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A brief history of library technology in the South Pacific

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Lately, I have been thinking about library technology in the South Pacific region. This is mainly due to the fact that I was supposed to have submitted a paper on the subject to the new CODE4LIB journal about a week ago (don't worry editors, I'm still writing!). I though it might help to think aloud and to give anyone out there a chance to correct my facts or put me onto new ones. Feedback is appreciated - please leave a comment below.

While the details are lost to history, libraries arrived to stay in the South Pacific along with the first missionaries. These early libraries in the region existed solely to support mission activities, especially education in mission schools. In 1909, the Carnegie Foundation built what is now the Suva City Library (no website, sigh), marking the first permanent presence of public libraries in the region. Towards the end of the colonial period larger libraries were established to support the work of large academic institutions such as the University of Papua New Guinea (found in 1965) and the University of the South Pacific (USP) (founded in 1968). More recently, international development funds have invested in the establishment of national libraries in the South Pacific such as the Cook Islands National Library (founded in 1993) and older national libraries in countries such as the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. It is worth noting that in some South Pacific countries, one large institution may serve as the de facto national library - for example, the Nelson Memorial Public Library in Samoa or the USP Library in Fiji.

But what of library technology? The few academic libraries in the region that predate the digital era certainly had the experience of card catalogues and all of the related trappings (In fact, many of the automated libraries in the region maintain these venerable artifacts after years of success with their system) and most small libraries in the region rely on the card or other manual instruments as the key tool for library operations. Computers came to the larger South Pacific libraries quite early - USP library went live with their first system in 1988. This was a VAX based Urika system similar to many employed throughout the developed world. Library automation eventually reached a substantial proportion of small and medium libraries in the region through UNESCO's promotion of the free CDS/ISIS library management system in the 1990s.

Around the turn of the millennium a very successful sales and marketing drive took advantage of the frustration with CDS/ISIS in the region - many countries lacked the required expertise to keep it operating - and replaced many CDS/ISIS installs with the commercial DB/TextWorks system running on Windows PCs. However, this approach also soon began to show weaknesses. While DB/TextWorks is reliable and easy to use, most South Pacific libraries lack the funding to purchase support and upgrades for the system. In addition, most libraries in the region purchased versions of DB/TextWorks that do not provide what are now seen as fundamental library system features such as the ability to import/export MARC, Z39.50/SRU support, and provision of web search (a.k.a. web OPAC). This has lead UNESCO to begin seeding the free open source Koha library system into major regional libraries in 2006. I have been fortunate to be involved in the two UNESCO funded Koha installations to date.

Of course, the world of library technology now extends far beyond the main systems that run our libraries, variously called library management systems (LMSs) or integrated library systems (ILSs). Library technology now gets into everything from remote database and Internet access, printing and photocopying, security technologies, self-checkout, online reference services (synchronous or asynchronous), meta-searching, link resolution, and too many more to name. It is safe to generalize that in the South Pacific, only the largest libraries utilize significant technologies beyond cards and an LMS; and even the largest libraries in the region are significantly behind comparable institutions in Australia and New Zealand when it comes to library technology beyond the core system.

Photo by: libraryman


cieart said...

I think before you can start talking about library technology, you gotta think of the situation of libraries in the Pacific. A lot of libraries in the Pacific don't have the funding to even run the library.

I can't believe that the Suva City Library hasn't had a book budget since 1988! Fingers crossed that my information is out of date but that is just shocking if they still don't and rely on donations.

With regards to CDS/ISIS - hate it!

How did your article for CODE4LIB journal go? I'd love to read it.

thrashor said...

cieart: for better or worse, lib tech is the only thing about libraries that i know well. and i work in the usp library in suva, which is an anomaly in the pacific having budget, technology, and actual university trained professional librarians.

i think you are right about the suva city lib. the only new books that they get are donations.

i, fortunately, have never had to use cds-isis. i have used koha and a few commercial systems.

i have asked CODE4LIB to put my article in the 2nd issue as i just have not been getting it done.

cieart said...

Yes, I noticed that you work for USP for Document Imaging and Reproduction Project. Is that with Alice?

USP Library was the first library I worked in - over 6 years ago.

thrashor said...

yes indeed. i'm alice's boss's boss.