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Systems Librarian

System Architecture and Information Access

System Architecture and Information Access

Integrated Library Systems (ILS)
System Architecture and Information Access

Information and communication technology (ICT) is not optimally developed in South African Public Libraries, and a gap exists between potential and reality in this field. Although online connectivity is increasingly available, even in the more remote areas, financial restrictions, poor telecommunications, and infrastructure failures hamper the full realization of an exciting potential.

What is a Public Library Integrated Library System (ILS)?
 Library automation would help ease the daily circulation functions and ease the job of processing library materials. Therefore, it was proposed that the Library’s operations should be automated. An integrated library system (ILS) is usually comprised of a relational database, software to act on that database, and two graphical user interfaces (one for patrons OPAC, one for staff). Most integrated library systems (ILS) separate software functions into discrete programs called modules, which are then integrated into a unified interface. Examples of modules include: acquisitions (ordering, receiving, and invoicing materials), cataloguing (classifying and indexing materials), circulation (lending materials to patrons and receiving them back), serials (tracking magazine and newspaper holdings), and the OPAC (public interface for users). Each patron and item has a unique ID in the database that allows the integrated library system (ILS) to track its activity.


History of Library Automation

Librarians are known to have been some of the early entrants in the
use of Computers

Martin, S.K. (1986), Library Networks 1986-1987


Library automation activities started during the 1950s and 1960s in the US  and  UK  respectively. During that period, library systems were developed locally on mainframe computers of parent organizations using local programming language expertise.

The first phase was experimental during the 1960s and was largely characterized by in-house developed systems. The second phase was in the 1970s when the off-the- shelf turnkey systems were introduced. This phase was enhanced by the development of micro computer technology, which propelled computing into the public domain due to lowered costs. During this period library cooperative schemes consolidated their position in the automated library market place. The third phase started in the 1980s which saw the emergence of the off-the-shelf integrated systems offering circulation, acquisitions, serials control, cataloguing and online public access with all modules sharing a common database.


The emergence of the Internet during 1990s added various options for libraries to automate. During the later part of 1990s, library systems have been developed increasingly as gateways (internet) to external databases. Developments in information technology have enhanced the openness of the library systems to Internet and occasioned evolution of digital libraries across the world. The concept of digital libraries is used interchangeably with electronic, virtual library or library without walls in literature.


Worth noting is the fact that some public libraries in  South Africa started automating some of their library functions in the 1970s. This is over a decade later than the US  and  UK  libraries. One of the earliest librarys to automate in South Africa was the eThekwini Municipal Library in 1987.


Proprietary or Open Source


Proprietary (Commercial) or Open Source ILS

Today proprietary software suppliers sell packaged integrated library systems (ILS) and configure it to the users needs. The supplier installs, trains, gives ongoing maintenance/technical support and include software upgrades. Training, implementation and support are important factors in integrated library system (ILS) selection. See Open Source library systems


Service Level Agreement (SLA )

Service level agreement is a key issue in management of IT services, ensuring that agreed services are  delivered when and where they are supposed to be delivered. The service level agreement is dependent upon all the other areas of service delivery providing the necessary support that ensures the agreed services are provided in an efficient, secure, and cost effective manner. A comprehensive service level agreement is an essential requirement for the provision or receipt of any important service. It quite simply defines the parameters for the delivery of that service, for the benefit of both parties. See Minimum Standards and Features for Purchase of ILS


Hardware maintenance and network

Hardware maintenance and the network  infrastructure is not usually included in the software agreement. Minimum specifications are given by vendor to client to ensure that the hardware and network specifications are met.

PCs, Printers, and Other Devices:
The public library integrated library systems (ILS) can support anything from 1 to 1000 PCs depending on the software and hardware. Usually a few PC’s and printers are there to provide direct use for the public library’s patrons/users (online public access to the catalogue, PCs with word processing and access to the internet, etc.), with the majority ICT equipment used to support library staff and operations.

Budget cuts over the past few years have disrupted many public libraries 3 year replacement schedule for replacing PCs and other technology assets; restoring this replacement schedule will be a challenge for most library's. Most public libraries in South Africa have standardized new hardware purchases in-line with the ICT department’s procurement policies (e.g., HP Laser Jet printers and HP photocopiers). Older IT equipment/devices from other manufacturers is still in use and will gradually be phased out as the maintenance warranty lapses.



The public library’s network enables communication between the main and branch libraries that are in different locations:

  • Local Area Network (LAN) 
  • Wide Area Network (WAN) 
  • Fibre cable 
  • Radio Link 
  • ISDN 

Internet connectivity

Internet connectivity especially access for the Web OPAC, is of key importance. Web library systems facilitate access to information resources across the Internet. In spite of the large number of public library services indicating that they had access to Internet facilities, only a few are providing Web-based information services to library users. The web (internet connectivity) is not yet used to provide information services at most public libraries in South Africa. The value that can be added to information provision is not exploited e.g., library web sites, where they exist, tend to be duplications of existing library brochures. The following internet connectivity bandwidth is used by public libraries in South Africa:

  • 56K dial-up connection 
  • 128K ISDN line 
  • LAN/WAN (fibre cable) 


Broad overview and insight into the complexity and interrelatedness
of the integrated library database and the library operations


ILS Library databases
A library system has two primary databases:

1) Bibliographic database that stores records of material provided by a library. Within the database are the following record types:

  • bibliographic records describing each title or piece of information in the library catalogue 
  • authority records providing references or links from alternative names, subject, and titles 
  • order records, tracking items, being acquired 
  • item or holding records identifying each copy a library holds 
  • serial check in records and tracking
  • community information and digitization. 

2) Patron database records:

  • patron records identify each patron/borrower/user, interact with item records, and store statistics 
  • item records interact with patron/borrower/user records, storing the checked out items, and due date for each circulation. 

Interaction of Library System Records

In an integrated library system, all the different modules can access the bibliographic records. Transactions such as editing a record or a circulation action on a record takes place immediately and the changes made to the updated record can be seen from all modules on the integrated library systems (ILS).  


Data are stored in two formats:

1) Fixed fields: contain fixed-length data such as dates, library codes, fund codes stored in the system data tables, e.g., vendors and fund codes in order records.

2) Variable-length fields: contain data in a specific format e.g., Patron/borrower/users name, address, bibliographic titles, authors or free text for internal notes.


Most integrated library systems (ILS) can generate standard, predefined reports and customized reports according to the library’s statistical and reporting needs.

See Minimum Standards and Features for Purchase of ILS


Migrating  integrated library systems (ILS)

Though it is normal to change systems largely because of obsolescence, reasons that have been given indicate that most libraries are not happy with the performance of the integrated library systems (ILS). Lack of or poor support from the vendor, technical problems with the system and sustainability. Consequently the current system needs to be replaced with one that meets the needs of the public library and their services. However, considering migrating to a new automation system because of lack of adequate support from the vendor will be a waste of ICT funds and resources.


The Digital Divide
The question of digital divide has appeared in library and information science literature frequently as impacting negatively on the provision of library and information services. The digital divide is a disparity in access to ICT between countries and communities.

The causes of digital divide include, but are not limited to:

  • inadequate infrastructure 
  • high cost of access 
  • inappropriate or weak policy regimes 
  • inefficiency in the provision of telecommunication network 
  • language divides, and lack of locally created content 

The divide creates an environment where the disadvantaged groups in society are unable to contribute to and benefit from the information age and global communities created by the Internet.

The question of the digital divide phenomenon and its implications for the provision of information services should concern information professionals with regard to how it should be addressed. The digital divide, if it is not addressed, has the negative impact on the provision of information services of under-utilization of information resources and information sharing.


The emerging information society is characterized by the rapid growth and use of information and the widespread exploitation of various ICT information sources. In an information society, people have multi-sectoral needs and the manner in which they find information is crucial for their advancement. It is important for them to know and appreciate their information needs, where to get the information, how to get the information, and in the end, how to use it critically. Lack of information literacy inevitably hampers effective survival in an information society environment.


Public Library’s ICT Plans and Policies

Technology plans need to be reviewed continuously to ensure that service goals are being fulfilled while also meeting the demands of emerging ICT technologies. This should be done in conjunction with the ICT department, library professionals (Systems Librarian), the library staff, library board, and members of the community so that newer technologies are synchronized with patron/borrower/user’s needs.

ICT strategies:
For the cost-effective implementation of ICT, libraries need strategic plans, looking at least five years ahead, with objectives that meet expected patron/borrower/user’s  needs.

Barriers to Information Communication Technologies (ICT)

The introduction and effective use of ICT in public library services in South Africa is being hampered by a number of factors. Most of the cases indicate a lack of adequate funding and; in some cases; a lack of commitment from Local Municipal Councils in the deployment of ICT in their public libraries. Public library services are generally poorly funded, and as a result a large number of them depend on external assistance and funding for their ICT projects.

Barriers include:

  • Lack of budget and resources for ICT. Annual costs relating to ICT in public library services include the costs of hardware and software maintenance and upgrading, software licence fees, internet access fees, and telecommunications charges. Some libraries meet these costs from their budgets, while in other cases, the costs are taken care of by the information and communication technology (ICT) department of the local municipality. 
  • Lack of ICT department support at some of the municipalities creates problems, especially when the library does not have a  Systems Librarian to keep equipment operational. Small technical problems often mean that libraries are not able to use their equipment because they have to wait for an IT technician. Because the ICT department is a separate department from the public libraries (usually in another building) there is no immediate onsite IT support and these delays are sometimes very long, and both librarians and the patron/borrower/users are disadvantaged.
  • Lack of ICT qualified staff in the library 
  • Reluctance among staff and management to use ICT 
  • Library lacks updated ICT strategy 
  • Difficulties in training library staff in appropriate ICT skills. Management needs to increase the technology knowledge and skills of all library staff. They should identify and provide training opportunities for ‘electronic services’ staff (should be ongoing) 
  • Burglaries, Theft of computer equipment has become an obstacle to service delivery at public libraries in South Africa as it sometimes takes  several weeks to replace vital computer equipment. 

Very few Local Municipal Councils have Systems Librarians/Technical Librarians positions in their libraries structure (mostly due staff budget constraints) and that is also probably why Local Municipal public libraries are left behind as far at technology is concerned. As mentioned above, this also leads to non-delivery of services as the absence of a Systems Librarian/Technical Librarian and the staff’s lack of appreciable knowledge of simple troubleshooting methods result in a lot of time-wasting. Jobs have to be put on hold while waiting for an IT technician/specialist.




Public libraries, are adopting modern information and communication technologies, including the use of the Internet and e-mail. However, the use of ICT in automating library functions (integrated library systems) and the provision of digital information services is very limited in some public libraries in South Africa.


Unfortunately, public library services are understaffed for various reasons, among them poor conditions of service and incentives. The ratio of professional librarians and information staff to the number of registered library users is not encouraging. In most public libraries information resources and equipment are inadequate therefor  working in public libraries in South Africa is a difficult challenge. Most public library services do not have budgets for ICT, and the lack of funds is the major barrier to the deployment of ICT in public libraries. In most cases, funding for the acquisition of ICT is provided by local and international funding agencies. However, some public libraries in South Africa are also benefiting from funding provided by the provincial library services.



There are many variations in South Africa’s library automation environment with various public libraries at different stages of deploying ICT. The use of commercially available integrated library management systems is largely limited to larger Local Municipal Councils in South Africa. See Public Library Automation Systems

Although public libraries are best placed to serve as universal access points to global information in their communities, because of barriers mentioned, many public libraries in South Africa have been unable to take advantage of ICT facilities to play this role and benefit their communities. It is important that the public libraries reassess the importance and necessity of IT in order for them to determine the effort needed to bring about desired change to enhance access to resources within public libraries and make use of integrated library systems (ILS) in their libraries. The alternative is to do nothing about it and risk becoming irrelevant in the emerging global information society.

Technology for the Rest of Us: A Primer on Computer Technologies for the Low-Tech Librarian

Technology for the Rest of Us: A Primer on Computer Technologies for the Low-Tech Librarian

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  Technology for the Rest of Us: A Primer on Computer Technologies
for the Low-Tech Librarian

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