The greatest amount of action happening today regarding library user services is the separation of the user interface from the integrated library system (ILS). This seems odd, perhaps, since only two decades ago the integration of all of the functions of library systems was seen as a real step forward. Until then, one system had handled acquisitions, another circulation, and another cataloging. Many functions, such as serials check-in and bindery management, were not managed through automation. This situation had a number of problems: different data about the same book were stored in multiple databases or in card files, leading to inconsistencies throughout the system; the data had to be keyed or copied multiple times; system-wide updates were nearly impossible. The "integration" of the integrated library system was the creation of a single database for bibliographic and management data, where all of the information about an item would be stored once and only once. This also was the first time that the full bibliographic record was linked to the library management functions. Independent systems like acquisitions and circulation systems primarily used brief records only. At best, these brief records contained an identifier (such as the item's barcode or call number) that could connect it to other records in other systems. Sometimes even that wasn't possible.
In theory, this database integration is a dandy way to organize your data and the activities that use your data. In reality, the user interface suffered in this design. Not that anyone purposely shorted the user interface, but in a world of scarcity, there are things that just have to get done; and then there are other things. In the have to category, libraries have to make purchases, manage accounts, receive and check-in serials, perform interlibrary loans, and check items out to borrowers. These are clear, quantitative, auditable library functions, and ones that library administrators focus on. These are the functions that can have dollar amounts attached to them in terms of staff time. These functions are the inside view of the library, the library being a library.
User success, on the other hand, is qualitative, hard to define, and does not have a direct effect on the library's bottom line. We count the countables, like numbers of bibliographic records, items circulated, and online database accesses, but there appears to be no penalty for a lousy user interface and no premium for the creation of a good one. If at any point there is a conflict between quantitative library management and qualitative user service, my gut feeling is that the latter loses out.
Users have everything to gain from the separation of the user interface from the library management system. Libraries, however, are in a bit of a bind. The new "user interface on top of the ILS" adds features for users but it doesn't result in any less work in the ILS. Libraries are still hanging all of their management functions off of full bibliographic records in the catalog (which the users no longer see). Librarians still see the data creation functions in the early management steps of acquisitions and receipt to be a direct line to the standard bibliographic record that in the end will appear on the users' screens. They are still storing the full bibliographic records in a local database, although these records are siphoned off nightly to the "real" user interface.
Much of the objection to using more EDI (electronic data interchange) functions with our vendors is that their data doesn't conform to library cataloging. Yet our library management systems are getting further from the user interface. We may need to rethink the library management workflow as well as the basis of our cataloging activity. What could we achieve if we move cataloging and catalogs out of our individual library databases to the network level? Could this provide the basis for increased sharing of the cataloging effort? Are there other efficiencies that could be gained in the "back room" functions of purchasing and managing the library inventory?