Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Advantages of Sharing a Database

In an earlier post, I described how Evergreen's flexibility makes it ideally suited to sharing a database of patrons and materials among multiple library systems. The point of this post is to explain why libraries in Maryland might want to do that. I see three main advantages, which I will discuss in more detail.
  1. Seamless inter-library loan
  2. Statewide library cards minimizing data re-entry
  3. Cost savings
Interlibrary Loan - The current interlibrary loan system used in Maryland is not perfect. At best, it requires a patron who is looking for a book to know that there's a second place to search (Marina) and to go to Marina, re-enter the search, and place a request. At worst, for some counties, patrons cannot place their own requests, except through the intervention of a reference librarian. Just to add insult to injury, the Marina interface is slow and provides only the barebones bibliographic information about the items it lists.

In contrast, for libraries sharing a bibliographic and patron database, the interlibrary loan system would be seamless for patrons and staff alike. Patrons would need to search only once in the online catalog, and could choose whether to see only items in their preferred branch or system, or to expand their search to see items throughout the state. If the patron wanted an item not available in their own system, they would request it through the catalog, as they do now for items in their local system. Staff members would have less processing and data entry to do, since both the sending and receiving library already have access to each item's record, so books could be sent between library systems as easily as they are now between branches.

Statewide Library Cards - Maryland currently offers its residents a statewide library card called an MPower card. This card can be used in any library in Maryland, regardless of which county you live in or where you first got your card. What many people don't realize though is that you still have to go through the full registration process the first time you visit a new county library system, providing all your information, showing identification, etc.

However, if the county library systems in the state were to share a single database of patrons, registration in a new county could be as simple as showing your statewide card, so the library system knows to count you as a patron.

Cost Savings - A white paper by New Jersey academic libraries does a good job of explaining the cost savings in using this type of open source software over a proprietary system. Because Evergreen runs on the Linux operating system and PostgreSQL database, neither of which require expensive licensing fees, and because it can run on less expensive hardware than many proprietary systems, there are substantial savings to be had. Not to mention, if you're combining the data of many library systems, economies of scale help out considerably. There's less infrastructure required for a shared system than for many independent systems. Similarly, one would expect lower support costs if support is outsourced because it's a single large system rather than many smaller systems. Not only that, but there's the option of hiring local staff to support and improve the ILS.

Georgia public libraries first developed and put Evergreen to the test in a statewide environment with a shared patron and bibliographic database, with much success. Public libraries in Michigan, Indiana, and British Columbia and academic libraries in New Jersey are at various stages in exploring or implementing the possibilities Evergreen and a shared catalog and patron databases could have for their regions. Why not explore the possibilities in Maryland?

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