“Lowering the Threshold for Automation in Small Libraries” by Marshall Breeding (infotoday.com, April 2012)

In his article on small libraries and automation systems, Marshall Breeding points out several key problems small libraries of the United States are facing technologically today and what needs to be done about them. Breeding has always been a leader in the field, and last quarter I read quite a number of reports and articles by him concerning integrated libraries systems (ILSs) in general, and this editorial was my first exposure to Breeding’s take on the small library.

Let me briefly say that one of the larger challenges (or perhaps, put simply, annoyances) I’ve confronted since starting this independent study is one of vocabulary. What is the difference between a small library and a special library? Can a library be both? When someone talks about special libraries, can those libraries also be small libraries? Can small libraries always be considered special libraries? I imagine a small school library and a small public library would not fall under the special library category, unless the school or the “public” idea behind the “public” library had special circumstances. I suppose collection size, staff size, and patron activity all dictate a library that is “small” and thus any number of libraries and library types could fit the mold (including academic libraries, research libraries, and corporate libraries). The term “special” is perhaps more difficult to interpret than the term “small.” For the sake of the project, going forward I will personally adhere to an understanding that the library at the Audubon Center is both small and special, and is thus a small special library. This may muddle things up a bit when it comes to reviewing literature, but it might also allow greater access to the literature, and make the literature being reviewed seem more relevant.

“We have some of the world’s most technologically advanced libraries, but we also have some for which state-of-the-art technology tools remain out of reach. . . . One of the outstanding challenges today is reducing the barriers that impede small libraries with very limited resources from having access to technologies that can help them deliver better services to their communities” (Breeding, 2012, 23).

Breeding wrote this article last April and I find the thesis of the article (above) still quite pertinent and a necessary part of the conversation when we discuss the “fate” of Seward Park’s Audubon Center. The library has unlimited transformative potential, specifically because the programming going on within the Audubon Center in general is so dynamic and innovative (just today the Center threw together a brunch party for the Seahawks/Falcons game, since both the teams are symbolically-aligned with birds). That the Center as a whole is doing incredible shows a catalyst for the library exists going forward to be new, fresh, and representative of what we as librarians think the library should function as in the future. As Anna and I chatted with Joey and Ali, I particularly understood the potential for the library and the excitement of fulfilling the fundamental role of the library in the space, but also going beyond the fundamentals to make the library even more special.

There are a couple difficulties to the nature of the project I’m just beginning to notice: first, there are obvious financial issues that may or may not be present but will be at some point. Discussing ILSs, we were told that a proprietary ILS would be out of the picture until the next fiscal year. I hadn’t thought about static budgets before, which was eye-opening even though it’s really quite straightforward. The chances of the staff choosing an open-source ILS is highly-likely, which will allow us to create a functional catalog and demonstrate the SaaS model’s performance. The lag in funding and ability to pay a vendor for the ILS means Anna and I will get to work with a free system this quarter. I’m delightfully excited. I mentioned another difficulty existing, though, and that’s the difficulty of technology.

When I think of technology within the Seward Park library, I’m thinking on the level of a tablet-based terminal, cloud platforms, and the most innovative interfaces possible. I’m thinking about mobile access to the OPAC and the ability to communicate the library’s functionalities via social networks. These elements to a thoroughly planned and “transformed” library may seem fairly basic, but you’ve got to keep in mind the current setup at the Seward Park library includes no automation. When thinking about technology, it’s important to never lose sight of those basic objectives the library has provided at the traditional level. This is where a timeline is essential: before you put all energy into the loftiest dreams of the library imaginable, figure out what automation you’re going to be using. Get a catalog for your resources. Brainstorm additional, linkable resources that can supplement the library’s collection. Think about e-resources that are potentially accessible.

As Breeding says, “invest in connectivity” by making sure the technology is working. Get the foundation working right, and then explore new possibilities. Because we are at the blank-canvas-level, Anna and I need to make sure each week provides a blend of productivity and consultation to keep a consistent progression going forward.

The problems of having the technology and the money and the resources to do more should be taken into account and should allow one to freak out only after the stage has been set. I’m thankful we’re living in an age of open-source technology. While library funding is getting cut across the board, we have the opportunity to prove the value and functionality of the library using an open-source solution. But! The decision hasn’t been made yet, so it’s time to slow down and continue reading, continue examining, and continue growing as Information Professionals. As we await the Audubon Center staff’s decision, we are going to continue reading articles and start visiting special libraries throughout Seattle. Expect to read about our findings here!

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