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Library enters cyberspace

Y2K brings new computer catalog, better service

(Published April 24, 2000)


Staff Writer

D.C. Public Library patrons no longer need to page through antiquated drawers of cards to locate books and other reference materials.

The library launched a new card catalog system four months ago that is accessible on the Internet and allows card holders to look up the availability of anything in the library’s holdings. Card holders will be able to use their home computer to place books on reserve in the future.

The library started using Citycat 2K, the new the online catalog and circulation system, in January because the former system was not compliant with the date change to the year 2000, said Sean Crumley, deputy department head of library information and telecommunications systems.

The old system was going to have to be replaced eventually, but "Y2K gave it a sense of urgency," he said.

The Web site’s features include "Find It Fast," which arranges titles under numerous topics and provides bibliographies of all books of that category. Card holders can print out a bibliography in the library or e-mail it to an e-mail account. People using the search engine online at can employ numerous criteria, including type, language and location.

"It’s a wonderful tool for the public," said Patricia Pasqual, change agent for external affairs for the D.C. Public Library.

Patrons use only a small part of the system, she said. One of its other primary functions is to help librarians order and process books.

Maria Brooks, head librarian at the Washington Highlands Branch Library in Southwest Washington, said CityCat speeds up her activities. It allows her to find missing books in the system or to search for something specific. One student was looking for a particular poem, and Brooks said the system pulled it up right away.

"I’ve worked with it a couple of times, mostly with young people. They enjoy it – especially the pictures. And a number of adults use it and find it to be easy," she said.

Brooks said she doesn’t know how many people access CityCat from their computers at home or work – the library doesn’t keep statistics on Web site hits. No one’s said anything to her about it and she said she wonders if anyone even knows about it.

The planning process began in 1997 when the library staff took "field trips" to neighboring library systems. They then developed technical specifications for a proposal, delineating the library’s needs and desires, Crumley said.

"We did it ourselves because we thought it was important to have the staff brainstorm on what was needed," he said.

In 1999 numerous companies did on-site demonstrations, and the final recommendation was made to purchase the system from SIRSI Corp., a library software company based in Huntsville, Ala. The cost was about $570,000 for hardware and equipment, not including the PCs set up in the libraries.

SIRSI also produced a similar system used in the Montgomery County, Md., public library. Their system went live on July 22, 1999 and so far the system has worked fairly well, said Barbara Smith, chief of technical services for the Montgomery County Public Library.

She said things were fairly rocky at the beginning because the new Windows-based system is more "technologically astute" and that some customers had never used a computer mouse before.

"It was a steep learning curve for staff and public," Smith said.

Smith said some library users say it’s wonderful and employees are trying to help them learn to use it and the catalog effectively. The new system allows more interconnections and less hassle for doing searches, she said.

"No library automation system is perfect, and every librarian will tell you that," Smith said. But Montgomery County library users can renew an item online, and Smith said they will be able to put something on hold online in the summer or fall.

The process that Crumley and other D.C. library employees went through in implementing the new system involved working with the D.C. government, preparing data, mapping systems and converting the records format from the standard catalog, Crumley said.

The most time consuming part of it was setting up the computers at all workstations at all branches of the library, he said.

"Everybody recognizes that this is a big improvement," Crumley said. "Complete functionality will be revealed in stages so we can keep a handle on it and administer it effectively."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator