Table of Contents
Previous Article

 
Interview: Tracey Robinson

Tracey Robinson is the head of the Harvard University Library Office for Information Systems (OIS). As such, she is the chief executive for the implementation of Aleph, the new integrated library system that will replace the HOLLIS catalog in July 2002. Robinson came to the Harvard Library system as a systems librarian in 1980. She was, in her own words, "intimately involved" with the development of the original HOLLIS system.

On November 15, 2000, Harvard entered into an agreement with the Ex Libris company (see Library Notes at http://hul.harvard.edu/publications/library_notes/1299/aleph.html) for the purchase and installation of its Aleph system. Tracey Robinson was interviewed for Library Notes on December 14 specifically to provide an inside view and a general update for Harvard librarians and library staff on the Aleph implementation.

LN
Everyone has the same question: one year into the contract, how is the Aleph implementation going?

TR
Well, we've got six months before we "go live" on Aleph. We've accomplished a great deal but there is still much to do. There are more than a hundred Harvard librarians involved in configuring Aleph and preparing Harvard for using the new system. Broadly speaking, we're working very hard in six areas:

Conversion. We have to migrate all active data from HOLLIS into Aleph. This is clearly a critical task.

Configuring the system. The system must be setup to reflect Harvard policies, practices, and organizational structures.

Desktop and server operations. We've been learning how to configure both the desktop client software and the server software. We're also developing procedures that will allow us to distribute, install, and maintain the desktop clients, which will be used by library staff: a total of about 1,200 computers located throughout the Harvard libraries.

Training. It's a massive effort to get all Harvard librarians trained. Curriculum is being developed now and classes will begin in the spring. Training for students, faculty, and other "end users" will come later and will be handled locally.

System developments by Ex Libris. We've contracted with Ex Libris for a long list of enhancements. We saw the first set of these this past summer. The second round of developments are being installed this month and a third set of changes will be done by February or early March. We're all anxious to get our hands on the next release of the system to see how well they have implemented our specifications.

System developments in OIS. There are some developments we'll need to program ourselves. The biggest local development, of course, is the design of the new online catalog interface. The new web-based OPAC will be a dramatic improvement over the old HOLLIS catalog in terms of design, ease of use, and functionality. Demos of the new OPAC are planned for later this spring. Other local developments include setting up a data feed between Aleph and HD for processing recall requests. There are also electronic "links" to other Harvard systems that must be established such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, student term bill, the university PIN service, and the central patron database.

LN
Will you be on time?

TR
Yes, we fully expect to go live on time. There will be some features that won't be ready for Day One but given the energy that people are putting into it and the oversight provided by the steering committee, I am confident that the system will come up in July.

LN
When is Day One?

TR
July 1, 2002. The plan is to bring HOLLIS down-with the exception of circulation-in the middle of June. Circulation will continue until right up to the last weekend in June. And then, on Friday, June 28, we'll shut down HOLLIS for good and bring up Aleph on Monday morning.

LN
Will end users need to know the name "Aleph"?

TR
Aleph is the vendor's name for the system. We won't use Aleph as a public system name. There have been recent discussions about what to name the new system and we expect a decision from University Library Council soon.

LN
What are the gains and losses of going from a home-grown system like our current HOLLIS catalog to a system like Aleph that is, in a way, bought off the shelf?

TR
The perceived losses are mostly in terms of independence and control. We need to negotiate with the vendor, and collaborate with other customers, to prioritize new developments. But the gains are significant. If we had chosen to build our own system again, the cost of doing it and the time that it would have taken would have been enormous. It would have taken many, many, many years and the project would have distracted us from developments in digital library services.

Transitioning from HOLLIS to a new system will undoubtedly feel like a loss to many people but we should all keep in mind that Aleph will fit much better into the current technical environment than HOLLIS ever could. It will provide features that offer long-awaited improvements such as a new web-based online catalog. Among other things, these will allow patrons to setup profiles and access personal library account information, online MARC documentation for staff, facilities for importing bibliographic records in real-time, predictive serial check-in, the ability to email orders and claims, just to name a few. Finally, there will be future gains because the new technical environment will allow for a more rapid rate of development than what we were used to in the HOLLIS mainframe environment.

LN
When the agreement was made with Ex Libris, six specific areas of enhancements were to be addressed, by contract, for the Harvard implementation. How are those going?

TR
We will see most of the enhancements in the next two months. They include:

Improvements to indexing. Our database is one of the largest ever converted to Aleph. Indexing is the single most important feature of a library database—it must work well or patrons won't be able to do their research and staff won't be able to do their work. We spent a lot of time on specifications for index improvements to ensure that searching our large database will work well and make sense.

Improvement to the input and display for MARC holdings data. This is one of the really hard ones. We're not going to see holdings until February, and there's a lot of frustration right now on the serials team since they've not been able to see the improvements related to serial holdings. Our holdings are vast and displaying holdings coherently for patrons is a major challenge. Data in holdings records may also be used for serial processing and check-in—providing the holdings records have been encoded correctly.

LN
Is that a particularly intractable place?

TR
At the moment there is serious concern because Aleph supports automated predictive check-in and we are not quite ready for it. Predictive check-in allows the system to say, "Okay, I know something about the publication pattern and timing of this serial, so I can predict what you expect to receive and when you expect to receive it. I'll set up check-in screens for you with your expected issues." But predictive check-in relies on serial patterns, which live in the holdings records. Although some libraries at Harvard have been building MARC holdings records for the last fifteen years, not all departments have done it comprehensively or have kept the records up to date. And because that pattern data hasn't been used by a computer, it has not been tested. So, there's an unexpected amount of conversion work for holdings before predictive check-in will work.

LN
Back to our list: enhancements to make Aleph compatible with Harvard's 33-digit chart of accounts.

TR
The chart of accounts and several other things in the accounting area are due in January, so we will see them soon. Those changes are straightforward and I'm confident that we'll be able to work well with what they've done for us.

LN
Improvements to staff/client interfaces (for the circulation, acquisitions, and cataloging modules).

TR
This is an area where we're going to see some delay-and we've already put out public announcements about this. The Aleph staff/client interfaces—the "look and feel"-need improvement. They are difficult to learn and seem inefficient because of the excessive number of windows and inconsistencies between the different functional modules. Last year, Ex Libris (wisely) hired a designer who has been working on overhauling the staff client interfaces. He has developed some very interesting prototypes. Although the client interface for circulation will be done before we go live, the client interfaces for all the technical services modules (such as cataloging, acquisitions, and serials) will be delayed until next year.

LN
According to the contract, there are meant to be new features relative to the Depository.

TR
These are not really new features for us—but rather adding to Aleph, features we have in HOLLIS that allow patrons to request items from HD. There will be some improvements over HOLLIS because we will add a process to feed information from HD back to Aleph, when materials are returned to the Depository, thus improving our ability to track and locate items housed at HD.

LN
How about support for non-Roman bibliographic data?

TR
Non-Roman is a very important development for Harvard. In January we'll see the developments related to the support for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. Aleph will support other non-Roman scripts as well (Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, etc.). The ability to support the non-Roman characters will provide a new opportunity for catalogers creating records in these languages. We will be loading something in the range of 300,000 records that have vernacular data in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Catalogers will be able to create and maintain records including vernacular characters in Aleph—a major advance. These records will be loaded as soon as Aleph comes up and will be available in the catalog before the fall semester.

LN
The next two months include quite a number of critical moments.

TR
The first big milestone is loading all 9 million bibliographic records-and all of the orders, items, and holdings records associated with them. And then there's the process of indexing the full database, which we expect to be very time-consuming. By the end of January, we'll have a better sense of how long it takes to load and index the entire Harvard file. Once the data is loaded and indexed, we will perform a series of performance or "scale" tests. This step is critical one for us given the size of our database. Ex Libris does not have much experience with running a database the size of Harvard's.

LN
Not many vendors would.

TR
We have plans for doing at least two scale tests: one in February and another one in April. From these tests, we will learn how to tune or re-configure the system and whether we have sufficient hardware to support good performance and reasonable response time.

Another big milestone is the beginning of the training program. Training will start in early April. The most intensive training period will be April through July, but we expect an elevated level of training classes to continue well into the fall.

LN
Who is actually handling the training?

TR
Julie Wetherill and Cathy Conroy are coordinating the training program along with the Training Advisory Group. They are working with forty volunteer trainers from the libraries who are developing the training curriculum and who will be carrying out the training starting in April.

LN
That's terrific. You've had a great response from the entire library community.

TR
Yes, the level of involvement by library staff has been really impressive. I've heard and seen a wide range of responses from library staff in the past year. Of course, there is a lot of anxiety, but also curiosity about what it all means and where we're going. There's anticipation, a certain amount of dread, and certainly a bit of resistance. But there's also excitement. The opportunity to rethink the way we do our work—and to reinvent the way things are done—is surprisingly rare. I think that, particularly among the implementation teams, there's a great deal of satisfaction that goes along with the frustration and the hard work.

Working with Harvard librarians is such a pleasure because they approach this kind of challenge with a great deal of intelligence as well as common sense. They're very creative but they're also very practical in how they approach things. And they're very eager but they're also patient. All of these skills will contribute to the success of the Aleph implementation.

LN
Thank you.

Table of Contents | Previous Article



Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.