Technology Trends: In the palm of your hand

17 March 2004

Review by Kylie Jarrett

On Wednesday 24th March I went along to SALIN’s Technology Trends: in the palm of your hand in public libraries seminar, held at CPA house in the city. First up we had Mark van der Pennen, the project manager of Adelaide City Council Library and Community Centres, giving a talk about the RFID technology at the library. He started off by talking about the structure of the project, which has seen the shift from the old Kintore Avenue library to the Libraries and Community Centres with themed public library sites.

To take on the RFID (radio frequency identification) technology was to be out-there and innovate, ‘boldly going where no one’s gone before’ with self-checkout and automatic book chute facilities. It is the second library in Australia to adopt the technology, with Baulkham Hills being the first. Unfortunately Adelaide had to take a step back on the book chute RFID terminals because they weren’t checking items in consistently enough and causing an inconvenience to customers, such as when the antenna wasn’t reading the library item in order for the chute to open. The RFID book drop was in fact a world first, and they may return to it in the future. However, the project was much more about taking great steps forward, and the self-checkout stations have been well received by the library customers. Mark went on to talk about the stages of hiring young people to place all the tags in the library collection, and the training of staff in the new technologies before the mid-winter opening last year.

How does the tag in the library item work? It is much like information stored on a barcode, but instead of wanding the barcode, the antenna built into the radio frequency pad reads the title written onto the tag, which also has an antenna part, to check in or check out the item. The look of the software is a consistent and user friendly GUI for both customers and staff. Instead of magnetic strips in items, the RFID tag also disarms or arms the item so as to set off the alarm at the gates.

Mark referred to the leading edge technology and the whole project of the new libraries and community centres as ‘bleeding edge’ also, with its next generation hardware teething problems, but that overall the project has been successful. This has been due to good planning, and great support from Council and staff members. It is true to say that the library service, with its new technology and the modern look of the sites, is being leading edge and interesting, and out-there!

The next speaker of the evening was Dee O’Loughlin from Adelaide Hills Council Library Service. This library has a theme and accompanying brochure called ‘Busy people @ the library’, where you can ‘Get connected @ your library’ through the CAPSAT technology on their Hills mobile library, and the increasingly popular SMS text messaging. These offer alternatives to the physical library.

The Capsat is a semi-spherical satellite unit that sits on a hydraulic mechanism on the mobile library’s roof. It is the solution to the library’s concerns about the hills and its cut-out spots for mobile phones, and it provides online services for the staff and customers who use it. The Capsat was designed for ships at sea, and works very well apart from on days of heavy rain and locations with too many overhanging trees. The technology enables the Internet for staff and patron use, and access to the VPN for such staff applications as Spydus, the library management software. They also have real time access to the library catalogue and council services including rate paying. Access on Spydus can be slow sometimes and there is a slight limit on the amount of downloading that can take place, but the Capsat unit is multidirectional, staff have flexibility with where they can park the mobile and Internet access is fast.

The ‘Busy people @ the library’ initiative recognises that a lot of Adelaide Hills people are busy and commute to and from the city. So there are electronic options available to them to make life easy, with access to the online catalogue where people can build up a profile of their favourite topics and authors, for starters. People can receive hold and overdue notifications, and the newsletter if they wish, via email. The SMS text messaging service offered is going well. Dee explained that the Telstra messaging is a value-added service but Adelaide Hills Council pays for it as a gesture of goodwill. Only hold notifications are sent at the moment, besides, who would want bad news from the library about overdue items sent to their mobile phone? This works really well for people on their way home from work, if they want to call into the library to pick up their hold before they get home. Any failed SMS messages bounce back for the library staff to action.

Now when staff register new members, they can ask if they wish to have the option of receiving text messages, and people are responding well to the range of options available to them. Here is a good example of the ‘clicks and mortar’ idea, where library users can choose options ranging from the physical and face-to-face aspects of the service, through to those which represent all that snazzy leading-edge technology we’ve been talking about.

The third person to speak to us was Ian Hildebrand from the Mount Barker Community Library. He really presented us with some food for thought about virtual libraries. He opened with asking are they really a possibility? No. A feasibility study was carried out on Hindmarsh library and the emerging user group in our society, related to WebPACs, portals such as the South Australian libraries web site, and e-books. He suggested that it isn’t really clear what a virtual library is anyway, yet in contrast to online environments, ‘physical libraries are vibrant, dynamic and social’, he said. In determining if the proposed electronic information resource centre was sustainable for Hindmarsh in Charles Sturt, they looked at downloadable e-book stations and applications such as Dreamweaver and sound editing software. This would have been coupled with up skilling the staff and offering training sessions for the patrons. The location would have also been a coordination point for a book delivery service, because of course, people like books.

However, the electronic information resource centre did not go ahead. One reason why was that library users expect a library to have shelves full of books, and that is how they want them to be. Ian went on from here to talk about how e-books haven’t really taken off in Australia, and that libraries tend not to have specialist ‘cybrarians’ on their teams. IT departments of an organisation are available instead, and would know their Java application well, for example. He highlighted some characteristics of the emerging user, namely the person in their early twenties who had access to the web throughout their high school years and is a prolific text messager. Tech savvy, but not necessarily information literate, which is where library staff can come in to assist. Ian also mentioned busy people who are taking advantage of technologies that are convenient, such as DVD rentals and banking online. His example was amusing that people like netbanking because banks aren’t much fun, and sure enough people like using physical libraries, so this should continue to happen despite online convenience.

This is the point where Ian’s solution to the virtual public libraries question was put forward. To merge online and physical services, and through PLAIN would be great. A next generation interface of PLAIN’s database so that members of the public can reserve items over the Internet, and have them delivered to their door for a small fee, just like the DVD rental people who are currently doing it. Users could subscribe to it and build up a wish list of favourite items. You can see what I mean that it is food for thought, what do you think?

Ian concluded his talk by mentioning again the fact of IT staff dominance over applications in libraries, and how it will continue. But the focus he is excited about is that libraries can enhance their services and increase access by offering different ways of getting messages to busy customers. He is talking about the hybrid of the traditional staff support and a good use of the web, which I think is evolving well right now.

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