Two announcements were made within the same week concerning VTLS–one involving very different completed implementation of Virtua at Queens Borough Public Library and the other revealing the decision of Oxford University Libraries in the UK not to go forward with their migration to Virtua. These contradictory events defy simple explanation.
A Stealth implementation of Virtua at Queens
In an implementation process that had been kept under wraps, the Queens Borough Public Library has completed its migration to a customized version of the Virtua library management system provided by VTLS. The library is moving from DRA Classic, which it has used since about 1989.
The Queens Borough Public Libraries are the busiest library system in the United States. It was reported that there were an astounding 21 million circulation transactions in 2007. The library system includes 62 branches and supports the 2.2 million people that live in Queens.
The implementation of Virtua at Queens took place on an accelerated schedule. The library began its implementation in January of 2008, putting the system through extensive testing and benchmarks to demonstrate its ability to support the transaction load and complexity of operations. The outcome was positive and led the library to instruct VTLS to go forward with the implementation of Virtua for production use. The system was implemented in July 2008 and involved a conversion of 6.8 million items from its current DRA system.
Queens had previously implemented AquaBrowser as the primary interface for its automation environment. The library licensed AquaBrowser from The Library Corporation, presenting it as the primary interface in August 2005. Queens was the first large municipal library in the US to implement AquaBrowser.
AquaBrowser was initially installed in conjunction with its DRA Classic automation system; it now fronts Virtua. Data from Virtua populates the AquaBrowser platform through a daily transfer of records. Real-time holdings and availability data are transferred from Virtua to AquaBrowser as needed.
The use of this third-party interface allowed Queens to make the transition of its library automation environment from DRA to Virtua with virtually no impact on its users. The library’s Web site and catalog search interface look and function much the same with Virtua as it did with DRA. Library users interact directly with Virtua’s Chameleon Web interface only for certain types of specialized searches.
Virtua provides the automation functionality necessary for the library staff members to carry out the work of this very busy and complex system. Virtua clients are now service points in the 62 branch libraries, where they are used for technical services and book processing. Over the last six months the library has executed an extensive training program to orient its personnel to the staff clients of Virtua.
Library Automation in New York City
From a library automation perspective the five boroughs of New York City participate in three separate library systems, with the following automation platforms:
Queens had been in line to move to the new Horizon 8.0 platform prior to the announcement by SirsiDynix that it would focus on Unicorn (now dubbed Symphony) as its strategic automation platform. Queens’ contract with SirsiDynix for Horizon 8.0 and a suite of other automation products was announced in March 2003. The migration to Virtua counts as a loss of one of SirsiDynix's major accounts. This year SirsiDynix also lost the 86 branches of the New York Public Library as they elected to move away from their Dynix Classic system to a consolidated Millennium system with the NYPL Research Libraries as we reported in the May 2008 issue of this newsletter.
VTLS selected as a Development Partner The Queens Borough Public Library aims to build an automation platform that is not available in any of the off-theshelf products. Its technology strategy goes beyond the initial implementation of the Virtua library management system and continues through an agenda of custom development of the software. The selection of VTLS was based on the library’s assessment of the company’s ability to work with it as an ongoing development partner.
Oxford Withdraws from Virtua Implementation
The Oxford University Library System announced that it has abandoned its effort to implement Virtua as its core automation environment. Oxford, with over 100 libraries, ranks as one of the world’s largest and most complex library organizations. Oxford had contracted with VTLS in October 2005 for the basic library automation system but also for custom software to manage requests and retrievals from its many closed stack libraries.
The official announcement from Oxford highlighted many of the internal transitions that have occurred recently within their organization The announcement also highlights the complexity of how implementing a new automation system may compete with other priorities a library may have. Oxford’s announcement politely avoids issues of blame, but the fact that they will not move the system into production use despite three years of work makes the project seem less than successful.
This is not an isolated event–in the January 2008 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter we reported a similar issue with Virtua in the libraries associated with New York University. NYU contracted with VTLS for Virtua for the Library Consortium of Lower Manhattan in June 2004, and the implementation languished. In December 2007 NYU announced it had entered into a contract with Ex Libris to implement Aleph 500. Although, like Oxford, no public statements were made regarding specific problems with the software, the libraries did not put the software into production, the ultimate goal of any ILS implementation.
Thus far, no such difficulties have applied at Queens. The initial announcement involved the successful implementation, not simply the selection of the product. While Queens followed a bold and ambitious execution of its migration, it took a cautious route regarding the publicity of the project. The library held back the announcement of the selection of Virtua until it had proven itself as its production environment.
It’s a Risky Business
VTLS continues to be a source of interesting surprises, and shows how developing an ILS can be a risky business. Just when it looked like difficult circumstances were clouding VTLS's prospects, it leapt forward with dramatic fashion at the Queens Borough Public Library.
The company aims for some of the most difficult automation projects available--highly complex library organizations looking for custom-built solutions well beyond what is available in off-the-shelf software. These projects come with a high degree of risk and can falter for a variety of reasons. It takes a bold company to specialize in this niche of the industry. VTLS shows great perseverance and determination in taking on a new project like the automation of the Queens Borough Public Libraries despite significant problems with earlier implantations.
In addition to Queens, other recent sales of Virtua include the National Library of Morocco, the National Library of Ireland, Chandragupta Institute of Management in India and Masterskill College of Nursing and Health in Malaysia. The National Library of Wales put Virtua into production in May 2008.
Even though the recent history of VTLS includes some major blemishes, it should be viewed in perspective of the company’s overall track record. As libraries consider the suitability of Virtua for their own automation needs there are positive and negative factors to take into account, but this isn’t unusual. Almost all companies in the industry have a record of some failures mixed in with their overall record of success. Few, however, have such striking contradictions occurring simultaneously.