The Voice of Users: Perspectives on School Library Automation
by Barbara Fiehn, Assistant Professor
Northern Illinois University, College of Education
Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment
While automation systems are not perfect, don't try taking them away from library
media specialists! When surveyed on why automation is important to school libraries,
several school library media specialists wondered why the question would even
be asked at all. Automation systems are an expected technology in schools today.
Several respondents expressed the idea that since teachers in content areas have
the current technology of their fields, so should librarians. For example, math
teachers are not using the abacus, so why should librarians still be using card
catalogs? So goes the thinking!
|Numberof years working as a library media professional
More than 20 years
This article reports the results of a survey of 164 school library media
professionals from 28 states who responded to a survey about their use of library
automation software. The states with the largest number of respondents were
California, Minnesota, Illinois, and New York. The responses represent the
use of 23 automation vendors' products; six automation vendors were the most
Female respondents (92 percent) outnumbered male respondents (8 percent)
considerably; 75 percent of the respondents had a master's degree in library
science or similar program; 24 percent had a minor, endorsement, or certification
in library science or school library media. The remaining 1 percent included
paraprofessionals or clerks and two who received doctorates in education. Two
respondents were National Board certified. The range of years that respondents
reported working as a library media professional is displayed in Table 1 above.
This article is presented in three parts. "Getting Started" is concerned
with how respondents learned to use their system, why automation is important,
and what role user groups play. Part two, "Features in Use," discusses automation
system features being used, including some creative uses for reports. Part
three, "The Future," reports on satisfaction with current automation systems,
which emerging automation technologies are being used, and what the respondents
would like to see automation vendors develop.
Frequently, new school library media specialists enter their first media
center position without having much experience working with an automation system.
Some have had an introduction in a college class or during an internship experience.
Many, like me, learned on the job. Those who acquired an automation system
after having worked with a card catalog would have to be very desperate before
agreeing to go back to using 3 x 5 catalog cards. I can still feel the thrill
of knowing I would never again alphabetize and file! However, I keep a small
stack of catalog cards to show the old technology to my cataloging students.
Initial Training Experience
The survey question about automation training allowed respondents to indicate
multiple ways they received training. As a result, the responses to this question
allowed the percentages to exceed 100 percent. The majority of respondents
taught themselves how to use their automation system (62 percent). Fifty-two
percent had some vendor training and a combination of vendor training in conjunction
with another person who provided initial training. Only one respondent indicated
automation training had been available to them in a college course.
As an educator of school library media specialists, I have struggled with
the question of how to expose students to a wide variety of automation systems.
My classroom lab provides student access to several automation systems commonly
found in school media centers. Not being able to offer a course in automation,
I require my cataloging students to catalog in more than one system. Students
may also explore automation systems on their own outside of class time. Agreeing
with the survey responses below, I feel automation is an essential tool for
both the media specialist and students in any school.
Importance of Library Automation
Reasons given in the survey comments for needing automation fell into two
categories: benefits to students, and teachers and efficient and cost-effective
- More time to work with students and staff.
- Speed up searching for students and teachers.
- Better access to the collectionhigher achievement.
- More in tune with how students interface with other information sources.
- All other libraries use automation; students need to be prepared for the
world outside school.
- Allows easier sharing of resources with other libraries.
- Enhances consistency in the collection, streamlines circulation.
- Time savings of clerical tasks.
- Ease of maintenance, statistics, overdues.
In addition to the general benefits of having an automation system, respondents
expressed the following ideas when asked about the impact of automation on
elementary media centers:
- Elementary schools have much higher circulation than secondary buildings.
- Students catch on fast and can search even if they can barely read.
- Automation supports state standards for technology skills.
- Provides the searching and access skill development students need to be
successful in secondary school.
- If the system is picture-based for subject areas, even the youngest students
easily access it.
- It is a great motivator for students to learn to spell and to seek books.
- It is another way to allow students to correctly search for information
in a controlled environment, on a controlled database.
- Elementary students use computers even before starting school.
- Elementary students are eager to learn, and what better way than getting
the technology at their fingertips?
|Please respond to the following automation features
to indicate your current and potential use.
||Currently not available
||Would use if available
||Use in frequently
|Collection mapping (system generated reports)
|MARC maintenance (correcting punctuation,
changing subject headings, global editing)
|Spell checking (in MARC records)
|Reports (overdues, new books, etc.)
|Statistics (usage, collection, etc.)
Among media specialists, it is easy to justify the necessity of an automation
system; however, sometimes administrators are not as aware of their value.
The above list should be helpful to those looking for a way to "sell" the
idea of automation.
A user group can provide a means of training and support as well as updates
on new system developments and a way to provide feedback to the vendor. User
groups can be formed locally, regionally, or statewide, or they can exist "anywhere" online.
State and national library media conferences usually have some vendor interest
group meetings. Thirty-one percent of the survey respondents indicated they
belonged to a user group of some kind. Those who did not belong gave the following
- None close by.
- Can't find one online.
- Did not get enough useful information when I did belong.
- Only vendor group meetings at conferences.
- Already get a newsletter from the vendor.
Most automation vendors do indeed also provide some type of newsletter. It
was from a vendor's newsletter tip some years ago that I got the idea to have
students do self-checkout with a DOS system. From being involved with a user
group, I have identified two reasons to belong. One is problem solving. If
you have a problem, someone in an active group is likely to have a solution.
The second is library media specialists sharing ways they have found to use
their system creatively.
FEATURES IN USE
Automation system features are constantly being developed by vendors. There
was a time when a library automation system had the following basic features:
administration, circulation, cataloging, and OPAC. Inventory features were
quickly added, followed by acquisitions, serials, WebPac, and interlibrary
loan. Today, an abundance of advanced features are becoming common, such as
multimedia and image links and remote patron access for renewing and reserving
materials. This survey asked about only a few of the current and emerging automation
Current and Potential Use of Selected Automation Features
This survey found collection mapping was either done using statistical reports
or a vendor product outside of the automation system. A number of respondents
indicated they did not know how to do collection mapping or whether their automation
system could help with the mapping.
Approximately one-quarter of the respondents indicated they use a third-party
MARC correcting utility or download vendor records to improve the quality of
their MARC records. Many respondents did not have this feature and indicated
it would be highly desirable to have the ability to correct MARC records and
Most respondents use their automation system to generate a variety of reports.
Several respondents credited the ability to generate reports with assisting
in maintaining or improving funding, staffing, and administrative awareness.
There were also comments about a number of problems with reports. Table 2 above
reports the responses to questions about use of specific automation features.
Statistical Reports and Their Creative Uses
The survey responses indicated automation-generated statistical reports are
used for reporting media center activity to administrators, printing bibliographies,
collection development activities, deselection of materials, inventory, and
overdue reports. The list below represents survey responses that show creative
use of automation statistical reports.
- Customized report for each class period to record students using the media
center. They sign in using their ID card.
- Keep track of faculty use of media center.
- Keep track of reading trends.
- Export patrons and sort by first name to identify a student when only
the first name is available.
- Print overdues sorted by locker number and tape notices to lockers.
- Students cannot attend dances, prom, or games if they have overdue materials.
Office works closely with us.
- Material type reports to help redesign shelving arrangement.
- Inventory used to document theft rate on equipment.
- Sixth graders track and chart usage by material type.
- Reports on graduating or moved students.
Automation System Reports
Respondents were asked to rate how well their automation system generated
reports. The 6-point rating scale choices were excellent, satisfactory, fair,
unsatisfactory, cannot do, and have not tried. The categories for rating are
listed below, followed by some representative respondent comments.
Excellent or Satisfactory
- Ease of generating reports 68%
- Some reports are confusing.
- Sort options are not versatile enough.
- Flexibility of generating variety of reports 66%
- What I need is often not available.
- Can't run during the school day.
- Customizing 46%
- Difficult process.
- A lot of effort to accomplish.
- Takes more time than is available.
- Can customize and save, but saving is too limited.
- Customizable templates are great, but we need more.
- Vendor customizing 39%
- Getting help by phone is difficult; e-mail works somewhat better.
- Tied to vendor's schedule for getting custom reports.
- Didn't know if vendor would provide customization.
- Support is good but the software is not flexible.
Automation System Management
While most of the respondents performed system management themselves, frequent
notations were made about assistance being available from a technology support
person. In a few cases, one media professional in the district managed systems
at all buildings.
- Managed by the respondent 49%
- Centrally managed 28%
- Managed by a vendor 3%
- District, regional, or building technology person 20%
Embracing Advanced Capabilities
Of the 144 responses to the question "Should we embrace the advanced capabilities?," few
were hesitant about embracing new features in automation. There was a definite
focus on meeting patron needs and expectations, staying abreast of new technology,
and reducing the management time of media center staff so they can work with
|Please indicate if you
currently have or to what extent you may be considering any of the following
||Want in near future (1—3
||Want in distant future
(4 or more years)
||Great idea but not realistic for my site
||Would never consider
|Schools interoperability Framework (SIF) - permits different
K-12 instructional and administrative programs to share data without requiring
|Value add-ons such as book reviews and
|Personalized Web site for each patron (may include new materials
notices based on interests and needs, other information to help the user
make choices similar to Amazon.com or eBay)
|Federated or integrated searching, which
allows single inquiry of subscription databases, Internet, and library
|Vender remote management of your automation system
As enthusiastic as the responses were, there were concerns about the costs
involved in adding new featuresnot only the cost of the additional
software but also the cost of hardware. There was some concern expressed
systems that are too complex to learn and operate and that may need too much
support. Some respondents stated their automation systems currently have
too many features that are not used. The importance of evaluating needs and
before purchasing was an overriding theme. Here are the concerns expressed
in the survey about added features:
- Improvement for the user.
- Improvement for administration tasks.
- Meet the needs and expectations of the users.
- Media Center is often the technology leader.
- Not if it is "bells and whistles."
- Not if it means upgrading existing hardware.
- Not if it is going to complicate use of the system and take more support.
- Training needs.
Respondents frequently indicated unfamiliarity with new/emerging features.
Many liked the concepts but were concerned about added costs. The cost of add-on
features to basic automation systems was a constant theme throughout the survey
responses. The choice of "Not realistic for my site" was most often a cost
issue. Comments about moving to the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)
standard indicated the importance of this standard to schools with highly mobile
populations and indicated the potential time savings in maintaining student
data files. Federated searching raised comments about losing the identity of
the source of information because students do not differentiate. There was
also concern about the quality of searches. However, a number of respondents
noted they either already had the service or were scheduled to add it. Personalized
patron Web sites as a feature of automation systems raised questions about
privacy, how this feature would work, and how the feature would be maintained.
Table 3 above displays the responses to the questions about new features.
Features Vendors Should Develop
Within the survey, many opportunities were provided for comments. Here are
respondent comments aggregated into seven categories:
- Ease of use for patrons
- Reserves entered by students
- Multi-catalog searching
- Spell checking for searching and as part of base system rather than
- Options for setting search strategy
- Truncated searching
More user-friendly, patrons and staff, intuitive
Video clips, book jackets, reviews
Interlibrary loan functions
Database access (federated searching)
Feature similar to NoveList's ability to search
beyond one author
- Ease of use for media center staff
- Inventory ease
- Easy entering of student pictures
- Screen print easily
- All patron information on one screen
- Single screen for all circulation transactions
- Sound Alerts for functions
- Seamless transition between modules of the system, fewer password
- Edit cross-references, check for dead linkages
- Global editing, self-correction, or utility to automate MARC corrections
- Cataloging issues: consistency, spell-checking, and authority file
- E-mailing of overdues that is automated
- Circulation history per item
- User history access with administrative rights
- Flexible reports: select desired fields, customizing, font size
without exporting to spread sheet
- Collection mapping
- Ability to print overdue notices on letterhead paper
- Alternative licensing schedules: district rather than building
- Pricing for add-on services
- Support: less expensive
- Internet OPAC included for same price as non-Internet system
- Local representatives who can assist
- Better tech support
- Online help
- Training materials to support training of students and staff
- Opportunities for dialogue concerning new features
- Training on-site costs too much
- Special requests
- Check for duplicate MARC records and provide a way to combine duplicate
- Free or low-cost MARC record access via the Web
- Integration of collection database with online ordering sites, download "on-order" files
directly into database
- Textbook integration
- MARC records spell checking
- Check cross-reference links to see if active
Satisfaction with Current Vendor
Most respondents indicated they would stay with their current vendor because
they are mostly satisfied with the automation system they currently use. A
noticeable number or respondents felt their satisfaction or dissatisfaction
with their automation systems was irrelevant because they were not included
in any decision-making about their automation system.
The problems of conversion to a new automation system seemed to deter some
respondents who were unsatisfied with their current system. This may indicate
a feeling that there is little difference between systems. Costs involved in
conversion were frequently cited as a reason not to change systems. Respondents
who desired to change systems identified the following reasons:
- System is clumsy and counterintuitive, not user-friendly.
- Would like a more K-12 friendly systembut like the advanced features
of our system that are not in others.
- Current vendor unable to deliver on many of the things they said they'd
be able to do.
- Not a good company, terrible customer service, or technical problems.
- If I had the money, I probably would not stay with current vendor.
In both my careers as a school library media specialist and as a school library
educator I have noticed great variances in the use of and knowledge about library
automation systems. I commonly have one student in my cataloging course who
works in a district that has not yet automated its catalog. Recently I worked
with a new library media specialist who had worked in her school for 6 months
before getting someone to help her learn how to use the automation system.
At the other extreme I have students in my courses who have automation systems
with many of the newest features. These students' comments about the automatic
updating of student records from the district registration and records database,
and their discussion of whether or not to allow students to access online book
reserves seems like a distant dream for my students who are still working with
DOS-based automation systems.
This survey has helped me obtain another perspective about the expectations
and feelings of library media specialists for their library automation systems.
The results will provide another base for discussion in my courses and for
Links to School Library Automation Vendors
Book Systems, Inc.
CASPR Library Systems, Inc.
Chancery Software, Ltd.
Follett Software Company
Gateway Software Corp.
Innovative Interfaces, Inc.
Kelowna Software, Ltd.
Mandarin Library Automation, Inc.
On Point, Inc. (TLC Total Library Computerization)
Sagebrush Corp. (Accent, Athena, Winnebago Spectrum)
TLCThe Library Corporation
More Perspectives from Your Colleagues on LM_NET
Are you inspired, agitated, irritated, motivated by the comments and
survey results Barbara Fiehn has gathered here? Are you moved to gather
more information? One thing you can do, of course, is visit vendor Web
sites. See the links we've provided in (what else?) the "Links to School
Library Automation Vendors" sidebar.
But another thing you can do that I highly recommend is to look at
other school librarians' comments and discussions about library automation
in general and about specific vendors
or products in particular. Quick! Join the school librarians' discussion group,
LM_NET, if you don't yet belong. (Start here: http://www.eduref.org/lm_net/.)
Now, search the archives [http://www.eduref.org/lm_net/archive/] on "automation" or
a vendor or a product, for unvarnished commentary, praise, criticism, whatever
... from the mouths ... well, the keyboards ... of K-12 LMSs like you. Very
David Hoffman, Ed., MMIS
Barbara Fiehn is an assistant professor at Northern
Illinois University, College of Education, Department of Educational Technology,
Research and Assessment. She teaches online searching and school library
science classes including MARC cataloging and automation. She may be reached