May 12, 2018

NH Libraries Face ILL System Failure

New Hampshire State Library
Photo credit: Magicpiano via Wikimedia Commons

As the New Hampshire State Library (NHSL) ramps up its efforts to buy new interlibrary loan (ILL) software for the first time since 2002, librarians across the Granite State continue using phone calls, email, and other workarounds to keep up with patron requests, almost three months after an aging statewide system finally crashed for good.

NHSL, which has about $600,000 earmarked for the purchase in its FY18–19 budget, had planned to replace its ILL software this year, state librarian Michael York told Library Journal. But when the outdated module went down on December 6, 2017, and could not be revived despite the vendor’s diligent repair efforts, York said the replacement has naturally taken on a greater urgency.

The last system was a SirsiDynix Universal Resource Sharing Application (URSA), the automated ILL component of a larger database known as NHU-PAC, short for New Hampshire Union Public Access Catalog. When the SirsiDynix system was installed in 2002, York said, it was regarded as high-end technology. “It worked very well for us,” he said. But by 2017, the system was, as York admitted, “antiquated.”

SirsiDynix discontinued support for URSA in 2011, with the last major updates issued a few years before that. The company currently offers solutions such as BLUEcloud ILL, but URSA was specifically geared to consortia.

“Anytime a library experiences downtime we take that matter very seriously,” said Scott Wheelhouse, SirsiDynix senior vice president of operations. “Despite the collaborative efforts of onsite personnel from New Hampshire State Library and remote support from SirsiDynix, it was determined that restoration of their locally-hosted system was not viable. URSA hasn’t been commercially available for over ten years. During this time period, URSA customers have been migrating to other ILL solutions.”

Finding and buying its replacement will not be a speedy process. The state must issue a Request for Proposal and see what vendors show interest, York noted. There is no timetable beyond “as quickly as we can,” he said. “We want to make the right decision.”

On a more hopeful note, York said there’s a chance a temporary fix can restore ILL service “in a relatively short time. [A] couple of months at the most.” One solution being considered is the installation of Relais, which is owned by OCLC, a global library cooperative based in Dublin, OH.

“That is the plan,” said York, adding that further research is needed. “But who knows if it’ll come to fruition.” In the meantime, York is posting updates on the NHSL blog to keep librarians in the loop. As of March 5, the stopgap solution remained uncertain.

BUDGET CUTS OR POOR PLANNING?

The state’s librarians, meanwhile, continue fielding loan requests and borrowing materials from other cities to meet their customers’ needs. ILL is a big part of what New Hampshire libraries do, York said, and NHSL remains dedicated to facilitating what he calls “an active resource-sharing philosophy.”

“We’re a very small state with very small libraries,” the state librarian said. “Seventy-five percent of the libraries in New Hampshire serve populations of fewer than 7,500 people. By their nature, they are resource challenged. We don’t have county libraries. We have 234 communities and 234 public libraries.”

In a March 24, 2017 report evaluating Library Services and Technology Act grants, NHSL said it logged 126,675 ILL requests for FY15, which encompassed public, academic, school and special libraries. It loaned 465,296 materials over the same period.

New Hampshire library directors who spoke to LJ all said they were acutely aware that the SirsiDynix ILL system was overdue for replacement. But it did the job, most agreed. York described how an algorithm ensured that larger libraries with bigger collections were not unfairly taxed by statewide patron requests; this helped “level the load” so that smaller libraries were tasked with loaning out what materials they could.

When the ILL software failed, there was heated anger from at least one corner of the state. David Smolen, director of the Conway Public Library, told LJ he blamed NHSL.

Smolen added, “They’ve basically failed the libraries of the state. This system was super old.… We’ve all known the system was dying. Now there’s this crisis. Basically they’ve just been muddling along.”

On February 27, York said he received a letter from Smolen demanding an apology for the ILL failure. The state librarian declined to comment on the Conway library director’s criticism.

York told LJ he’s been lobbying hard for money to replace the ILL system since at least 2010. But the “buzzsaw that was the worst recession since the Great Depression” hit the New Hampshire library community hard in the years after 2008, he added. Requests for capital funds went unheeded.

MAKING DO

NH library directors described the various ILL workarounds they’ve been forced to rely on since early December. The solutions have been, they agreed, fairly low tech and often more labor intensive than usual.

“It’s kind of like we’ve taken a step back in time,” said Concord Public Library (CPL) Director Todd Fabian. “The process is just much slower now.”

Fabian leaves one staffer in charge of fielding inquiries about items in CPL’s collection, and another places holds on items located at libraries around the state. With no more ILL software to do the searching for them, Fabian said plenty of phone calls and emails are required to do the job.

“There’s no alternative,” Fabian said. “That’s just what we have to do. We’re going to do that until we get a system back up and running.”

Julie Perrin, director of the Jaffrey Public Library, says she’s part of a group of 15 libraries that agreed to exchange passwords for scanning collection catalogs online. When a patron comes in looking for a certain book or DVD, those 15 libraries have a computer-assisted means to conduct a quicker search.

“We get a lot of calls,” Perrin said, “‘Do you have your copy of this? Will you send it to us on the van?’ Every time we get one of those calls, we are very forcefully encouraging them: ‘Here, can I give you the login to our catalog?’ It helps us enormously if they log in themselves. They can log in, they can place the reserve on our online catalog. That shows up as a report at our circulation desk that someone’s made a request. We go pull it.”

Hampstead Public Library Director Rosemary Krol said ILL requests are rolling in as frequently as ever.

“It is a big part of what we do,” she said. “Every day we’re doing interlibrary loans. So it’s turned out to be a huge amount of extra work for us, to do it manually. I was just talking to my board about this. It’s more involved for everybody. If there is a silver lining, we all know how to do interlibrary loans now.”

Said Krol of replacing the old URSA system, “There’s been ongoing issues with it and it would have been nice if it had been addressed earlier.”

Still, she doesn’t blame York or the state library. “I’m not angry about it,” Krol said. “It’s an inconvenience for us. This isn’t life and death situation here.”

Denise Van Zanten, director of the large Manchester City Library, described the ILL failure as “a major problem and disservice for the many libraries in New Hampshire.” Her library belongs to GMILCS, a non profit consortium of public and academic libraries in New Hampshire, which makes it easier to share resources and collection information with its members.

“This does not, however, help the smaller libraries,” Van Zanten said.

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