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New technologies come to libraries

Smart tags, iBorrow, digitisation and other new library technologies.

Libraries are among those institutions that many of us hope will not succumb to the micro-electronic revolution. It would seem a shame to violate the cartoon image of those silent shelf-filled rooms presided over by a stern librarian whose only permitted sound was the thump of the date stamp in your books. On your way out from some of the larger libraries, you might encounter a staff member whose job was to check your briefcase to see that you were not stealing any books - a security system that was never entirely successful as stock regularly disappeared. It was, however, an almost technology-free, entirely paper-based world.

But of course, this image falls somewhat short of the reality of the stacks. As Dr Angela Conyers, senior research Fellow at Birmingham City University, explains: 'Libraries were among the first to embrace new technology with computerisation of catalogues and the introduction of barcodes in books.' Security was ensured by hiding a tag in all stock which, if not deactivated on being issued, set off an alarm as the book was removed from the library.

Smart tags

One of the more recent advances in library technology has been the introduction in the late 1990s of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. These tags, pasted inside books, can store information and are more sophisticated than the bar codes and security tags they have replaced in some libraries. In addition to security and self-service, they can also be used for stock-taking and the location of lost or mis-shelved books by simply running the tag reader along the line of the shelves, for it does not require a direct line of sight as is needed with the barcode.

Dr Mary Davies, deputy chief information officer at Kings College London, sums up the advantages of this new technology: 'It has enabled us, from a staffing point of view, to increase stock management capability, because it is much easier to search for specific items. It allowed us to extend the opening hours of our information service centres to satisfy increased student demand for 24/7 access to stock and also enabled students to use self-service for either issuing or returning materials while letting the security staff secure the building. It did not need to be staffed 24/7.'

For the issue and return of books, machines are now gradually replacing people and this, Davies explains, 'is reducing the time customers have to spend in queues. And, of course, it has also reduced the amount of time staff spend on routine activity, freeing them up for more direct assistance to customers'.

Pete Ryan, the head of library services at Canterbury Christ Church University, has had the same experience. Here, the newly-built Augustine House Library and Student Services Centre has self-issue machines on every floor and one self-return machine on the ground floor. 'Previously there would have been three people on an issue desk, but we are now down to one staff member at the self-return machine, though with a new intake of students we do have a member of staff to show them how the machines work.' But, he adds, 'we have not lost staff as a result of the changes. Some are around helping students in the library wings and others can do work in the main office'.

Rows of computers have become a common sight alongside the shelved books. Says Dr Conyers: 'Information technology and libraries were both concerned with the storage and dissemination of knowledge, so the library seemed to be the appropriate place for computers, which became a major tool for undergraduates, research students and academics at universities and for members of the public in their local libraries.' Indeed, the name 'library' soon became dated and now many are rebranded 'Information Centres' or 'Learning Resource Centres'.


A more recent advance has been the replacement of fixed computers at desks with laptops. As Pete Ryan describes: 'In our new library there are places where you cannot have fixed PCs. So we needed something much more flexible in terms of IT. We have taken on a project funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee called iBorrow and now have 196 small notebook computers for loan. They use virtualised technology, with the applications stored on the server rather than on the machine, thus making them redundant if they are removed from the library, though since they are fitted, like books, with an internal security tag, any attempt to do so would set off a very loud siren and activate door locks.'

With wireless technology, the iBorrow notebooks, which are available on all floors, can be used anywhere in the building, while sitting in an easy chair or over a coffee in the cafe. As Pete Ryan adds: 'It makes borrowing a computer as easy as picking a book from a shelf.' Completed work can then be sent to print and, using 'pull' technology, be retrieved and printed from any printer in the building.

Another innovation at Canterbury Christ Church and elsewhere had been the replacement of some fixed shelving with moveable stacks. While the new library has 3,000 linear metres of static shelving, it also has 6,000 linear metres of electronic mobile shelving supplied by Nordplan, which E F can be moved with the press of a button. The use of these shelves not only allows for storage of more books in less space, but makes room for expansion and gives a spacious feel to the library.


The disappearance of physical books with digitalisation has been much in the news recently, but periodicals have been available electronically for some 15 years or more. Several thousand journal titles are now available on a subscription basis to libraries. Angela Conyers says: 'The great advantage of electronic journals for readers is that they can have access to them wherever they are by use of password authentication. So information is no longer confined to the walls of the library. The benefit for the library is that they can track the usage of each periodical.'

Though there is a movement to put articles directly on to the Web rather than go through the traditional publishing route, for the time being hard copies are still issued. Some libraries keep their hard copies on open shelves, whereas others have started putting them in storage to encourage greater use of the electronic versions. Still others have abandoned hard copies all together. It is all in a state of transition.

Digitisation also allows older journals and newspaper titles to be made more widely available and has greatly improved access to material too fragile for the public to handle. The British Library website, for example, includes copies of Shakespeare quartos and the Gutenberg Bible, freely available to all.

So with this new technology, digitised periodicals, possibly fewer books in libraries and - if Google have their way - more and more book content online, will there be room for the 'traditional' library?

The Google Project

After a few attempts by others, Google has now emerged as the leader in the mass digitisation of books with its Library Project. In 2004, the company went into partnership with the Libraries of Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Oxford Universities and New York Public Library to commence a process that will make millions of out-of-copyright books available to all.

Although involved in digitisation since 1973, the Bodleian Library at Oxford has been selective but, as Ronald Milne has written, 'The Google Project involves digitisation on an industrial scale' books are 'selected' only in as far as they should be in a fit state in conservation terms to undergo the non-invasive Google digitisation process and they should be of a format with which the Google scanning technology can currently cope'.

Other libraries have joined the project that now extends to Spain, Germany, India and Japan as well as other institutions in the US. The only major setback for Google has been in France where it seems likely that the government will organise the mass digitisation of the country's libraries, financed by a national loan.

Ronald Milne believes that 'digitisation on such a scale' represents a step-change in the dissemination of information that parallels the impact of the invention of printing from moveable type in the 15th century. In enhancing access to printed material that is not otherwise easily available, the project has the potential to act as a transforming agent in learning, teaching and research as well as other activities.' But he does not see an end to libraries, believing from anecdotal evidence that it may increase visits by inspiring those who have had access to a digitised copy to see the original.

Even more expansively, Matte Herwing has written in Spiegel Online International of 'creating a great utopia; the digital university of the future, making humanity's entire body of knowledge accessible to everyone' and Ronald Milne concludes that Sir Thomas Bodley would have approved of the digitisation of his library writing: 'The Bodleian ethos of facilitating access to all - the concept of the 'Republic of Letters' - has found expression in the Digital Age and of that Sir Thomas would be proud'.

Well, of course, if you have a title in mind, there is nothing like a computerised library catalogue or the Internet for finding it. But the most attractive thing about books in rows on static shelves is that it gives you the chance, in a leisurely way, to come across a folio of whose existence you were completely unaware. The London Library is that sort of place, with members able to browse over a million books on 15 miles of open shelves. Though they have an online catalogue and subscribe to e-journals, it remains a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the library's shelves. 

Additional reporting by Vitali Vitaliev

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