For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
March 13, 2002 - The Continuing Evolution of Computers in Libraries
I entered the library field just as computers were really taking off. It was exciting.
Before computers, staff used to spent a staggering number of hours each day filing. We typed and filed the patron cards. Every book had a card. When people checked them out, we filed the cards by date.
And then, when an item went overdue, we pulled the item card and the patron card, typed up an overdue notice, and sent it out.
We also spent hours and hours filing index cards for the collection -- as many as five or six cards per book. (Author, title, series, and for non-fiction, two or three subject headings.)
This first wave of library automation (back in the 70's, way before the rest of America caught on) saved money for libraries by eliminating a host of these essentially very low level, clerical tasks. But over time we began to add new positions, jobs that were a whole lot more interesting, and even paid better.
The second wave of automation mostly concerned public offerings. After the online catalog came various computer databases: first on CD-ROM, then the World Wide Web. Libraries became public Internet cafes.
In this phase, library costs rose, as we supported an ever growing infrastructure of hardware, telecommunication links, database subscriptions, and technical staff.
I used to think that the "third wave" of automation would be just more of the same. We'd get better at managing the resources, refining our policies, and so on. But now I think the third wave means another deep rethinking of how we do business, another cycle into the back room of library operations.
What was the real lesson of automation? Almost ANY repetitive process can be automated. But there are still many library functions that require multiple steps, many hands touching the same item or activity.
Here are just a few examples:
Reading program statistics. Right now, we have library patrons fill out reading program registrations. At the end, we count up all the cards to figure out how many signed up, and how many finished. But there's nothing on these cards that isn't already in the patron database. By adding just one more data element to the patron record, all of our statistics gathering would be automatic -- and would also offer many new kinds of information. For instance, do reading program registrants read more books than other people? In short, is the program successful?
Meeting room reservations. Our meeting rooms get used a lot. To reserve one, you call us, and we look in a paper calendar. If the date and time is free, we pencil in all the usual information: who, when, contact information. If this registration process happened online, we could build automatic press releases, contact databases, and other useful community information.
Staff scheduling. Staff schedules in our district are almost fiendishly complex. We're beta testing a home grown system that has the potential to give us back many hours of supervisor time.
The order, receipt and processing of library materials. It's possible, right now, to place an order for library materials, and have an on order record created and inserted in our database at the same time. When the item was about to be shipped, it wouldn't be hard to have the sending computer overwrite our on order record with the full-blown description. Right now, we treat these as separate processes, again involving all kinds of duplicated effort.
Librarians, who have long been early adopters of technology, still have to keep up with the times, using it not only to offer new services and greater patron convenience, but also to keep the belt tight on public expenditures.
The third wave is cresting.