Ten Years of Learned Helplessness Coming to an End
I've been using the expression "learned helplessness" a lot lately because that's how I see the situation libraries have found themselves in after a decade of integrated library systems.
I find it particularly disturbing because so much of the work I do seems to bump into roadblocks that point squarely at the ILS. And worse than the roadblock is the shoulder shrugging of so many of the library folk using that ILS software.
Too many worthy projects have died because the currently available integrated library systems (ILS) available today from commercial, proprietary vendors don't and won't support libraries and the services they've like to be providing to their customers.
I've worked with libraries that wanted to do a study of how home delivery affected outreach and circulation but the interface between patron database and mailing service software was lousy. Actually, it wasn't lousy, it was non-existent. My client had no way to output their patron data to a mail manager program in order to handle postage, tracking and shipment management. Pretty basic stuff - output data in a standard format like comma or tab delimited or xml.
I've watched people handing hold requests and interlibrary loan requests fight with their ILS and their resource sharing software and creating short bibs and fake patron IDs -- all manual - just so users could benefit from consortial relationships. If every vendor supported NCIP, this ridiculous duplicate data entry wouldn't be necessary.
And how many times have I seen the herculean efforts of library IT staff in generating usable routing slips for their staff so that each hold or transit item doesn't need to have to be written out by hand by some unlikely library clerk.
This is all pretty basic stuff. It's ridiculous that libraries are stuck with the systems they've got without options to determine what changes get made or even the access or privileges that would allow them to make the changes for themselves.
Enter Open Source library systems.
This all changes when libraries start building, supporting, and contributing to the development of their own software. Georgia PINES and the Koha libraries proved it could be done. Now, it is time we all got involved.
Here's what needs to be done:
1) develop strong IT staff in your library or consortia who can read code, write code, beta test, write specs, and/or find bugs.
2) get over the fear of Open Source. Do some reading about how Open Source development works (read The Cathedral and the Bazaar). Find out about the migration and support options available from vendors like Equinox, LibLime, Care Affiliates.
3) jump in and play. Koha and Evergreen can be downloaded and you can take a look for yourself. That's one of the amazing things about Open Source. You get to look it over inside and out. No big surprises three months after you've negotiated a $200,000-$300,000 deal.
4) talk amongst yourselves. Open Source projects rely on a community of users who are involved in the product. We don't want Liblime and ESI to replace the other ILS vendors. We want to control the products ourselves and that means getting very much involved. Find the product that excites you and hook up with similarly situated libraries. For example, the Evergreen community is leading the way for large consortia (see http://open-ils.org/) , King County (WA) is heading up the effort for large, high-volume libraries (check out their OSS4PL site). There were many meetings ALA 2008 in Anaheim focused on Open Source, and more are planned at Midwinter, LITA, Access and other conferences so you isn't hard to get plugged in somewhere.
The point is...do something! This is probably the biggest opportunity we've had to revolutionize how we do business since the advent of the ILS. But now, after ten years of learned helplessness, it is time to take control back.