Library enters ORBIS’s orbit: No applause, please

Generally, when something good happens, it’s easy to find plenty of people more than happy to take the credit. It’s when things aren’t going as well as they might that it becomes difficult to get a grasp on the parties responsible. We all know this. It’s truer than Murphy’s Law.

The preceding generalization has recently found exception, however. The strange and happy occurrence involves an institution that received its share of criticism (some in these pages) last year.

Strange as it may seem, Portland State’s own Branford Price Millar Library has upended the laws of bureaucratic physics. The university’s library has risen phoenix-like from the dust and confusion of 2001. Its house more or less in order, Millar now heralds the grand opening of its membership in the ORBIS consortium.

John Clarke, a lanky, pony-tailed character who works in circulation, explained the ORBIS system over the circulation desk last week. “Most of the buggy things are worked out; we’re getting all the member libraries to function as one big branch.”

Clarke’s sentences follow quickly upon each other. They may mirror his recent state of mind, as he girds himself and his colleagues in circulation for the new system’s full implementation. Similarly, the success or failure of PSU’s venture into the information age’s next step rests at least partly upon first-floor workers like himself.

The ORBIS consortium connects academic libraries throughout Oregon and southern Washington in a tighter, more accessible system. Students and faculty members desiring items from any member library – from Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Willamette University, or any other member institutions – need only type their information and needs onto those fancy new flat screens on Millar’s second floor.

“If you put in a request by Tuesday,” Clarke projects, “you’ll probably get it (the requested item) by the end of the week.”

Clarke’s agitation became excitement as he spelled out the process. When library patrons request items from sister libraries, workers at those libraries pull the requested items off the shelves, perform a little paperwork and send those items off with the ORBIS couriers.

Under the old interlibrary loan system, students and faculty were welcome to check out items from sister libraries. In practice, however, the drive down to Corvallis – or even the bus ride over to Reed – often made this agreement a courtesy in name more than reality.

If ORBIS works as well for PSU as it did for its other members last year, students and faculty may find requesting and receiving books no more taxing than two trips to campus.

Clarke emphasized “a lot of people did a lot of work” over the last couple of years to make this switchover possible. Membership in ORBIS, he noted, required “moving from one catalog to the other” (ORBIS members function using Innovative Interfaces Incorporated, not the SIRSI system Millar had previously used).

Upstairs, assistant library director Don Frank also refused to take credit for the fancy new feather in Millar’s cap. “It’s been a real group effort, library-wide,” he said. “It took many committees and subcommittees a number of months to make it all work.”

“This is a trend in academic libraries in every state,” Frank explained. “We’re all running out of space. It just makes sense.”

Frank, some years Clarke’s senior, shared his colleague’s excitement over the ORBIS launch at Portland State. “This opens the door to many more resources,” he enthused. “For access to over 10 million volumes, three working days is pretty quick.”

Elizabeth Howell, a business librarian who has been putting in double duty as a public relations worker for the library, suggested that people seeking more information on ORBIS and other Millar happenings should consult the “What’s New” area of the library’s home page. Perhaps mindful of student and faculty grumblings over the library’s disorganization last year, she encouraged patrons with concerns to “let us know what you need, either through the Web or the comment box in the library itself.”

Howell shares in the library’s general excitement over ORBIS but noted that other improvements were also moving along. Her particular favorite may be the first-floor lobby and exhibit space, where new books are displayed during their first week under PSU ownership.

Frank showed his anticipation of the benefits of PSU’s subscription to the Web of Science bibliographic database. “It actually includes a lot of social science and humanities information, as well [as hard science],” he said. “Having it helps bring good faculty to an institution.”

Back down in circulation, Clarke wanted to make sure library patrons kept their information up to date with library computers. “We’ll only hold ORBIS items for five days,” he said. “When we get the books in, we send you an e-mail. If we don’t have an e-mail, we make one phone call, then mail a notice to you.”

Seeing as nobody seems willing to take credit for Millar Library’s recent leaps forward, did John Clarke have anything he wanted to say to the world in lieu of accepting congratulations and thanks?

“Turn your books in on time.”