Campus libraries use tech to streamline student searches, staff work

Library technology will save one campus "five figures" annually, an official said.

A smart-phone application has ended the days of database searches at Boston College libraries, and staff members at Eastern Illinois University’s library can take inventory in two hours instead of two days, thanks to emerging technologies that are gaining traction as higher-education budgets are slashed.

Developing and maintaining these services comes with a price tag, campus library officials said, but the cost savings have been worth the investment as library operating budgets dwindle, along with those of most departments at colleges and universities struggling through the country’s economic downturn.

Some institutions have struggled through these budget cuts – California State University East Bay students protested a proposed 10-percent library cut last spring, for example – while others have searched for ways to maintain student and faculty services using popular technologies.

The eight Boston College (BC) libraries are using an app accessible via smart phone – including popular iPhones and Droids – that helps students avoid tedious searches for textbooks in the first days of each semester.

Gone are the days of logging into the campus library system, entering course numbers, and finding books one by one. Boston College students can now log into the application, which will generate a list of textbooks they might need for the coming semester.

The application, called Logi Insight for Libraries, was created by developers at BC, Texas Tech, and New York University, and accesses student schedules to create a list of their courses’ books and where they’re located in the library.

Kevin Kidd, manager of BC’s library applications and systems, said a mobile device app seemed a logical step in bringing convenient services to students.

“They’ll show up to the library, and they might not have their laptop, but they all have phones, and a large number [of students] have smart phones. … And now, they don’t have to do any actual searching,” Kidd said. “Our libraries are packed, but most of our interaction with our faculty and students is [electronic] interaction. We have to be aware of that and think about how we’re going to put services into that context.”

A robust campus library website is a useful tool for faculty members and their students, he said, but as mobile web use becomes commonplace, iPhone and Droid apps will be essential in keeping up with student preferences.

“Before this, we put the website up and just kind of hoped someone looked at it,” Kidd said. “Now we can push the information out to them. … Being able to do that is huge for us.”

Logi Insight for Libraries was recently launched at Texas Tech’s library, and New York University will deploy the application this spring, said Matt Hoffman, product manager for LogiXML, the business intelligence company that worked with BC to create the smart-phone app.

“We’re making it so that it’s very fast and easy to deploy in a very repeatable way,” he said. “So we can get a university up and running in a very few weeks.”

Making library services available on web-enabled phones has become a priority for small and large schools alike. An international market research firm, International Data Corp. (IDC), released a report last fall that predicted a 55-percent jump in smart-phone sales over the next year.

There were about 270 million smart phones shipped during 2010, a marked increase from the 173 million sold in 2009, according to IDC’s projections. More than 119 million smart phones were shipped in the first half of 2010, up from the 77 million shipped in the first six months of 2009.

A national survey of 500 students nationwide conducted by a researcher at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., showed that smart-phone usage among college students increased from 27 percent in February 2009 to 48 percent in July 2010.

Nine of 10 students who own a smart phone use the device to access the internet, according to the Ball State survey, conducted by journalism professor Michael Hanley, director of the university’s Institute for Mobile Media Research.

The use of smart phones on college campuses doubled between 2009 and 2010, according to the institute’s research.

The campus library application also could be useful in tracking book circulation data, budgets numbers, and a host of other information that would be most convenient in one location instead of a dozen databases that take hours to sift through.

“The bottom line is that the libraries recognize the need to understand who is using their resources, and where they should focus their budget,” said Brett Jackson, CEO of LogiXML.

Book collecting and inventory – the efficient way

Linda Moore, director of career services at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) in Charleston, Ill., said the campus library used to hire extra help to check in more than 80,000 volumes of books each semester, and two employees would take about two and a half days to record inventory of every textbook in the library.

“It was a lot of labor,” Moore said. “It always looked like a little ant farm.”

Taking EIU’s inventory now takes a couple hours, she said, thanks to a system called Ultrasort, made by Minnesota-based TechLogic. And students no longer have to stand in line for 45 minutes during peak textbook return hours. They’re in and out in 15 minutes.

The university is one of only a few in the country that has its own textbook rental service, although many campuses use third-party book rental companies, and popular websites like Chegg and BookRenter save students hundreds each semester.

The Ultrasort system automatically checks in students’ books when they drop them into one of nine collection bins that can only be accessed with a student ID.

Inventory is made easier because Ultrasort comes with electronic checkout pads that scan the radio-frequency identification (RFID) of each textbook. This means many books can be checked in and out of the EIU library at once, rather than library staff members entering the textbook information one at a time.

Moore didn’t disclose how much the university spent on the Ultrasort system, but she said EIU’s savings would be “in the five figures” with the new technology. The university is the first in the country to use the Ultrasort system, according to TechLogic.

“We knew that this would save us money in all the extra help we used to hire to handle sorting books,” she said, adding that Ultrasort is available to students 24 hours a day, making a textbook return more convenient for students who have classes during the day and work at night.

“In our society of needing things faster and better and more efficient, this seemed like a logical step,” Moore said. “The indications are that this was going to meet our needs and maybe exceed them, which is a very good thing.”

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