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‘It’s creating havoc’ – Western Cape library headache persists five months after system crash

‘It’s creating havoc’ – Western Cape library headache persists five months after system crash
An important computerized database used by Western Cape libraries crashed in November of last year, negatively impacting many libraries. Photo: Joel Ontong

The computerised database used by Western Cape libraries crashed in November 2022, but the operating system has yet to be fully restored, causing administrative problems for many librarians.

Non-metro Western Cape librarians continue to deal with administrative headaches because the important SITA Library Information Management System (SLIMS), which crashed on 15 November 2022, has not yet been fully restored. 

The system is used by the Western Cape Provincial Library and Archive Service.

The operating system crashed due to a storage failure, resulting in the loss of a substantial amount of data, according to Tania Colyn, head of communications in the Western Cape’s department of cultural affairs and sport. The hosting environment for SLIMS became unavailable, which negatively affected the availability of the Western Cape SLIMS, said Tlali Tlali, head of corporate affairs at the State Information Technology Agency (SITA).

SITA hosts and maintains the operating system and also provides support for SLIMS solutions to various government departments, according to Tlali.

“The system [is] used by the department for managing the selection, procurement and cataloguing of books and is used by all public libraries for issuing and returning books,” said Colyn. “It provides an online public access catalogue that enables anyone to search the database to find out which books are held in which libraries.”

Since a system failure such as this had not occurred before, it presented a novel challenge to libraries. With SLIMS not being fully restored, some libraries have complained that they are unable to calculate overdue fees, access relevant information about their patrons and check whether other libraries have certain items in their collections.

Libraries remain open

All non-metro public libraries are affected, but not those that are part of the City of Cape Town, according to Colyn.

However, the non-metro libraries remained open and were relying on a manual issuing system.

“We continue to encourage the public to join their closest public library. The OverDrive ebook system is not affected by this, and our library users are still able to access our extensive collection of ebooks for free via the Libby application,” Colyn added.

A tentative date of July 2023 had been set for the system to be restored, while the department of cultural affairs and sport worked on resolving the issue. 

“The department is in the process of manually uploading and recovering the lost data,” said Colyn. Once it had been restored, municipalities would be informed that they could resume working on SLIMS.

“The SITA team worked tirelessly to restore the hosting environment, ensuring the availability of the WC SLIMS,” said Tlali. “SITA and the department are currently conducting a mop-up exercise to verify the validity and accuracy of the information.”

A challenge for libraries

The system crash “has affected us badly. We’ve had to limit the number of books that the patrons are taking out. It’s creating havoc as far as returning [items] and getting back our stock,” said Sarala Majudith, library manager at Stellenbosch Municipality. 

According to Sarala Majudith, library manager at Stellenbosch Municipality, they have been badly affected by the unavailability of the SLIMS system. Photo: Joel Ontong

To keep record of the books and items being circulated, they were now relying on a manual system.

The important information they could not access included book return dates, borrowing history, contact details and membership data. This posed a huge administrative challenge as they struggled to keep track of all the new data. This led to higher workloads and an increased risk of losses for libraries, in terms of stock going missing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Read this and weep – embattled public libraries are being squeezed out of existence

Libraries are finding some solace in SLIMS being restored soon, but more work will still await them, according to Majudith. “Once that is done and we are up and running, we will have to do our part here and upload a whole lot of data and information. So that’s going to take a long time.”

Some progress

Some progress has been made in restoring the database and it is now partly accessible. “[The department] hoped that it would go quicker, but they are now in test phases,” said Unine Alexander, senior librarian at Pniel Library. “Our whole system is online, so all the books that are here in the library and in the whole Western Cape are online,” she said. Now with the “test phase” they can see if another library has a book that someone wants.

However, details about a patron, such as their borrowing history, were still unavailable. Libraries were initially discouraged from lending books because they could not keep track of them, she said. Now, if a patron took out a book, they and other libraries in the Stellenbosch area held onto the patron’s card until they returned the book. They had also limited the number of books patrons could take out to three, down from 14.

This new limit can be inconvenient for people who live far from their nearest library and need to take out a number of books, said Alexander. “We’ve received a lot of complaints about [this], but to prevent human error we have to limit it to a certain number of books.”

Initially, people who wanted to take out more than three books had simply gone to another library, which complicated things for libraries since they were unable to keep track. At the moment, Pniel librarians use Excel spreadsheets for record keeping. By holding onto a patron’s card, they avoid administrative complications.

According to Alexander, the SLIMS system has had problems in the past, but were not as bad as the system crash and were usually resolved in a matter of hours. DM

Daily Maverick has also been testing out various government hotlines and services (see articles below), and will continue to do so over weeks to come. If you know of any other hotlines or government systems that you think we should look at, give us a heads-up! And if you‘d like to share your experiences with our newsroom, we’re all ears.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Confucious Says says:

    The rest of the provinces are shocked at this news! They didn’t know SA had any more libraries!!!

  • William Stucke says:

    Seriously? The IT Agency that the entire government at all 3 levels depends on is incapable of something as simple as having Backup and Restore processes in place?

    How is this even possible?

    Which other provinces are using SLIMS?

    A search on SITA’s website for “SLIMS” says: “Your Search Yielded No Results”.

    Cry, beloved country, cry!

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