UNILINC History

UNILINC, formerly CLANN, was established to benefit public education and libraries serving public education through the provision of shared services and facilitating resource sharing.

Assisted by an initial grant of $30,000 from the NSW Higher Education Board, UNILINC has operated on an entirely cost recovery basis since it started operations in 1978. With an annual membership fee of $1,000, current turnover is close to $2 million, from which the company funds state-of-the-art systems for members and employs some twenty library and related staff. This revenue is derived from fees for services and products provided to members and many clients Australia wide and overseas.

The seminal seventies

There was something in the air in the 1970s that brought the right people together to enable CLANN to become a reality in New South Wales higher education. In the USA, OCLC had set the model for what could be achieved through cooperative cataloguing amongst Ohio Colleges.

The key driver in the formation of CLANN was Dorothy Peake who, along with Carmel Maguire, carried out a study for the NSW Higher Education Board on the sharing of catalogue data in 1974. Dorothy was later to become the Chair of CLANN, a role she held for the ten years to 1989.

The political will required to transform an idea into reality came from many sources and included Ron Parry (Chair of the NSW Higher Education Board); Vincent Delaney and Garth McKinnon (senior staff of the Education Department) and John Williams, also from the Department, who worked behind the scenes on the legal issues; Cliff Blake, Sam Phillips and Graham Swain (College Principals who threw their weight behind CLANN); Ken Gee, Owen Carter and Bob Gillam (among other Senior College Administrators who became enthusiastic supporters and kept an eye on financial matters); and Dagmar Schmidmaier and other College academic staff.

College Librarians, most notably Margaret Macpherson, James O'Brien, John Cummings and Joanna Spark, provided enthusiastic support and encouragement for this new venture and made an enormous contribution to the task of establishing the organisation through their work on committees and behind the scenes. Along with Dorothy, they also generously made staff available to work on the much needed standards and other cataloguing issues.

The company was managed for its first two years by Allen Hall and then Mary Bays. There are many other names from the 1970s and there have been many, many wonderful people in the 25 years since 1978 who have played a vital role as staff, as Directors, as committee members, as suppliers and as friends and supporters of UNILINC.

The first task of the cooperative was to create a machine readable database of library cataloguing records available for reuse by all members. The idea was not new as OCLC had shown this was possible in the early 1970s. In Australia, we were very fortunate to have the services of Jan Gatenby of Libramatics who designed a cataloguing system that enabled the sharing of data, was easy to use, was inexpensive to support and took account of data communications costs and limitations at the time. This was taken up by CLANN at much the same time as Technilib (since ceased operating due to changes in legislation governing public libraries) and CAVAL in Victoria.

The shared database had its first record input well before CLANN was incorporated and was immediately successful. Within months cataloguing backlogs were eliminated and retrospective conversions completed without libraries needing to increase staff. Wonderful resources were on the shelves and ready for use within days instead of months and for the first time users could find out not only what was in their library but in all the Colleges in NSW. At the end of 1979, the database held 174,000 records as a result of cataloguing effort as well as the loading of the computer files of two member libraries. It now stands at over ten times that.

The exciting eighties

That UNILINC has continued to be relevant in the 25 years since those heady early days can be attributed to many factors. One factor has to be that it has never taken financial or other support for granted and has worked to remain relevant by seeking and encouraging ideas for innovation in service, products and resource sharing. Cooperative endeavours are ideal environments for innovation in that many ideas come from the members or arise from conversations about this need or that problem. Through UNILINC it is possible to leverage the resultant service or product so that it is useful to a wider group. This in turn supports the ongoing viability of the innovation. UNILINC was an innovation and continues to be sustained by it.

1982 was a milestone year. In response to a plea for help from one small library, UNILINC entered into what may be the first consortium database deal in Australia when it negotiated discounts with Ausinet and Dialog. This activity expanded as the technology evolved and in 1986 the first CD ROM products were sourced and offered. The next big change came in 1994, when UNILINC and the US based Ovid Technologies worked together to provide site licence arrangements for databases that were just becoming available over the Internet. In recent years, in recognition that members now have other avenues for preferential deals, most notably CAUL, UNILINC has limited its activity to certain key services; nevertheless key databases are still provided to members under favourable conditions.

Contract cataloguing was another service undertaken at the behest of a member library in 1982. Who would have foreseen how cataloguing outsourcing would grow as it has. Today clients for the UNILINC shelf ready services come from far beyond the membership. Many libraries - state, university, public and special - avail themselves of this service directly or through library book suppliers. All types of cataloguing are catered for across a broad range of interfacing technologies, client systems and Kinetica (Libraries Australia). Specialities of the service research items, music and other non-book materials and community languages as well as the more regular library accessions.

Another innovation from 1982 was the Reciprocal Borrowing Scheme, the first such scheme in Australia. The scheme covers students as well as staff, is free of charges and includes all types of libraries. This was followed with free interlibrary lending between members. In the same year the network voted to contribute its holdings to the then National Union Catalogue operated by the National Library of Australia, something UNILINC has continued to do ever since. Indeed, in 2000, UNILINC was the largest contributor of holdings to the National Bibliographic Database.

In 1984, the network implemented the online version of the Idaps cataloguing system (LION) having worked with Idaps on the specifications. The next year saw the implementation of a shared OPAC and Circulation system (the UNILINC Shared System). The Shared System went on to incorporate Acquisitions and, after a change in ownership of Idaps, Cataloguing. Today the Shared System has over thirty library sites connected and over 100,000 new cataloguing items are added per annum. The shared cataloguing and systems activities of UNILINC constitute a story in innovation themselves and have involved UNILINC and its suppliers in seeking new and better ways if achieving desired outcomes. Some examples of technical and service innovation over the 20 years of the Shared System include the network patron card using technology developed by Leigh Mardon in 1984, the first z39.50 handshake in Australia, KINSER, borrower history and the use of call centre software to support help desk services, to name a few.

The bicentennial year gave rise to the CLANN CD CAT, Australia's first library database on CD ROM. Developed to meet the needs of some of the more remote libraries. This has remained in regular production for fourteen years and it is hoped that once adjustments are made to the output from the new software used in the Shared System, it will resume production this year. Over the years, the original software and its various upgrades has been licensed to other libraries in Australia and overseas.

The networked nineties

With the amalgamations and changes in higher education in the early 1990s, UNILINC university members were keen to exploit the new technology of the Internet. Access to the university catalogues in UNILINC and some other university catalogues was possible over the Internet but users had to learn the various interfaces. So began the process of looking for a means of providing a single user interface. The eventual result was the development in 1991 of Liblink, a system to link the disparate library catalogues of the universities in NSW. Funded by DEET, Liblink was developed with an Australian company, CPS Systems, on behalf of the NSW Vice Chancellors' Conference and their library advisory committee, UNISON. Liblink continued in use for nine years until 1999 at which time the promise of broadcast searching using z39.50 was thought to be imminent. The technology developed for Liblink and its associated user initiated interlibrary loans system has gone on to commercial success in the United States.

The next year (1992) saw another project involving UNILINC and CPS Systems, who were the software providers for the Self Check system developed and owned by 3M Australia and which became a world wide success. UNILINC undertook the prototype testing and a member library was the site of the first implementation of this product anywhere in the world.

In the mid 1990s UNILINC attracted commercial clients to its system and network management services. In 1994 UNILINC worked with Ovid to win the tender with CAUL to provide the Current Contents database service. UNILINC initially borrowed a computer and then purchased one from IBM for the purpose. At the same time UNILINC, on behalf of five members, had purchased its own hardware and was implementing the Ovid software in order to provide online access to ten core databases. Upon success in winning the Current Contents tender, Ovid approached UNILINC to host and manage what became the Ovid Australia Service. This service at its height included nearly all of the university libraries and health agencies and offered over fifty databases online. It was a real innovation in service delivery. The UNILINC model proved the value of a hosted online approach and provided the means by which Ovid could rapidly extend its market in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and several European countries. Eventually Ovid established its own service out of Utah and in 2004 after 10 exciting years it was decided that UNILINC too would migrate its members to the Utah server in order to take advantage of the growing list of Ovid e-journal resources.

The next major service initiative was in 1997, when the Western Australian Group of University Librarians (WAGUL) commissioned UNILINC to undertake an investigation into the feasibility of a collaborative approach to cataloguing for the four publicly funded universities in W.A.

UNILINC was in a position to take on this groundbreaking role for WAGUL because of the work with member organisations. One of the original objectives of CLANN was to "reduce the rate of rise of per unit cataloguing costs". Member libraries were keen to demonstrate success in this and over the years requested advice from UNILINC as to how they could improve workflow. As a result, UNILINC developed considerable knowledge of what worked best where and under what circumstances and how to cost the process. In the WAGUL case, the brief was to verify the base line costs of cataloguing assess the feasibility and costs of replacing the existing processes and to provide estimates of the costs and benefits of the various options.

Since the success of the WAGUL study, UNILINC has gone on to complete numerous reviews of technical services and other operations for many libraries, including the National Library of New Zealand. In 2002, the National Library of Australia invited UNILINC to draw upon the knowledge gained from these studies to advise upon best practice in cataloguing.

In early 1997, UNILINC began to explore discount arrangements with major suppliers for books ordered through the Shared System. Suppliers responded positively to these approaches. As with so many other initiatives of UNILINC, the arrangements give priority to flexibility for members and are free of costly contract overheads or restrictive conditions. These arrangements continue successfully to this day.

The next innovation came in 1999 when UNILINC celebrated its 100th Board Meeting by committing funds to the development of an interactive, information literacy program. The network had identified that such a product was needed urgently to assist remote students and to support class based initiatives which in multi site libraries, once again as represented amongst UNILINC members. The need was there but so was the knowledge that to develop anything interactive would be very expensive and could only be sustained if the market was wider than the membership. Thus the idea of developing a software shell which could be used across many libraries was born. Three years from its release, Web-ezy is in use in ten libraries - six universities, a school, a state education system, a TAFE network and the National Library of Australia. As shell software, Web-ezy is populated to accommodate the relevant library system and databases, with examples relevant for each client group. It can be individually badged for each client and goes under such wonderful names as Teach Yourself Online, InfoSkills@CSU, Smart Searcher and Library e-Tutor InfoSkills, to name just a few.

25 years on

2003 sees yet another initiative once again driven by members. It is the implementation of the portal software (Metalib) and the resource linking software (SFX). Both products hold considerable promise for new library and information service delivery opportunities.

So where is UNILINC 25 years on? It is still here! UNILINC is a vibrant and innovative organisation. The strength provided by its membership ensures that UNILINC dares to take on new challenges and will continue to do so.

Remaining in business for 25 years is no mean feat for any company, as attested by the continuing collapses of major corporations and the bankruptcy rates amongst small operations. In the educational sphere, formalised cooperation and collaboration over such a long period is rare indeed. On the world stage, too, international cooperation has been falling victim to the pressures of competition and the ambitions of the most powerful. The library sector seems singularly blessed with success stories in this area. Possible reasons for this would be the subject of much debate and close analysis but whatever the reason, as a profession, librarianship can be proud of what it has achieved.

Postscript 2009

UNILINC continues to evolve and change to meet new opportunities and challenges. We are assisting the development of libraries and associated information services in the private higher education sector. The Shared System continues to develop and the range of hosted systems we offer has expanded with the addition of services to assist with the management of electronic resources (Verde) and digital resources (DigiTool).

Our consultancy work with libraries around the world and in Australia continues as does the contribution we make to quality cataloguing and shelf ready services for over sixty libraries.

UNILINC now provides web design and related consultancy services. In addition, UNILINC now offers a hosted Institutional Repository service to meet the developing needs of tertiary education specifically those mandated by ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) and HERDC (Higher Education Research Data Collection).

Our newest initiative in 2009 is the development of Web 2.0 interface features for our hosted systems.

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