Library Automation: A Buying Guide

For some time school districts have relied on library automation systems to catalog and circulate their book collections. In the past few years, however, this software has played an even larger role in supporting teaching and learning. No longer just automating processes once done by hand, library systems have morphed into full-search resource portals. The latest offerings typically let school librarians index Web sites, add related Web links to book records, provide patrons with home access to the library catalog, and many other features that secure the position of the library media center as the research hub of any school.

When shopping for a new library automation system, there are many considerations. Each system may do its job well, but there are significant features that might make one system better for your district's situation than another. Here are some questions to ask and the rationale for asking them.

Key Considerations

1. Does the System Use Standardized Formats for Importing and Exporting Data?

There are two important reasons for having a standardized data format (such as comma-separated values). First, it often makes it much easier for libraries to convert their current digital records to work with a new system. Second, it reduces redundant data entry, allowing schools to populate their patron database with CSV data from their student information system, or conversely export data to a third-party application to create booklists, inventory sheets, and more.

2. Is It SIF-Compliant?

A particularly exciting development in library automation is the move by some vendors to make their systems SIF-compliant. The Schools Interoperability Framework ( is an industry initiative to develop an open specification that allows different types of software to "talk" to each other. This means, for example, your current student information system, the library automation system, and any other legacy system can easily and automatically share and update any information they have in common (e.g., student names and home addresses).

3. What Type of Database Is Used?

In the past, library automation software used proprietary databases for storing data. This closed environment made it difficult for schools to move to another system and, in some cases, precluded features such as just-in-time support. The system you're considering should be built using newer, open-standards technologies such as SQL, ColdFusion, or XML.

4. How Does Data Conversion Work?

This aspect of converting your current library data to a new system can get expensive and may take some time to complete. In addition to ensuring you can still use the current barcodes on your books, find out if the vendor bills a flat-rate or per record charge for conversion. If it's a per record charge, do a thorough weed of your collection and delete any unwanted records from your current system before sending the data to be converted. It's also a good idea to have the new system up and running on a server while the old data is being converted. This way, you can add any incoming materials to the new system.

5. Can Other Applications Besides Library Software Run on the Workstations?

There are times when you'd like your 10 public catalog stations to function as writing stations, and there are other times when you'd like the writing stations to become public catalogs. The library automation software you select should make it easy to switch between the public catalog and the third-party software residing on the public access terminal computers. In addition, students and staff should be able to log-in and log-off on their own.

6. Can the Online Public Access Catalog Be Accessed from Other Computers in the School?

With the advent of schoolwide networks, the answer to this question should be yes. Library automation systems should allow a simple icon to be installed on remote desktops to allow classroom access to the Online Public Access Catalog or allow access to the system via a Web browser. This feature cuts down traffic to the library media center for simple availability queries.

Feature Cheat Sheet

Your next library automation system should offer the following attributes:
- SIF-compliant system that uses standardized data formats
- Database built on open-standards technologies such as SQL, ColdFusion, or XML
- Online public access catalog available on computers outside the library; users can search the OPAC and the Web simultaneously
- Standardized and customizable reporting capabilities
- Hands-on training and flexible support options
- Manual hand scanner for check-out if system goes offline.

7. What Reports Does the Software Generate?

All library automation systems allow users to generate standard reports, including collection size, circulation statistics, inventories, overdue notices, and booklists sorted by call number, author, title, or subject. However, a helpful feature is the ability to create your own specialized reports to meet the needs of your students, teachers, or administration-for example, reports that target certain subjects and publication dates, or a list of hardware that's cataloged within the system.

8. Can You Metasearch Both the OPAC and the Web with a Single Search?

Many automation systems also catalog Web sites in addition to the print and nonprint materials available in the library media center. These Web sites are added by the library media specialist manually. It follows, then, that many systems allow patrons to search the OPAC and the Web simultaneously using a keyword search-a very helpful feature for students conducting research.

9. What Types of Support Agreements Are Available?

As with any large, complex software package, there should be a menu of choices for support ranging from simple telephone support to on-site visits and automatic Web-based updates to the software. The technology infrastructure in your school may preclude certain options, so make sure your district IT specialist is part of this discussion. Also, remember to check the hours of operation for telephone and Web-based support-sometimes time zone differences can cause problems.

10. What Type of Training Is Offered?

Training for a new system should be either offered on-site, at a training center, or at a school nearby that already has the system. The training should be conducted by a company-trained representative, be hands-on, and accompanied by easy-to-follow supporting print materials.

11. What Are the Technical and Infrastructure Set-ups?

Discussing with a vendor operating systems, various computer platforms, wireless connectivity, routers and switches, the types of servers already existing in the network, the addition of new servers, and setting permissions for users can quickly escalate into a geek-speak session. Therefore, the IT people at your school or district, if available, should be the ones to speak to the vendor's IT people. Before he or she does that, however, the library media specialist should first create an overview of how the new system needs to work to effectively meet the needs of students and teachers. Parameters might include classroom access to the OPAC and the ability to use workstations as computer terminals.

12. Can the System Be Accessed from Outside of the Firewall?

This question is important for two reasons. First, the technical support from the library automation system company may want to take control of your system from their site to install upgrades, patches, or simply to help you out with a particular function. In addition, many of the systems have the ability to be accessed from computers outside of the school walls via a Web browser, and this can only work if the firewall can be set to accept users from the outside or the library server is outside of the firewall.

13. Is There a Power-out Feature Included?

If your network or server is down, you want to make sure that your library media center can still function. There should be a manual hand scanner available to check materials in and out that can easily be connected to the system computer once it's back up and running. This hand scanner also can be used for remote check-out of books or in-the-stacks inventory data collection.

14. What's the Total Price of the System?

This is a hard question to answer in a straightforward manner. Most library automation packages come in modules. For example, you can buy just the circulation component. Or you decide to purchase circulation and cataloging modules, plus retrospective conversion of your data. Once you have a good feel for the type of things that you need, draw up your specifications and submit them to each vendor you're considering. That way you'll be comparing apples and apples for your bottom-line costs.

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More Options

Kathy Schrock is the administrator for technology at Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, Mass., and the creator of Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators ( She is a frequent contributor to School Library Journal.

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Top Library Tools

Product Server Notable Features Price Alexandria COMPanion
(800) 347-6439 Win 98SE/2000/XP
- Macintosh OS 9/X - Union catalog
- Built-in Web server provides browser-based access to collection from home
- Separate search screens for different grade levels
- Portable scanner for inventory data
- SIF Consortium member
- Access Web sites in the MARC record
- Database of Web sites available $8,000 with retro conversion Book Systems Concourse
(800) 289-1216 Win 95/98/2000 - Schools and districts can purchase various levels of the system
- Browser-based access option available
- Includes software to import student records from student database
- Palm OS handheld scanner for inventory data collection $10,000 with retro conversion Follett Software Destiny
(800) 323-3397 Win 2000/2003 - Centralized collection server with SQL database
- Accessible from school and home using any browser
- Customizable screen interface
- Handheld device for inventory and checkout
- Optional precataloged Web links
- SIF Consortium member Contact company for price information Sagebrush Athena
(800) 533-5430 Win 95/98/NT/2000/XP Novell - Advanced search screens and visual search screens
- Browser-based access option available
- Palm OS handheld scanner for inventory collection
- 6,000 precataloged Web links available for purchase; optional featue lets librarians add Web sites to the catalog $9,575 with retro conversion Sagebrush Winnebago Spectrum
(800) 533-5430 Win NT/2000 Novell Mac - Union catalog with ILL e-mail form
- Browser-based access option available
- Minimal server and workstation requirements
- Palm OS handheld scanner for inventory
- Optional subscription to cataloged Web site $11,000 with retro conversion

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More Options

Here, a short list of other integrated library systems worth considering. For a more extensive directory of vendors, visit

Brodart Amlib Library Management System (

Chancery LibraryPro (

Dynix Horizon School Library Suite (

Mandarin M3 (

Sirsi Library Management System Unicorn (

Softlink America Library Automation Software (

TLC Library Solution (

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