of a place of serious study. The library makes great use of technology—it’s currently working toward building a new next-generation interface based on open source software components.
Embracing an International Perspective
Each of these libraries stands out as offering outstanding examples of some aspect of collections, services, or innovative use of technology that should inspire the rest of us. It’s easy to think that libraries in our part of the world might be the most advanced and forward-looking. In my experience, though, some of the libraries that most push beyond the traditional boundaries can be found in other parts of the world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the experience of visiting some of these libraries in the last few years. These experiences can’t help but inform my perspective as I perform my work at my home library and as I do research, writing, and speaking. I believe it’s important to have a global perspective, benefiting from the knowledge of how libraries in many different parts of the world approach services, collections, and technology.