Thursday, August 6, 2015

These are the good old days

Guest Post written by Charles Clemence, Winding Rivers Library System

In June I marked my 30th year in Wisconsin resource sharing, 28 years in my current job. Anniversaries often cause people to look back on the changes they’ve seen. The danger of this tendency is that when old-timers wax nostalgic about the past they often bore people with how great things were in the ‘good old days.’ Fortunately, for resource sharing in Wisconsin, the good old days are now. Or perhaps they haven’t arrived yet.

Microfiche in drawer
When I started in ILL, WISCAT was on microfiche. At Winding Rivers we had a part-time person whose only job was to look through trays of fiche. She would take the paper requests that were picked up in delivery or sent in the mail and try to find a corresponding entry on the fiche. If found, she would add bibliographic information and also the codes of libraries who owned the requested item. If not found, the requests went to another staff member to take to OCLC.

In those days OCLC was a pay as you go service. Any time you clicked on anything – a search screen, a bib record, a holdings display – a charge would be added to the library’s account. I remember images in my head of cash register displays spinning as charges were added whenever I clicked. So I hated to click on anything. When OCLC went to a subscription approach it greatly reduced stress levels. But stress or not, once the requested item was found in OCLC the same process was followed – writing additional information and locations on the requests.
The next step was to retype those requests into another program to prepare them to be sent to the clearinghouses – Reference and Loan and WiLS – via a computer bulletin board. Overnight the computers from Madison could call ours, via a phone line and modem, to pick up our file of requests and leave files of requests for us to be printed the next day. Providing the bulletin board didn’t crash or fail to connect in some other way.
Image of woman working with CD-ROMs
When CD-ROM technology came along, WISCAT moved to that format. The CDs were much easier to search, but the ever increasing amount of data presented a continuing challenge. As the database grew it was necessary to chain more CD drives together, then pull out some of the less used material into a separate search. The chained drives were subject to crashes and the request creation software, called QuILL, was DOS based and not always easy to use. Still, it was a noticeable improvement.
With the advent of the worldwide web, both WISCAT and OCLC moved to that platform. The initial WISCAT configuration on the web had a good search interface, but the request management portion was clunky, slow, and difficult. Clearinghouses had big backlogs and there was a lot of dissatisfaction with WISCAT. At this time OCLC was the better ILL software and some libraries and systems switched. At Winding Rivers we believed that WISCAT would improve and we wanted to keep it as an option for Wisconsin libraries.
In 2005 WISCAT moved to a different request management software and things immediately began to improve. The backlogs disappeared and people found the new software much more user friendly. Since that time the development in WISCAT has been toward using the libraries’ online catalogs to do ILL discovery as well as to route ILL requests through the list of potential lenders. Right now, if a library has a catalog that is searchable in WISCAT, that library doesn’t have to do any holdings updates other than in their own catalog. Users search all catalogs simultaneously, submit a request, and let the software not only create the lender list but also recheck the catalog for the item’s availability, skipping them if it finds a status that can’t be borrowed (checked out, lost, missing, etc.). OCLC is also using local catalogs in their ILL process, with catalog links and availability checking incorporated into the OCLC software.  
Desktop and table computers
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Truly these are the good old days for resource sharing. Or perhaps they’re still to come. As the software becomes more adept at matching records and interpreting different catalog results, the current trend in ILL toward quicker, less expensive, less staff intensive processes will only continue to improve Wisconsin resource sharing.

Written by:
Charles Clemence, Winding Rivers Library System