Winner of the 2022 HLA/MedicalDirector Digital Health Innovation Award, ANZCA’s ILLs MANAGER database was developed as a way of processing an increasing number of document delivery requests whilst at the same time automating many of the associated manual processes.
In 2018, ANZCA undertook a project to replace its aging library management system (LMS). The project required us to not only update all our existing services but to completely re-catalogue and re-receive our print and journal collections due to the poor quality of the collection metadata in the preceding system. In order to properly tackle such a mammoth task, we began to look at ways we could free up significant amounts of staff time. Upon reviewing our existing set-up, the most obvious place to make time-savings was in the area of document delivery. At that point in time, the library was doing some 1400-1500 article requests per year, which accounted for some 50-60% of library staff resourcing. It was felt that if the processes associated with our document delivery service could be streamlined and/or partially automated in some way then this would free up the necessary staff time for both this and future projects.
Identifying the problem areas
A review of our existing document delivery processes showed a number of problematic areas:
In addition to the above, any solution that we potentially devised had to be created using our existing resources. There was simply no additional funding available to subscribe to any of the existing document delivery management tools on the market. Moreover, we were loath to use any service that would require integration into our existing systems in order to function effectively. We wanted a solution that could be used as a standalone, had portability and wouldn’t make us any more dependent on IT than we already were.
Changing the way we receive requests
One “simple” solution to the request email situation, was to gradually remove the ability for our users to submit article requests by any method other than via a request form. Our direct email address was removed from the ILL request page and users who persisted in emailing us direct were politely yet consistently encouraged to use our LibWizard-based form. They were told that it was quicker for us to process requests when they arrived via the form as it ensured that we had all the necessary citation elements and was copyright compliant. At the same time, we updated the form so that it provided discrete citation elements for each request and also labelled fields in such a way that the form could also be used for book chapter requests. These updates would then be taken advantage of by our resulting database tool.
We then began the longer-term task of embedding the LibWizard form into our new discovery service, as well as our BrowZine service – allowing for one-click population of the request form. Once the former was in place, we ceased to accept any requests via standard email. Users were informed that due to copyright reasons we were no longer accepting requests via email and sent a permalink to the article citation in our discovery service where they could then simply click a request button to populate the request form. By consistent application of this approach, we were able to encourage our users onto our new discovery service – where they could now check for full-text access prior to submitting any request – as well as ensuring we had a clearly-marked request email which could then be shepherded through our library mailbox through the application of MS Outlook rules.
Within a relatively short period of time, we were able to change the behaviour of our users, which was to have a big impact on how quickly we could then process their requests.
Automating the rest
The much bigger task was addressing the issue of tracking / searching / requesting / supplying of the actual requests.
For some time, we had been using an MS Access database designed by Van Duong and Barbara Slattery – whilst both were at Royal Melbourne Hospital – for tracking purposes. Citations were copied and pasted into the database field-by-field (another time-consuming task) with us then attempting to use this database as our “source of truth” whilst managing the rest of the request. The database had some nifty features: namely linked journals, supplying library and patron tables and the ability to quickly generate usage stats. However, the database also had some very clear limitations:
On the positive side, use of the database did provide us with the standalone system we were seeking, and MS Access was still being – albeit somewhat reluctantly – supported by our IT department. Note: Plans previously announced by Microsoft to “retire” MS Access were quietly abandoned once it became clear that MS Access filled an important gap in the DBMS market. As of the time of writing, MS Access is still fully supported by Microsoft and there are no plans to retire MS Access in the foreseeable future.
As I have a background in computer programming (including a familiarity with Visual Basic) and knew MS Access relatively well, I was able to start redeveloping the core RMH MS Access database functionality to add a suite of new features. Initially this included the following:
Due to the fact that MS Access is part of the MS Office suite of products and that MS Office is in almost universal use, we were able to take advantage of MS Access’s inbuilt tools and reference, thus allowing the database to create and send pre-formatted emails using the operators own email system but from within the database itself. Requests could be quickly acknowledged and all correspondence with the requestor could be managed from the database, and details of that correspondence recorded via an extensive Notes field.
This ability to message users direct from within the database was integral to our being able to finally divorce our requesting from our library inbox. Once ingested into the database, the original request emails could simply be “filed away” and need not be referred to again throughout the rest of requesting process. This provided critical time savings, ensured we truly had a centralised “system of truth” and made tracking our requests relatively easy. Staff were then able to focus on actually sourcing requests, rather than the mechanics of managing the requests.
Similarly, the ability to search across an array of web-based services and databases using “one-click” operations effectively eliminated all the copying and pasting that had occurred previously and significantly sped up the process of searching (and requesting).
Whilst these enhancements freed up enough staff time to move forward with our new library systems implementation, there were many short-comings we wanted to address – not the least of which was the database’s inability to effectively handle diacritics. Thus began an extended period of additional development which led to the following features being added:
Further changes were instituted following the receiving of the 2022 HLA/MedicalDirector Digital Health Innovation Award. In addition to the API lookup and diacritics-handling features mentioned above, the back-end of the database was extensively reworked to remove many of the “hard-wired” ANZCA-specific settings and to make these configurable options via an extensive settings menu. Where previously the database was locked to GratisNet and LADD, the database can now be configured for any document delivery and ILL service allowing for OpenURL population of requests. A full user guide was also written, and a micro site created from which the database and guide could be downloaded. This work was all done with a view to making the ILLs database freely available to other health libraries.
Regrettably, one issue that we have as yet been unable to successfully resolve is the correct population of GratisNet requests. As the GratisNet form is not OpenURL compliant, we have only been able to achieve partial population of the form during requesting. Currently, there is a workaround in place that transfers all the “missing” elements into the DOI field where the user can then drag-and-drop them into the correct request form fields. Whilst this isn’t ideal, it provides a viable workaround whilst we work on potential solutions at the vendor end.
The impacts on our turnaround times were immediate and resulted in long-term time-savings for both our users and for staff.
The average turnaround time for articles has dropped from 2-3 days in 2018 to under 1 day for the majority of 2022. This means that the bulk of our supply is essentially “same day”. In fact, since implementation, the major factor affecting article turnaround times has been the staff training necessary when we replace team members. As a result, we have received consistent praise from our users as regards our turnaround times, and the service has become a “lifeline” for our users after we lost a major journal at the beginning of 2022. In addition, the statistics functionality embedded in the database allows us to not only quickly report on volume and turnaround times but our “top 10” most requested journals. This can then be fed into collection management decisions.
More crucially, the actual time spent by staff on undertaking requesting-related operations has dropped dramatically. On average, staff now spend 1-2 hours per day undertaking the same volume of requests that used to take them 4-5 hours. This has had a significant impact on the types of duties being undertaken by library staff. By reducing the time spent on repetitive tasks and making more efficient use of their time, staff have been freed up to the point that they are now able to participate in a range of projects and endeavours. We have been able to address cataloguing and donations backlogs, now have more time for training, and staff are enjoying a much more varied work experience in general.
Whilst some may see MS Access as somewhat dated technology, it has the virtue of being essentially standalone and functionally rich. This has allowed us to create a durable solution that has significantly sped up document delivery turnaround times and dramatically increased operational efficiency, and it has done so without any additional outlay in subscription costs and IT resourcing. These latter points were significant considerations for us, as we felt that creating a “no-cost” easy-to-use solution would also be attractive to other health libraries such as ourselves with small staffs and limited resources.
Download your own copy
A free copy of the ILLs database and accompanying user guide can be downloaded from the ANZCA library website: https://libguides.anzca.edu.au/illsdatabase. The user guide covers both configuration and usage.