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Early adoption of a new technological foundation puts VCU on the leading edge, ensures broad access to digital materials and introduces efficiencies

May 2, 2017

Illustration by Jeff Bland

Libraries use automated systems to purchase, catalog, circulate, and otherwise manage their collections. In 2011, the VCU Libraries was at a crossroads with its automated system. Nearing the end of its lifecycle, the Aleph system was limited in a fast-changing web environment. It ran on expensive servers that were scheduled to be replaced within the year. Windows interface programs had to be installed and maintained on all staff computers. Updates were planned several years in advance and were laborious to test and install.

The parent of Aleph, Ex Libris, approached the VCU Libraries with an offer to become one of a handful of Early Adopters of a replacement system, Alma, that was in development. The nascent system lacked some functionality. But library leadership had confidence in the company’s ability to deliver a superior product, improved in iterations through feedback and direction from early-adopter librarians.

A cost-benefit analysis made the move to Alma attractive. VCU Libraries went into production with Alma in October 2012. As of 2015–16, VCU’s calculated risk is paying dividends of higher quality users experiences and more efficient internal operations.

  • Staff and funds previously devoted to maintaining servers are now being applied in enhanced services.
  • The cloud-based system is updated monthly, so users are able to take advantage of the latest technological developments.
  • Though it supports all resource types, the system is optimized for processing digital objects, which is becoming the collection’s backbone.
  • A single web-based interface provides a powerful platform for staff to use the system wherever they are located, breaking up the silos among types of resources.
  • Automated, configurable workflows are a key feature of Alma. Tasks are automatically routed to different areas of the library. This reduces the turnaround time for materials deliveries and lessens the number of misdirected requests.
  • A final key component of Alma is its rich analytics, making for evidence-based decision making.

More than ever, VCU Libraries is looking to the expressed behavior of its users, activity of its peers and industry benchmarks to guide its continual adoption of the future. The technological foundation of Alma puts VCU Libraries on the leading edge of library automation. Research libraries are accelerating their migration to Alma, and VCU is frequently consulted on how to make optimum use of the system. Alma has introduced a high level of collaboration among user libraries. The advent of a “community zone” means that thousands of records — or in some cases hundreds of thousands — in a digital collection can be made instantaneously available to users, which would have been impossible with previous systems. 

Alma is built upon open standards and open APIs, emphasizing even more the need for large-scale cooperation among libraries and industry. “The community zone promotes standardization among libraries, making it much more efficient to share information and lessen the time spent on preparing records,” says Senior Associate University Librarian John K. Duke. He led the team that implemented the new system. 

“Already, a half dozen colleges and universities in Virginia are using Alma, with more in the planning stage. Discussions are underway at VCU on how we might extend Alma for cooperative collection development and shared circulation, so collections can be shared easily among cooperating libraries. This will create new savings and efficiencies across the commonwealth.”


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