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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited
New Information Services Interface in Singapore
New Information Services Interface in Singapore
Adroit Innovations have recently installed a new information services interface called MIDAS (Multimedia Information Delivery Access System) in the National Reference Library of Singapore. There are four aspects of the new system which are of interest to librarians everywhere. First, it offers library customers access to all possible types of multimedia services and information from a single interface on one workstation. With so much information now in digital form it is a wonder that this has not become more widespread, but here at last is a useable system for this purpose (though it should be noted that MIDAS can incorporate traditional analog sources as well). Second, the range of potential services is very wide: video on demand, audiovisual, television, optical discs, and the Internet are just the ones already on the system. Third, the system is designed to make charging for access easy, thus allowing cost recovery or even revenue generation from value added services. Fourth, as much as possible has been made "self-service" in that the customer makes most of the choices from the interface, and some of the services are even self-loading, such as the CD-ROMs. Only where there is a limitation on the hardware is human action necessary. All services are provided over a secure network, making it impossible for those outside the system to access services which should incur a charge.
Charging is a method of encouraging a sensible use of, and therefore fair access to, limited resources. Many of the services available on MIDAS require the use of a bank cash card to operate them, a clean and efficient way to implement charging, with the actual transfer being done via NETS (elsewhere called EFTPOS). Viewing audiovisual or multimedia titles costs S$2.00 per item, and using the Internet costs S$2.00 per hour. Printing from the workstation is done at 30c per sheet. Access to the OPAC is currently free of charge. As an outsider, I suspect that one of the motivating forces behind the development of the new interface is the move by the National Library of Singapore towards cost recovery, leaving open the possibility of revenue generation in the future if it becomes necessary.
The first screen is colourful without being over-done. The most obvious things to see are five spinning "bubbles" which represent the five options available to customers: Audiovisual, CD-ROM, Internet, OPAC, and in TV. Clicking on a bubble selects that service.
A wide choice of material is offered if the customer chooses "audiovisual". The National Library's large audiovisual collection (8,000 items) features a huge selection of laser discs. These are stored in a staff only area, and when a customer requests the use of one of the discs, staff must find it in the store and put it into one of the players, which are again in a staff only area. The disc plays on the customer's workstation with all the normal functions of a player available on the computer interface. To choose a title customers can select from alphabetical listings of discs in both title and subject sequences; they can search by keyword, and there is an option for looking only at new titles (added within the last month). It is possible to preview a disc; that is, to view a short clip pre-digitised from the disc and shown on the customer's workstation. The preview includes the full details of the disc. Only when the customer chooses to "view" the whole disc is payment required. Other audiovisual items available are sound tapes, video tapes and also some new DVDs.
Each workstation is connected to a central CD-ROM server which has 112 drives. The selected CD-ROM is installed on the fly onto a workstation and uninstalled automatically after viewing, thus ensuring the integrity of the workstation's hard disc. One major advantage of local installation is that it permits sharing of the disc between different workstations.
Adroit has developed a customised browser for Internet access which is built into MIDAS. Library staff can bookmark sites, but customers cannot. This will allow staff to select and filter good quality remote sites in the manner of traditional collection development.
The fourth option is access to the National Library's OPAC. The fifth and last option for customers is in TV, which is access to the teletext service already offered via traditional television signals, though in the National Library it runs faster than in the home because screens are cached after use. From March 1998 the MIDAS service will include Video on Demand, which will automate the system further and minimise human intervention. It will have the capacity to support up to 20 concurrent users. Though charging is not currently implemented as a means of revenue generation, the system makes it possible in the future, and it could be a feature which other agencies will find attractive.
Online Help is supported directly from the Library's Help Desk. A customer using online help actually engages in a direct dialogue with a staff member at the Help Desk. While this may seem excessive in a small library where one can expect staff to be physically available, this form of user support will actually become highly effective once the Library extends over three floors as is planned. At the Help Desk the staff member can see which service the customer is using. Though this may seem a big like Big Brother looking over your shoulder, it is designed to aid remote diagnostics if the customer hits a problem. From the central desk it is possible for staff to broadcast messages to all terminals, such as "the library is closing in 15 minutes", though this messaging can also be sent to one or just a selected few workstations.
The central control function extends to the capability to perform "global" shutdowns of all machines. It is possible to configure workstations from the central console too, to permit or deny access to certain services (which is shown by the loss of a "bubble" on the customer's workstation). One function of MIDAS which the Library staff value is the ability to put workstations into "clusters" which each exhibit variations from the norm, such as filtered bookmarks, separate lists of audiovisual titles, and so on. The clusters chosen may well be areas such as the business library or the student homework area, and it is easy to see how being able to vary the bookmarks or lists of laser disks so as to target each market will make the service more customer-friendly. One special cluster in operation is the Chinese section, which has a splendid interface and uses simplified and traditional Chinese characters.
The MIDAS system is being tested in the demanding conditions of the National Reference Library of Singapore. Adroit are keen to use what they have learned by selling MIDAS to other libraries and information providers. For example, the system may be popular in hotels, and it can be scaled to an appropriate size for each client. Adroit are a Singaporean company who, in the past, have produced systems for Singapore International Airlines, the OCBC Bank and POSBank, and they developed the successful NETS Nationwide Self-Service Kiosk project.