Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
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A "special" System For A "special" Library

Researching for a library system for the Handweavers and Spinners Guild Auckland Inc.

This article is a brief report describing the experience I had in trying to help the Handweavers and Spinners Guild Auckland Inc. research for a system for their library upgrade towards the end of last year. The research process has made me realise once again that every library has its own needs and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a single problem. The following is a brief description of the process I went through which had given me better insight into the world of small special libraries. 

The Handweavers and Spinners Guild Auckland Inc. is an affiliated group of Creative Fibre, the national New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcraft Society (NZSWWS). It is a small hobby group and currently has approximately 100 members focussing on a wide range of textile crafts such as spinning, weaving, felting, knitting, etc. Now located at the Textile Arts Centre in Mt. Eden, the Guild was founded at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1954 and throughout the years, has organised numerous workshops and exhibitions for members as well as for the public. The Guild library was set up a year after the group was formed, and over time has built up a special collection of over 1,000 textile-related books, approximately 1,300 copies of journals in 35 titles, and a few dozen video resources.

All books at the Guild library are classified and labelled by genres – WEA for weaving, FEL for felting, KNI for knitting, etc., then followed by a 3-digit accession number according to the sequence they arrive at the library. As for the journal collection, not all copies are catalogued. Many journals also have duplicate copies as a result of frequent donation but owing to the lack of time and an established system, they are simply tucked away in boxes, waiting for cataloguing. Because there has never been a complete count of the library resource, shelf-reading and a traditional card catalogue are the only ways to know for sure whether something is, or is not, in the collection. 

As with many small libraries, handwritten index cards serve as the library catalogue and they are filed by call numbers. Each time a book is taken out, members write down their name and the date on the card and place it in a separate filing box until the item is returned. The system had worked well for years but towards the end of 2010, when the Guild librarian announced her retirement after managing the collection for over ten years, it generated discussions on whether there is a need to upgrade the library to a more sophisticated system. At about the same time, the Guild president happened to stumble on a home-library software over the Internet called the Book Collector and thought it might be an option for their small collection. When the new librarian took over, I, as a member of the Guild, was asked if I knew anything about the Book Collector and whether I could offer help in researching for a suitable system for their library. 

In starting my research, I emailed the SLIS-NZ list in November hoping to hear from other librarians who have similar experience in setting up and managing a small specialised library and to find out about other possible options. A majority of those responses recommended Koha – an open-sourced system originally developed in 1999 for the New Zealand Horowhenua Library Trust. Since then Koha has become world-famous and is popular amongst special libraries both within and outside New Zealand. Library literature indicates that open source systems have several advantages, including the ability to change the software according to the library’s needs, low cost, and no restriction on use. The freedom to refine user-interface to make it more user-friendly is also a major plus. Studies comparing various open source systems such as OpenbiblioEvergreen and PhpMyLibrary have frequently rated Koha as the best choice for small and medium-sized libraries. New Zealand-based science company Plant & Food Research recently went through the process of upgrading their library with Koha using an outside contractor and the librarian was very positive about the change. There are cautions however, that Koha does require a certain amount of IT knowledge and expertise to enable it to work efficiently and there will be major challenges if the librarian does not possess those relevant skills.

Despite the reputation and testimonials and the fact that it is free, the Guildlibrarian felt that the Koha option was too complicated. She was also concerned about the technological expertise required to set up and run the system and the fact that Koha does provide a fee-based technical support (shared amongst the user community) did not reassure her. 
Access-it was the other commercial option suggested to me through the SLIS-NZ list. Both librarians of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists and theSouth Pacific College of Natural Therapies expressed high praise for its user interface and functionalities. It was described as powerful and sophisticated. However, considering its cost and level of sophistication, it was not a viable option for the Guild.

We then turned to LibraryThing – a Web 2.0 social cataloguing/networking application based on the idea of “cloud computing” technology.  Cloud computing refers to applications and data that are housed by third-party providers on the web (up in the “cloud”) and so avoids the technical problems relating to local servers and software. Other advantages ofLibraryThing are visibility on the web, participants sharing a common format and the ability to make contributions within the community. Cataloguing inLibraryThing is also very easy. Users only have to scan ISBN barcodes and that automatically searches for corresponding records from databases all over the world. It also offers a feature called “widgets” whereby users can search the LibraryThing catalogue directly from the hosting organisations’ website.  In fact, many libraries around the world have already incorporated widgets into their OPACs to link related books in their collections and provide users with information such as jacket images, reviews and tags. In terms of cost, LibraryThing is very affordable, personal or organisational accounts are both free for up to 200 books while life membership costs only US$25. 

Plenty of studies have been done comparing LibraryThing with other popular social cataloguing applications such as Gurulib and ShelfariLibraryThingoften gets the highest rating and seems to be the preferred choice for library professionals. One possible reason for this is that LibraryThing has the ability to source data from “real” libraries such as the Library of Congress, theBritish Library and over 680 other world libraries. Earlier this year, founder and developer Tim Spalding even announced his intention to adopt the library world’s FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) concept to facilitate easier navigation through hierarchy of relationships between works. 

Considering overall versatility and the low level of technical expertise required, LibraryThing seemed like the best choice. The fact that other local hobby groups such as the Wellington Quilters Guild Library are already using it to host their online catalogue was also very encouraging. However, withLibraryThing’s claim of being the world’s first and largest personal and social cataloguing community, the librarian was unsure of the “fame and exposure” they neither desire nor need. She was also concerned that members may find the social tagging terms confusing rather than helpful. The conclusion they came to after reviewing the above options was that they do not fit the needs of the Guild library. 

The last option – the Book Collector, is a book database software that is lesser-known within the library community. If it was not for the fact that theGuild proposed it as an option in the first place, I would not have known the existence of such a choice. Book Collector is actually part of the Dutch company’s product range that includes other multi-media software such as Music Collector and Movie Collector, even Game Collector. Described as a “home inventory software”, Book Collector functions like any other database software where users can sort, search and even track loans. Its interface is simple and easy to use, and like LibraryThing, cataloguing input can be done by scanning ISBN barcodes that retrieve records from libraries around the world. Book Collector comes in three editions with different functionalities depending on user needs. The standard version costs US$29.95 and the version that allows users to publish the database online --Book Collector Connect, is based on a subscription fee of US$19.95 per year. 

The fact that no studies were done regarding its functionality or usability and almost no mention within library literature meant that I was unable to judge or evaluate Book Collector’s performance. Apart from one librarian that I know through the SLIS-NZ list who had used the software to catalogue her home library, there was no other first-hand information I could draw on. Consequently, I could not offer any comments but leave it to the Guild to decide whether Book Collector is the option that suits their needs best.

At the time of writing, the Guild has confirmed their decision to go ahead with Book Collector Connect. Although the librarian is unsure of putting the catalogue online just as yet, she said the Guild may explore this feature in the near future. Needless to say, Guild members are feeling very excited about the upgrade finally going to happen and everyone is looking forward to it. 

The process of helping the Handweavers and Spinners Guild research for a suitable software was an interesting journey for me and I have learned a lot.  My conclusion to this research is that special libraries often have their own specific needs. What looks like to be the “right” choice in terms of functionalities and usability may not necessarily be the choice that fits the needs of these very “special” libraries out there!

Lai Lam
Cataloguing Department
University of Auckland Library
April 2011


For more information about the library systems mentioned above, visit the following links:

Another great resourse!

To find out about the Handweavers and Spinners Guild Auckland Inc., follow this link:

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