A library is only as good as its indexing system: Without Dewey Decimal, the Library of Congress and some kind of volume catalog, nobody could find the right book quickly or reliably enough to make the library useful. Until modern public libraries became the norm during the mid-19th century, professional librarians memorized the location of tomes in their care. Later, manual systems like card catalogs helped patrons look up the location of the books they wanted. Since the 1990s, most libraries have automated some aspects of their operations. Despite the cost and effort of installing these systems, they are a superior model when you consider the disadvantages of earlier methods.
Vulnerability to Human Error
Every system humans work with is vulnerable to errors made by a distracted, fatigued or incompetent team member. Automated systems still require human interaction, but reduce the number of decisions or operations a human must perform. Whether filing a patron's reserve request or tracking the arrival of new books, each step handled by a computer makes the entire system more efficient because it is less prone to mistakes.
Costs Add Up Over Time
Installing an automated system can cost $20,000 to $50,000 per library for the equipment alone. Despite these upfront costs, automation saves money over time. This savings comes in two forms. Many operations, once operated, continue without a staff member's involvement -- for example, generating reports on inter-library loan requests or sending electronic overdue notices. Operations that still need a human being -- such as processing returned books -- happen more quickly with the support of automation. In both cases, the library can either cut staffing to decrease its budget, or apply the saved funds to more customer-oriented tasks and programs.
Searches Take Longer and Are Less Efficient
Searching for a specific book in a card catalog -- the most iconic manual library system -- means moving from one index to another when you change your search from author to title. With an automated system, you can conduct any kind of search you like from the same location with a few clicks. This saves patrons time as compared to the old way, and needs less help from library employees. Because all indexes are virtual instead of physical, an automated system can have more search categories without adding another piece of furniture. Patrons can search by a wider variety of key words and concepts than with a card catalog. Automated catalogs can also be put online, letting a patron confirm a book is available from home instead of coming to the library and being disappointed.
Left Behind on the Information Highway
Libraries and information are becoming digitalized at a rapid pace. Any library still using a manual operating system can't connect to digital resources. This makes sharing information and publications much more difficult and time-consuming than with an automated system. As the 21st century progresses and more resources become fully digital, patrons of manual libraries will be unable to access a growing percentage of information.
Putting Limits on the Future
E-books, podcasts, blogs and video tutorials are all part of how the modern world communicates the sum of human knowledge. Libraries with manual systems have limited access to this growing body of work. Any quality automated system, by contrast, will by default grant remote and on-site access to most of these resources.