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Big 12 Plus Libraries and OCLC Join Forces on Web-Based Interlibrary Loan System
by
Posted On February 7, 2000
The Big 12 Plus Libraries (http://www.big12plus.org), a major academic library consortium in the Midwest, and OCLC (http://www.oclc.org) are getting together to test an innovative new system that—if all goes according to plan—will do much to put interlibrary loan (ILL) in the hands of the patrons.

The Big 12 Plus Libraries consortium is a group of 23 academic libraries that have gotten together to do really "big things" in the areas of resource sharing, scholarly communications, etc. OCLC is the leading library utility for cataloging and interlibrary loan, and is the creator of the FirstSearch online search service.

Both the Big 12 Plus Libraries and OCLC want to improve the way interlibrary loan works for patrons, staff, and the consortium libraries. The current project aims to develop a Web-based ILL system that would allow patrons to search all the catalogs in the consortium simultaneously and then request items they want using a simple Web-based form. Once the system receives the request, it handles it according to rules established by the requesting library. For example, some libraries may configure the system to automatically verify that the item does not appear in the local collection before forwarding it on to another library; others may elect to bypass that step and forward the request without verification.

Staff ILL workstations will also be Web-based and will allow staff to work with any ILL system that follows the ISO standards. That will mean staff can place and receive requests from a growing number of ILL management systems without needing special training on each system. This Web-based arrangement also allows consolidation of all the status checks and other elements of the workflow and of ILL statistics in one place, making life easier for harried ILL departments.

This pilot project initially involves eight of the 23 Big 12 Plus Libraries. OCLC and the consortium will spend the next 6 months developing and testing the software, and then they will really begin putting it through its paces. If it lives up to expectations, they hope to expand the service to include all consortium members.

Of course the real winners with direct-request systems like this are the patrons themselves. Once patrons find an item listed, they only have to request it and let the system worry about where the item comes from and how to get it. The system can automatically e-mail patrons status reports or even call when the book arrives. The model is strikingly similar to the one pioneered by Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Spokespeople for one major university that adopted the direct-request ILL system said they replaced their three ILL staff members with 50,000 students, and the best part is that all those students are "free."

Library ASP

The software for the Big 12 Plus project will be based on two similar systems that OCLC recently developed for the libraries of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) member universities and the Minnesota Library Information Network (MnLINK). However, in this project, all the software for the system will reside on an "application server" at OCLC, where patrons and librarians will access it over the Web.

This "application service provider" model represents an example of a new trend in distributing software over the Web, a trend that seems to be catching on very quickly in many industries. It works like this: One company (or organization)—the application service provider (ASP)—mounts the software on its server and provides access to others who wish to use it. The ASP takes care of the initial investment in the software and of all the problems involved in keeping it up and running. The "end user" (library or whatever) then pays some kind of a monthly or annual fee for access to the software. [For more on this concept, and for a library-specific example, read the January 24, 2000 NewsBreak by Marshall Breeding, "Epixtech Partners with Citrix Systems on ASP Solution for Library Automation."]

Clearly, the ASP model has some distinct advantages for libraries: It gives full use of the software without requiring libraries to pay heavy initial purchase prices. And, perhaps an even bigger advantage, it removes the very real burden of keeping the software up and running on the libraries' own servers. This is particularly helpful for smaller institutions that find it hard to maintain the staff and resources needed to support local systems. This is the first ASP installation at OCLC, but the potential for expanding the model into other areas is obvious. Could an ASP-style circulation system or ILS be next on the agenda?

Limitations of the Model

There's no doubt that projects like this represent very big steps in the right direction and will do much to facilitate resource sharing among libraries and improve access to information for patrons. However, a quick look at the CIC catalog after which the Big 12 project is patterned shows that we still have a long way to go before our systems approach the simplicity and ease of use our customers have come to expect from Amazon.com and its commercial competitors.

For example, when I searched the term "Ferrets" in the CIC catalog through the University of Minnesota Library Web (http://mnlink.lib.umn.edu), I got 150 hits from the 14 university library catalogs searched. The first problem is that it took about 50 seconds for the search to return any results. When I ran the same search in Amazon.com, it took just 12 seconds and brought back 56 results.

At least part of the delay stems from the fact that the CIC catalog uses a Z39.50 broadcast search technique. The search goes out and queries each of the 14 university catalogs in the consortium and brings back the results. And that takes time. So much time, in fact, that many people feel that the practical upper limit on the number of catalogs searchable using the Z30.50 strategy is around 30. If there are more than 30, the customers simply will not wait. And who can blame them? Of course Amazon.com works much faster, because it uses a single catalog that lists all the books it has and all the books it can get. It doesn't have to run dozens of simultaneous searches through its suppliers' inventories.

The next problem is that the results from the CIC search are arranged by library. When I first clicked on a link, I saw a list of seven records from the Indiana University Library, When I clicked on another link, I got four hits from the Michigan State University Library, and so forth, on through the consortium. This is not a comfortable way to browse results, particularly when the same titles repeat in university after university. Here again, the problem stems from the antiquated Z39.50 model, which brings back duplicate results. A single search in a union catalog would resolve this difficulty.

Last, but not least, bibliographic records in the CIC search could not compare to Amazon.com search results on the same subject in terms of patron usefulness—and Amazon has become the standard by which Web users measure book identification. In the CIC search you get the standard bibliographic data you would expect on a catalog card, with the only interesting tidbit being a little catalog note that indicates "bibliographies and index." The same title listed on Amazon has more or less the same bibliographic information (interestingly, minus the bibliographies and indexes note), but a complete table of contents, a more detailed narrative description of the book, three customer reviews, a list of other books people who bought this title also purchased, and the Amazon sales ranking. Any faculty member or student trying to decide whether to request this title on ILL from some other institution needs as much information as possible. Of course, if we really began to put big, fat, Amazon-style records in our local catalogs, those Z39.50 searches would take even longer and place even greater demands on already overtaxed networks.

In the end, these limitations make searching the CIC catalog a sometimes slow and often frustrating experience for the patron. Undertakings like the Big 12 Plus project and the CIC and MnLINK models it is based on represent important steps in making resource sharing easier for both the patron and the library, but evidence indicates that we still have a long way to go. The biggest problem at this point is clearly the catalog. The one thing we can be pretty sure of is that Z39.50 is not the answer. Amazon.com points the way to the solution. OCLC has the tools to build it with WorldCat and with what they are developing here for the Big 12 Plus and others. One can only hope that they will now take the next logical step forward and do what needs to be done.


Steve Coffman is director of FYI for the County of Los Angeles Public Library.

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