Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Library Technology: Integrated Library Systems

It's a sad fact that when it comes to the tech realm, library software often lags behind the rest of technology land. This isn't because librarians are resistant to technology (some are), but for a couple of other less-fixable ones. Today's case in point? Integrated Library Systems.

What in the world is that, you ask? In a nutshell, it's the software program libraries use to keep track of books in the library. After all, you can't just get a book and stick it on a bookshelf. You need to know where that book is. You need to keep records for when it was ordered and from whom. Is it cataloged? Processed? On the shelf? Which shelf? Checked out to someone? Who? Overdue? The list goes on and on. An ILS corrals all that information into one place, where multiple librarians can access it at the same time. An ILS also provides the interface for users to access all that information: you know it as the library catalog.

Ideally, it would be easy to use, capitalizing on all of the trends of information technology and design in the past few years. In practice, this breaks down. The first big obstacle is this little thing called a budget. Libraries aren't exactly exploding with offers of funding these days, you know. So they have to choose where to spend those precious budget dollars. Which is better--to have a great ILS program that lets you find and keep track of books easily (but not have any books to find, since you couldn't afford to buy any after you got your shiny new ILS program), or have plenty of great books (but have a beast of a time keeping track of them, because your ILS program is old and clunky)?

The bottom line for most libraries is that the good quality materials have to come first. I'm not saying we ignore the good software, but buying a new ILS isn't as cheap as going to the store and getting a copy of Microsoft Office. We're talking potentially six figures--maybe more. So once a library has invested in a particular ILS, it's going to have to do for quite sometime. Upgrades are expensive, too. (Not to mention potential problems in the upgrade.)

Even if libraries could afford it, let's be honest--the companies creating the various ILS programs also have their share of budget woes. Libraries are getting closed down, which means fewer potential customers, which means less profits, which means it's more difficult to make a shiny new ILS, which means library tech falls behind the times, which means people think librarians aren't "with it," from a tech standpoint. And the cycle continues.

There's no real solution to this problem. (Aside from hoping an anonymous donor sends you bags of cash in the near future.) I just wanted to give you an idea of the problems libraries face from a tech standpoint, and why some of the technology in a library may seem to lag behind the rest of the world at times. (Hint: we know it does. We wish we could fix it, too.)

Any questions?

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