This paper describes the basic elements of managing the automation planning process in primarily small to medium-sized libraries of all types. The authors provide a detailed overview of a planning process designed to help librarians make decisions about library automation. Practical suggestions are offered on how library managers can effectively organize the process of acquiring a system.

This paper was delivered at the 9th International New Information Technology Conference, November 11-14, 1996 (NIT ‘96) held in Pretoria, South Africa. It subsequently appeared in the Conference Proceedings, edited by Chief Conference Organizer Dr. Ching-chih Chen and published by MicroUse Information, November, 1996.



Planning for library automation has been defined as planning for "integrated systems" that computerize an array of traditional library functions using a common database (Cohn, Kelsey & Fiels, 1992, v.) While this is still generally true, rapid technological change is forcing a reexamination of what it means to "automate the library." As physical, spatial and temporal barriers to acquiring information are crumbling, libraries must plan for a broader and more comprehensive approach to providing automated services.

Four years ago, the authors anticipated:

These capabilities and far more have become reality. Accordingly, today's integrated system must not only provide access to the traditional cataloging, circulation, public catalog (OPAC) and acquisitions modules, but must be capable of connecting through the local system into the systems of other vendors, remote bibliographic databases, CD-ROM drives on a local area network (LAN), and the Internet. Users are expecting that their library systems be capable of, among other things:

Essentially, what this means is that libraries must plan to use a local library system as a vehicle for achieving access to resources outside that system. Stimulated by the Internet, which has created universal connectivity to information resources heretofore unknown and/or inaccessible, and by Z39.50 interoperability standards and "gateways," users of individual local systems are expecting to access the resources of other systems-- anywhere and anytime. Moreover, the traditional definition of "publishing" has been stretched by the creation and instant availability of informational home pages and Web sites worldwide.

Given such increased complexities and heightened levels of expectation, libraries must learn all the more how to plan for the introduction of automation in an organized and systematic fashion. There is little mystery involved here: It is entirely a matter of building upon what you already know about your library, using tools that are readily at hand and, most importantly of all, involving the people -- staff and users -- who must live with the consequences of any automation decisions.


One of the most important planning tools involves collecting basic statistical information on the library and its operations. You will find that the same basic data will be needed again and again -- whether for vendors from whom you are requesting cost estimates, or for other libraries with whom you may be seeking to cooperate in implementing automation.

The following are examples of commonly needed data:

In addition, it is important to take stock of any existing automation in the library by compiling the following data:

At the same time that this data is being assembled, it is important to assess user needs and set service priorities. This can be accomplished by undertaking a focused, strategic planning process designed to involve the library's "stakeholders."


A library planning to automate should undertake a process by which representative staff and users can identify service needs and objectives. The purpose of such an effort is to allow participants to articulate their interests and concerns, share perspectives and learn about possibilities in a collaborative setting. Group interaction is an important contributing factor in the success of the goal, which is to develop and sustain library automation in the years ahead.

Here are the basic steps involved in this process:


Your strategic vision must now provide the framework or context for the next step in the automation process, which is to determine which library functions should be automated and in what order of priority. For example, processes that are repetitive, occupy large amounts of staff time, require retrieving information from large, unwieldy files, or are high-profile functions of the library (such as the public catalog) are prime candidates for automation.

Determining the functions that you wish to automate and their priorities relative to each other is important for all sorts of reasons. If needs and priorities are clear, functions can be automated in phases, allowing for more effective use of frequently scarce funding. Moreover, it is a way to develop credibility with funding agencies and be able to take advantage of "sudden" funding opportunities. Finally, evaluations of systems and options will be easier and more productive if you are able to match your highest functional priorities against the corresponding modules available in the marketplace.


Speaking of funding, planners need to be aware that there are certain cost elements involved in the installation and operation of any automated system. These may be summarized as follows:


At some point, you will need to re-formulate your functional priorities into "functional specifications," which may be defined as what you want an automated system to do for you, including things that your current manual system cannot do. "Technical specifications" must also be established. These include standards that must be adhered to, system performance, operation, and maintenance, as well as infrastructure requirements, such as stable sources of electricity and telecommunications, and sufficient bandwidth.

Developing clear and accurate functional and technical specifications that are specific to your library is one of the most important, if not THE most important, activity that you will engage in as you plan for your automated system. These specifications will carry you through the entire procurement process, and will ensure that the system which most closely matches them will be the most useful and the most responsive to your needs.



It is very difficult to compare systems sensibly and pragmatically solely by randomly looking at systems, talking to sales representatives, reading literature or comparing broad cost quotations. For this reason, libraries use a formal document -- often known as a "Request for Proposal," or RFP -- that organizes and standardizes the information provided to and requested from the various system vendors.

Utilizing an RFP to solicit written responses from vendors makes it possible for you to systematically compare functionality, cost, maintenance, support, and all the other issues that are involved in system procurements. The process can save you money and will result in a wiser decision.

An RFP document should include these essential elements, among others:

Also, vendors should be asked to describe:


Upon the receipt of vendor proposals, it will be time to begin the process of system evaluation and selection. This process involves a number of key steps:


After the system selection process is complete, there are several important steps which must occur. You and your vendor will have to negotiate and sign a contract. You will want to test the system and make sure it suits your needs. You will want to make provisions for system maintenance. Finally, you will want to train both your staff and your users as much as possible to prepare them for when the system is up and running.

With regard to training, the following must be considered: In thinking of automation planning, there is often a tendency to focus on the hardware and software aspects of planning, and to ignore the human aspects of automation-- training and public relations. Without these, however, even the most carefully designed system may not be accepted by library staff or library users.

To assure the success of your hard planning work, a training and public relations plan should be part of any automation project. Fortunately, training can begin long before the system is installed. By involving staff at all levels in the analysis of operations, the identification of needs, the setting of priorities, the development of specifications, and the evaluation of systems, staff will gain much of the knowledge they need as the planning progresses.

User acceptance and enthusiasm for your new automated system is certainly an important ingredient in a successful planning effort. If you are implementing a public access catalog, it is probably the most important measure of success.

Public relations can allow you to accomplish three things:


In the rush to acquire hardware and software, librarians often forget that their most valuable product is the library's database. The creation of a high-quality machine-readable database provides the cornerstone upon which all present and future automation efforts rest. Vendors will come and go, hardware will become obsolete, software will be replaced, but a well-constructed, well-maintained database, with its accompanying local holdings, will be the library's transportable and viable link from system to system. Moreover, as library users begin to access not only their local system but systems in other libraries as well, the quality of respective databases will influence both the outcome of search strategies and the availability of materials.

Database readiness has several important facets:


Computer technology and software applications are changing and evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. At current rates of development, you can expect that by the time you install your carefully planned system, capabilities will be available that were only in planning while you were evaluating vendor proposals. In general, a life cycle of five years is considered to be acceptable for a computer system before some significant upgrade (installation of additional hardware and/or software providing for increased capability or capacity) or replacement will be necessary.

Because computer and information technology represent a fundamental change in the way libraries do business, libraries must make an ongoing commitment to keeping pace with change. Therefore, like automated systems, plans must also change with time.

Plans must be regularly revisited and updated as the environment and needs change. In general, a library should conduct a major reexamination of its plan every five years, and should review its plans on an annual basis.

What are the results of good planning? You develop...

*Much of the material presented here is adapted from John M. Cohn, Ann L. Kelsey and Keith Michael Fiels, Planning for Automation:  A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians (NY: Neal-Schuman, 1992.) A revised 2nd edition of the book is planned for 1997.