Maine’s Magic Network of Library Services
(from Maine Townsman, May 2003)
b
y John R. Clark, Library Systems Specialist, Maine State Library

      Exciting things have been happening in Maine’s library system.  In June 1996, Maine voters approved a bond issue to create the Maine Infonet, a statewide library information system that would be accessible to all Maine citizens regardless of their actual proximity to a local library.  Over the next several years, the groundwork was laid for an impressive array of library services.

 

       Creating such a network didn’t happen overnight.  Careful and inclusive planning was necessary to ensure that all libraries across the state could participate.  Librarians representing all areas of the Maine library community—academic, school, technical, public and specialized libraries (such as hospital, museum, and corporate libraries)—were involved in the planning process.  These librarians, in conjunction with the Maine Library Commission, looked at how other states were creating virtual library systems and compared them to the unique needs of our state, taking into account our large geographical area and our significant number of smaller communities.  The planning effort took care to ensure that the bond money would be allocated in ways that offered a significant opportunity for expanded services to every library in the state.

 

       By 2000, the effort of all involved began to bear fruit.  That was the year that two new library entities were born: MINERVA (Maine Info Net Electronic Resources Via Automation), and the Maine Infonet Holdings Database.  MINERVA is a shared library catalog that provides access to the resources owned by all participating libraries.   While the majority of libraries had already replaced their old card catalogs with automated systems, prior to MINERVA, each library used its own system, paid for its own software, maintained its own records, and was able to provide access to only its own resources through its catalog.  Libraries choosing to participate in MINERVA became part of a cooperative effort, using a shared catalog accessible to anyone from any location via the Internet.  MINERVA libraries are able to offer access not only to their own resources, but to those of all other participating libraries. 

 

       Expectations for MINERVA were initially conservative.  Uncertainty about annual costs for a shared online public access catalog led most of those involved with the original planning effort to believe that 10 or so member libraries at the end of the first two years would be a success.  By the beginning of year two, those same individuals were shaking their heads and smiling as MINERVA approached 25 members, including all the technical colleges, Andover, Husson, Thomas and St. Joseph Colleges, many of the mid-sized public libraries and even a couple health science libraries in hospitals.

 

       What happened to convince these members of the Maine library community that a shared system with an annual maintenance cost that was, in general, higher than what they paid for a stand-alone system was a desirable investment?  Each member of MINERVA might give a different answer.  Many like the fact that the company behind the software – Innovative Interfaces of Emeryville, CA – has sold their product to thousands of libraries around the world and is continually upgrading and improving the product.  Others like the nightly offsite backup of records or the availability of several levels of technical and practical support and training.  Still others like the access to good quality bibliographic records, and the participation in user groups for catalogers, circulation staff and administrators, which all have their own web-based communication system to share problems, get answers and vent when things don’t go as expected.

 

       In addition, the MINERVA library community has created its own executive council, elected by member library directors to set policy and annual fees while providing guidance on training and support needs to the two library professionals who provide setup, training and support to member libraries.  The formula is an attractive one to the Maine library community – by the fall of 2003, the number of active MINERVA libraries will have reached 50.  Growth in MINERVA over the next several years will come primarily from the Maine school community.  The Augusta School District’s seven schools have acted as test and flagship to get the system software configured to school needs.  The power, flexibility and cost savings that MINERVA offers have attracted SAD 4 in Guilford as well as the schools in Bingham and Moscow.  Both districts will join the Augusta schools in MINERVA by September of 2003.

 

       MINERVA’s attractiveness extends beyond the library professionals and paraprofessionals who use it on a daily basis.  Patrons in MINERVA libraries like the ability to browse library catalogs 24 hours a day as well as having the ability to request and renew books from home.  In addition, about half of the MINERVA libraries have activated a feature that allows patrons to request books from other participating libraries when their own library doesn’t own the item.  Once the request is initiated, the software allows the owning library to process the request, print a routing slip and send the item to the requesting patron’s home library where it is checked out to the patron.  This new feature increases the patron’s access to books, videos, DVDs, and audiobooks several times over.

 

       One of the newer members of MINERVA is Maine State Outreach, formerly known as the Special Services Section of the Maine State Library.  This new library- within-a-library offers vital services to Maine citizens in rural areas without library services through its Books-By-Mail program, as well as provides Talking Books (books-on-tape) to the visually impaired.  Maine State Outreach is busily adding the resources in these collections to MINERVA, and is activating patron-initiated requesting to make these services quicker and more accessible.  Since Maine State Outreach serves all towns in Maine with severely limited or no library services, their inclusion in MINERVA and their decision to make patron-initiated requesting available to those they serve exemplifies the very spirit of the Maine Infonet Project.

 

       But what about non-MINERVA libraries?  The planning process did not neglect Maine libraries whose budget or collection size excludes MINERVA as a viable option.  The project created the Maine Infonet Holdings Database to allow libraries not participating in MINERVA to contribute their bibliographic records to a statewide database, thus making their resources known to other libraries and to the public.  Unlike the MINERVA catalog, which is dynamic and constantly being updated as items are borrowed and returned, the Holdings Database simply displays the materials owned by the libraries that have contributed their records.  Access to MINERVA and the Holdings Database allows anyone to locate desired resources available throughout the state.

 

       As of May 2003, 14 libraries had added their holdings to the Maine Infonet Holdings Database, and another 10 were in the process of submitting their records for inclusion.    But the Holdings Database is an evolving work.  It is now attracting special libraries like the Portland Museum of Art, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Library, The Landing School in Kennebunkport, the Penobscot Marine Museum and the Owls Head Transportation Museum.  While these libraries do not circulate any items, they all recognize the importance of having a web presence that allows their holdings to be searchable so researchers and scholars will be able to access rare and information-rich bibliographic resources.  In addition, the Maine State Archives is exploring a grant opportunity that would allow the Holdings Database to take a new and exciting turn and would create a process whereby Maine museums would be able to catalog museum items and collections using the same sort of records used to catalog books; these records could even include digital images of each item in the collection.  If this possibility materializes, it would go far beyond the original intent of the project and would open exciting new resources for students, researchers, art lovers and those considering a cultural vacation in Maine.

 

       The efforts of the Maine Infonet Project go well beyond MINERVA and the Holdings Database.  The bond funds also created an umbrella catalog known as the Maine Infonet Statewide Catalog.  This can also be accessed from the Maine State Library homepage (http://www.state.me.us/msl).  This effort also continues to evolve and allows Maine residents to search URSUS (the shared catalog of the University of Maine System, Bangor Public Library, the Maine State Library, and Maine Law and Legislation Reference Library,)  MINERVA, the Holdings Database, Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Maine College of Art, University of New England, Portland Public Library and Maine Maritime Academy from one screen.  It will allow for a smooth and seamless way for Maine library patrons to borrow items from most of the libraries represented.  URSUS, Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Maine College of Art, Portland Public Library, half of the MINERVA Libraries and several of the Holdings Database libraries are already set up to process such transactions and new software will be purchased later this year to make the process smoother and more equitable.

 

       The seed planted in 1996 by Maine voters has found fertile soil in the Maine library community and continues to grow and flourish — often in ways undreamed of when it was drafted.  If you are interested in staying abreast of the project, the Maine Libraries listserv called ME-LIBS is one way, and it is open to anyone in Maine — not just library staff and trustees.  Information is frequently shared there about the project.  Subscription information is listed on the Maine State Library website at http://www.state.me.us/msl/mgmelibs.htm.   We encourage you to join and learn more about this most dynamic resource for Maine citizens.