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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2004
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Vol. 24 No. 3 — March 2004
Adding Substance, Not Just Frills, to a Library's Online Catalog
by Janet L. Balas Library Information Systems Specialist Monroeville (PA) Public Library

In my last column, I mentioned that the Monroeville Public Library has migrated to a new integrated library system. We are using the new system for circulation, cataloging, and the Web OPAC, and will soon be implementing acquisitions and serials modules. The last several months have been both busy and challenging. I was the systems librarian when the library was first automated in the early 1990s, and during intervals between the various project deadlines, it has been interesting to compare the original automation project to the current system migration project. An obvious difference was that this time the items in the collection already had been labeled with bar codes, so we didn't have that huge task to do as part of the migration. Also, the pace of the migration was faster, since there was not the lengthy wait for the shelflist data to be converted to MARC records on tape. Our data had to be extracted from our old system and loaded into the new system, but that went relatively quickly. Staff members were more familiar with the concepts of library automation, even if they were unfamiliar with the new system, so training, while intense, seemed easier.

The biggest difference, however, is in the capabilities of the new system. The old system had used a minicomputer with dumb terminals, so it was text-only until a Web OPAC was added during the last few years. Our new system has a Web OPAC, as would be expected, and, as is the case with many of the currently available automation systems, there are additional options for enhancing the content of the library's catalog and integrating electronic resources. The difference between our new system's Web OPAC and our old system's online catalog seems almost as great as the difference between our first online catalog and the old card catalog. It is exciting to think about the possibilities for improved library service that added content and integrated resources could provide, but the trick is to make sure the additions are substantive and useful to patrons rather than frivolous bells and whistles.

Amazon and Google Raise the Content Bar

The trend toward integrating content and additional resources is not unique to libraries. has long provided the capability to listen to excerpts from tracks on audio CDs, and has also offered its Look Inside the Book feature for quite some time now.'s most recent enhancement is its Search Inside the Book feature, which helps users find the best book on a particular topic. More information on this service is available on the Web site, including a discussion of how it works, a letter from CEO and founder Jeff Bezos on this new capability, some sample searches, and a link to a frequently asked questions page.

Google is also experimenting with a similar enhancement to its searching capabilities: Google Print (BETA) is now available online. Publishers have been invited to test their content online through this trial program. Google hosts the content and ranks pages from this content in search results just as Google ranks Web sites. Search results from this beta program are easily identifiable in a list of search results, because they are marked with a BOOK-BETA tag, the URLs begin with "," and there is a link to the About Google Print Web page at the bottom of each page. Information on Google Print (BETA) is featured on the Google Web site.

As Internet users become accustomed to enhanced content on other Web sites, they will expect libraries to provide similar enhancements in the OPAC. Librarians maintaining existing automation systems will need to keep up with their vendors' newest products and to visit the Web sites of the vendors' other customers to get ideas for enhancements that could be useful. Those looking for new automation systems will need to evaluate each product's enhancement and integration capabilities.

Tracking Automation Trends Here and Abroad

There are several online resources librarians can follow to monitor automation trends. Library Technology Guides, maintained by Marshall Breeding, library technology officer for the Jean and Alexander Heard Library of Vanderbilt University, tracks automation developments. The site offers both current news and a news-release archive. There is a searchable bibliographic database, a directory of library Web catalogs called "libweb-cats," and a database of library automation companies. ILS trends for both academic and public libraries are also followed in separate sections. First-time visitors to the LTG site might want to read the FAQ document, while frequent visitors may wish to register for free updates.

Our colleagues in other countries are also concerned about keeping up-to-date on the latest information technologies and are willing to share their information freely. Biblio Tech Review, a free electronic publication, is published by Biblio Tech, Ltd. in the U.K. It defines its mission by stating that it "aims to inform and educate all those who wish to keep abreast of the developments within the global library automation industry." Regular sections of the online issues include news, tech briefings on current information technologies, a product directory, a listing of exhibitions, and reviews. Both the current issue and archives of back issues are available online. The site is searchable; a search for the truncated term "integra?" returned 40 results, some of which were vendor announcements, and others, project announcements from libraries.

The European Commission is also interested in the role of the public library in an information society, and it has initiated a research program known as the PULMAN Network of Excellence. PULMAN is an acronym for Public Libraries Mobilising Advanced Networks, and its Web site is known as the PULMANweb. One of the goals of the project is to compile and publish Digital Guidelines Manuals on innovative public library services. The current manual has a section entitled "Developments in Integrated Library Systems," which discusses adding functionality beyond what is defined as the "core modules." These core modules include the public access catalog, circulation, cataloging and authority control, and acquisitions. A summary and the full document are both available on the Web site in a printer-friendly format.

It is easy to assume that we know the meaning of the term "integration" when it is applied to information systems (as in the phrase "database integration"), but as technology is changing to allow increased capabilities for integrating resources into library systems, the term is gaining a broader meaning. This concept is discussed in a paper presented on the Web site of the Interactive Digital Library Resources Information System. Also known as i-DLR, the site is an online information storage-and-retrieval system for information on digital libraries. The paper, entitled "Database Integration," is located in the section of introductory papers on the site. It offers a clear discussion of the concept using actual library systems as examples. More information on this concept as it relates to digital libraries is provided under the topic "database integration" in the i-DLR subject area on knowledge organization in digital libraries.

Open source projects have become increasingly popular in the information community and there are open source integrated library systems under development. The advantage of open source is that the source code is available and can be customized as needed. Libraries using open source systems are not limited to the integration capabilities provided by proprietary systems, and have complete freedom to integrate any content or resources they would like to include in their systems. The downside, of course, is that this requires staff members with programming expertise. Eric Anctil from McGill University's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies has prepared a table comparing several open source ILS projects. The table includes a link to each developer's Web site and a demonstration of the product.

Avoid Meaningless Frills

Integrating enhanced content and electronic resources into the OPAC is a trend that librarians cannot afford to dismiss. However, it is not enough to just add content or resources without determining if they actually provide good service to the OPAC users. Some enhancements can be absolutely worthless. One particular CD-ROM product that the Monroeville Public Library purchased stands out in my mind. It was a CD-ROM of literary criticism and seemed a good idea, since students were always clamoring for Monarch Notes and Cliff's Notes when faced with school assignments on literature, and it was just about impossible to have enough copies available in good condition. Plus, the manual accompanying the CD-ROM disc proudly proclaimed that users would especially appreciate the audio features of the product. My idea of useful audio content would have been proper pronunciation of difficult names and places, such as those in commonly assigned works by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I eagerly tested the feature in the analysis of Moby Dick and was disappointed when I clicked on the audio icon and heard a female voice speak the words, "Thar she blows!" While it may have added some "sizzle" to the product, it provided no real information or help to the user. Students did use the CD-ROM for the literary analysis, but the superfluous audio "enhancements" were never used. Content integrated into the OPAC must face the same test that all library resources and services must pass; it must assist users seeking information. As I look toward completing our migration and planning enhancements to the Monroeville Public Library's catalog, I want to be sure I add real substance that will benefit our users.



Resources Discussed Books/Search Inside the Book

About Google Print (BETA)

Library Technology Guides: Key Resources in Library Automation

Biblio Tech Review

PULMANweb—Public Libraries Mobilising Advanced Networks

i-DLR—Interactive Digital Library Resource Information System

Open Stacks: The Open Source Integrated Library System


Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pa.) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or
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