Automation: Using Software to Transform Your Library Services
By: Diane Volzer
Each year, more Christian school media centers are replacing card catalog drawers with computers. Card pockets are giving way to barcode labels and scanners. This transformation is called library automation, a standard in most public libraries and school media centers.
It’s exciting to learn that the specialized software used in media center automation can truly transform the services you offer students and faculty. If your library is not automated, it probably soon will be.
Automation is the use of specialized software to help with cataloging, circulation, administration and card catalog. More and more schools are choosing automation software to streamline the day-to-day tasks in their libraries.
Many media specialists are somewhat familiar with automation. Before automating, librarians will want to do thorough research. You will also need to educate your school administration on the benefits of automating.
It is helpful for administrators to have a basic understanding of library automation. If you are not already automated, it’s likely your media specialist will soon request space in the budget for automation.
The following is a brief overview of how automation software improves efficiency and enhances the service of school media centers.
Time-Saving, Accurate Cataloging
If your library is not automated, your school’s library staff and volunteers likely hand-types catalog cards and card pockets using bibliographic information found in books. It is a tedious process, especially when there are many items to catalog at once, such as the beginning of a new school year.
Automation software enables catalogers instead to quickly “fill in the blanks” and let the software print out catalog cards and keep an easily accessible record on the computer.
Much cataloging information is available over the Internet. When you need to catalog an item, some automation programs will connect you to sources and then format the bibliographic information for you, catalog the record and even print a catalog card (if you’re not ready to automate your card catalog with a computer).
Automated cataloging is a great timesaver, which gives your media specialist more time to plan and work directly with students and teachers selecting media.
Quick Circulation of Materials
Automated circulation records help you serve students more quickly and effectively. In place of written circulation logs and sign-out sheets, your software maintains detailed records of materials used. It is easy to e-mail overdue notices and keep up with which materials are being used regularly.
Usually when you automate, you will choose to barcode the collection. Barcoding items in the library makes both circulation and inventory much more efficient. Simply scan items with a barcode scanner to check them in or out to count them for inventory.
Some automation systems also offer touch-screen, self-check stations, enabling students and teachers to “help themselves” while the media staff are assisting others.
Professional Administration Tools
Automation software will keep a list of all students, staff and administrators, and may include a photo to help the media specialist learn new students and teachers quickly. You may even be able to import student information from your school management software.
Automation also provides you with a wealth of information about your collection. Reporting features let you easily find out specific details that help you choose library materials better. It takes just a moment to answer questions such as: Does our collection support our curriculum? How current are the books? How frequently are materials used?
Searchable Patron Catalog on Computer
Though some automated libraries choose to retain card catalog drawers for a time, most instead offer a patron catalog that is accessed via computer. Because most public libraries already offer this type of catalog, using the computerized catalog will be familiar to your students and faculty.
With a computerized catalog, library patrons type in names, titles, subjects or keywords to locate materials in your collection. Some automation software includes a visual searching feature that lets patrons browse illustrated icons representing booklists you have prepared or explore topical categories (such as “sports” or “devotionals”). A visual navigation system can be especially helpful for early readers.
When patrons find interesting materials in the catalog, the software lets them know if the title is available and may even provide a summary, table of contents or photo of the book cover.
Some programs have a feature to publish patron book reviews; your students will be able to see what other students, and even their teachers, think of selections they’ve read. Book reviews are an effective and enjoyable writing lesson for students of all ages.
Some schools offer their catalog via the school Web site. Providing your catalog over the Internet opens your collection to students researching from home and to their parents. Effectively, it expands the hours the library is available for users to 24/7. Patrons may search for materials and then check availability and reserve items before they come to the library.
Choosing Automation Software
Library automation software is available from companies that specialize in automation and sometimes is available from your school management software provider.
Your media specialists will appreciate having a part of the decision-making process. The features of library automation software will often be foreign to a non-librarian/library staff member. A skilled library professional will quickly note the presence or absence of critical features.
Trust your school librarian to select a program that is a good value. This isn’t always the program with the lowest price tag. Your librarian will know when paying more for a product will save in efficiency and annual costs in the long run.
Be sure to enlist the aid of your technology coordinator. Have him or her review system requirements and technical support features before you commit to a purchase.
School libraries of all sizes can benefit from automation software. Whatever the size of your library, look for a system that will grow with your library; for example, choose software that keeps your book records in the standard library format called MARC. These records make it easier to share records and provide the most consistent cataloging.
Keep in mind that some automation software is designed for large public libraries and may have a more complex interface than you need. Look for a system directed toward schools.
Because many school libraries rely on volunteer assistance, it is essential to have software easy enough for volunteers with little library experience to learn and use.
Top-quality automation software helps you promote the use of your library. Providing a library calendar and recommended reading lists submitted by faculty and staff can increase interest in your collection. Automation makes it easy to garner information for “Top 10” lists, new materials available, and resources related to holidays and current events.
Of course, automation has to fit your budget. Keep in mind there are costs associated with the hardware, software and supplies you will need initially, as well with the support and supplies you will need each year.
The media specialist should try each piece of software you are considering for purchase. Companies will provide free trials of the software for evaluation. Your media specialist will want to try using the software just as he or she would in a typical day. That’s the best way to judge how well the software works.
Plan for Tomorrow
Though you may not need certain automation products now, you may want to include them in a long-range plan.
For example, it’s common for a library to automate and then offer a Web catalog in a future year. Also, you may want to choose a system with patron self-service capability or software that can be centralized without a major change in software interface. Many software solutions also integrate with RFID security systems.
A strong library is a vital part of the life of your school. Resources you provide help children learn not only about their academic subjects but also about their faith. Materials you provide can teach and inspire young believers eager to grow in their faith.
In addition, skills in using an automated catalog will benefit college-bound students who will encounter automation when researching in libraries of higher education.
The benefits of automation are great for your library media center. Careful evaluation of software programs and thorough research will help ensure that your library serves faculty and students at the highest possible level of quality.
Diane Volzer is the communications director of Surpass Software, www.SurpassSoftware.com.