During the week of November 5-9, 2001, more than a dozen librarians exchanged information and recommendations on the topic of library system migration. The lively listserv discussion, moderated by Georgia Briscoe (Associate Director and Head of Technical Services, University of Colorado Law Library) and Jean Willis (Associate Director for Information Systems, San Diego County Public Law Library), delved into many problems which law libraries considering system migration must consider.
The initial question, "Why migrate?" provoked a discussion of the reasons why law libraries undertake such a laborious, time-consuming activity. Some law libraries, frustrated with the level of vendor support for their current system, or burdened with a vendor who cannot compete with available technologies, look elsewhere for a new system. Others go in search of a new system in response to patron expectations of greater functionality than the current system can offer. Libraries have also pursued new systems in order to better dovetail with the IT platforms of their parent organizations, in order to integrate their systems with financial or human resources software used by the parent organization, or as members of library consortia with shared IT needs. Several participants also made the point that the final selection of a new system in a shared environment may not reside with the law library itself, but may be the result of a selection process in which the law library has only one vote.
Participants also debated the merits and dangers of using consultants in the process of finding a new system. Some noted that consultants have been known to harbor a bias in favor of certain system vendors, or to submit "boilerplate" reports written largely before the site visit. A few participants cited the difficulties inherent in expecting an "outsider" to grasp, in a relatively short period of time, the unique needs of the law library and the individual abilities of current staff members. It was pointed out, however, that a small, insular library might benefit from the outside perspective of a consultant, who might be able to see ways in which to use existing staff differently. Several participants also stressed the importance of clearly expressing the needs of the law library to potential consultants, and agreed that asking colleagues for the name of a trusted consultant, and checking the references a consultant offers, are two ways to avoid disappointment with the consultative process.
In addition to the use of consultants, participants identified other strategies they had used in selecting a next-generation system for their law libraries. Among these were site visits to libraries using the system of interest, as well as exploring those libraries' OPACS; talking with librarians in libraries employing the possible system, especially if they use the system in coordination with other institutional software; exploring the web sites of system vendors; joining system users groups, if permitted; and subscribing to user group listservs, when allowed, in order to spot potential problems and to ask questions. Attendance at regional user group meetings, which some vendors permit before a contract has been signed, is another means of finding out details about a vendor. Participants cited several web sites they had found helpful in the selection process, especially during the process of writing the RFP. Among these are www.ilsr.com, www.libraryhq.com, and Pacific Lutheran University's own migration web site, http://plu.edu/~libr/migration/home.html.
Participants also discussed system selection criteria, and advised those responsible to attend seminars on standards (such as Z39.50 and MARC21) and on relational database structure before examining system specifications. Among selection criteria identified by participants as of great importance to most law libraries were support of standards (such as those mentioned above); support for electronic ordering, claiming, and invoicing; and support for electronic collections and for hyperlinking. Several participants also cautioned librarians seeking new systems that customizable systems require more local programming knowledge or IT department support than some law libraries are able to muster.
Training on the new system, which should take place as soon as possible after implementation, was the topic of lively discussion. Several participants, while noting that freeing up sufficient staff time from regular duties sometimes makes scheduling of training a challenge, cited good staff training as critical – staff members who receive inadequate training are liable to be uncomfortable with the new system, and to resist using it. Several participants related good experiences with the "train-the-trainer" approach, and recommended the sharing of expertise among librarians in a consortial environment. Participants noted that incomplete "hands-on" training often results when the trainer is highly familiar with his or her particular system module, but not with the means by which that module may be customized to meet the law library's needs. In addition, several participants remarked that their trainers had been too long in the field, and had not been able to keep up with system enhancements. Above all, urged several participants, law libraries should not hesitate to complain to their vendor if they experience problems with training, since additional training may sometimes be negotiated in this case.
No brief summary can do full justice to the range of topics considered during this listserv discussion. Fortunately, the entire exchange of views has been archived at http://aallnet.org/pipermail/prodev/. This is "must" reading for law librarians considering migrating to a new system, and is highly informative for those of us who have not yet had to meet that challenge.