As I write this column, I'm looking forward to participating in the InfoToday conference (formerly National Online) in New York. By the time this column appears in print, the conference will be past. So, while I'm writing this a as preview of a presentation I'll be giving, from your perspective as a reader, it is a more of a post-conference report. As part of the E-Libraries section of the conference, I'll be speaking on “Developments in the Library Automation Industry in 2000-2001 and Expectations for the Future” and then leading a panel discussion of the chief executives of the major library companies. This column sketches out a few of the trends and events in the field of library automation that I have observed through the last year.
Maturity of systems
With only minor qualifications, it is safe to say that the major library automation systems on the market offer the full set of features required for basic library automation. Library automation has been evolving for several decades, and the set of expected features and functionality is well established. The Requests for Proposals (RFPs) used by libraries in their procurement processes are widely shared, creating a significant homogeneity of requirements. Each library automation system, however, continues to have its own unique flavor of approach in meeting these requirements. By now, any automation system missing significant elements of functionality will have either been driven out of the market or will have been enhanced to meet these basic expectations. In today's market a library automation system is required to include modules for circulation, cataloging, a public access catalog, acquisitions, and serials management. To be viable, a library automation system needs also to include a Web-based online catalog. The system must be able to automatically generate a standard set of circulation notices and allow library staff to create reports on all aspects of the system. It is expected that library automation systems follow standards such as MARC for the import and export of bibliographic data, include an option for a Z39.50 server, and use TCP/IP networking protocols. For each of these general modules, there is general agreement on the specific features that should be available, and each of the major vendors is able to satisfy these requirements.
Evolving Standards and rising expectations
To acknowledge maturity of systems in basic functionality does not mean that the expectation for continued development has relaxed. Expectations for new functionality covering an ever broader realm of library services, interest in integrating new forms of content, increased demand for interoperability with external information systems, and the evolution of standards related to library automation are but a few examples of issues that drive the need for ongoing development.
While all systems have some degree of support for Z39.50, they differ in many respects. The current level of desired support includes a full implementation of Version 3 of Z39.50, including support for the GRS-1 (Generic Record Syntax) holdings schema, and compliance with the emerging set of profiles that ensure more consistent search results among differing Z39.50 implementations. The profiles developed in Texas and Bath are now under review and development by NISO toward adoption as formal standards. Many libraries are already specifying compliance with these profiles in their RFPs. Z39.50 has not been entirely successful in its goal to make automation systems communicate seamlessly with each other. These emerging profiles instill hope to improve the effectiveness of Z39.50 searching, though there is increasing discouragement with the overall approach embodied by the standard.
Expectations continue to rise for library automation systems to support multiple languages and scripts. The Unicode standard emerged to meet this need for internationalization of software. Unicode is not a library-specific standard, but one used throughout the software industry. The major operating systems, database management systems, and applications are increasingly using Unicode. The library automation industry is become more and more multinational. To meet the needs of libraries that serve multiple ethnic communities and to support research collections from diverse languages, the support for Unicode has become more important to library automation. Many of the more newly minted library automation systems include native Unicode support, while some of the more venerable systems are working toward its adoption.
A key trend in libraries involves sharing resources in more efficient ways among diverse organizations and institutions. This trend results in the need for improved automation of interlibrary loan operations, document delivery, and resource sharing. Libraries want their patrons to easily initiate requests for materials not available in their local library and have their requests automatically transferred into an interlibrary loan management system without duplication of effort, and have them processed and fulfilled as automatically as possible. In the last year or so, interest has increased enormously in interlibrary loan management and resource sharing systems. These systems cannot operate efficiently without tight integration with the library's automation system. ILL borrowing and lending both involve the need to interact with the library's circulation module to charge and discharge materials, a process that involves both the item and patron databases.
Interlibrary loan automation software tends to be offered separately from the core library automation system. While library automation systems tend to be organized into categories of functionality called modules, they are not modular in the sense that a library can purchase cataloging from one vendor, circulation from another, and an online catalog from the next. The underlying databases and technologies overlap in ways that would make it very inefficient to break them apart and market them as separate units. Interlibrary loan automation is different in this respect.
Automation of this important aspect of library automation lags far behind current needs and library expectations. The software offerings in this category cannot be characterized as mature. Given the absence of significant offerings from many of the core library automation vendors, others have stepped into this arena offering products that can integrate to varying degrees with automation systems. Only a minority of library automation vendors have developed software in this area, including epixtech and The Library Corporation. epixtech is a library automation vendor that has focused development efforts in this arena. Epixtech developed its own product called the Resource Sharing System (RSS), purchased the Universal Resource Sharing Application (URSA) from the Australian company CPS Systems, and is blending these two technologies into a single product. In one of the more surprising announcements last year, DRA stated that it would partner with epixtech in the integration between their product and URSA. This level of cooperation among direct competitors in the library automation field is unusual. The Library Corporation was also an early implement of resource sharing software based on the ISO ILL protocols. Fretwell-Downing has not had great success in marketing its OLIB library automation system in North America, but has won some sales of its Virtual Document eXchange (VDX) resource sharing application. ILLiad, developed by the Virginia Tech spin-off Atlas Systems and now exclusively marketed by OCLC, has gained some popularity in the interlibrary loan automation arena. This product has been adopted by some library automation system vendors as their answer to providing an ILL automation. Pigasus, with their Wings interlibrary loan automation and resource sharing application has also been gaining some attention in this arena.
Continued consolidation of the industry
Within the last year, only two major mergers and acquisitions took place in the arena of North American library automation companies. The Library Corporation, developer of the Library.Solution library automation system, acquired Carl Corporation from Ward Shaw. These companies did not directly compete with each other. Library.Solution appeals to small to medium-sized libraries and that the Carl System targets the largest municipal libraries and library consortia. While there will likely be some blending of technologies as a result of this merger, it seems likely that TLC will continue to invest in both systems indefinitely. The other merger involved the Canadian company Best Seller acquiring the UK-based ALS International, renaming itself to BiblioMondo.
While few mergers and acquisitions occurred in the last year, it continues to appear that in the long term, a relatively few number of strong competitors will survive in the library automation market. It seems that companies need to be of a certain size and financial strength to compete in the current market. The sale of Endeavor to Elsevier Science underscores the reality that library automation companies are willing to take extreme measures to gain the considerable resources it takes to make major advancements in the field.
For the companies that have undertaken the development of an entirely new next-generation system, development has taken significantly longer and has been more costly than originally projected. Both Taos and Virtua are key examples of this trend. The tardy development of Taos caused DRA considerable embarrassment at in what should have been its flagship implementation at UCLA, and caused the loss of important sales including Harvard and the Minnesota Library Information Network. Taos seems now to be gaining acceptance among small and medium-sized libraries.
Many of the companies currently support multiple library automation products, and we can expect consolidation occur in these offerings. Several companies support one or more legacy systems while developing and marketing their next generation products.
Support for legacy system has continued during the development of next-generation systems. DRA has continued to support its MultiLIS and Classic systems while it completed Taos. While focusing its development and marketing efforts on Horizon Sunrise, epixtech has continued to provide support for NOTIS and Dynix, and has even made some new Dynix sales. VTLS supported a large number of VTLS-99 libraries as it developed Virtua. Gaylord maintained its VMS-based Galaxy system as it developed the NT-based Polaris. Geac continues to support its Advance and PLUS customers, through completion of the development and market acceptance of a next-generation system from Geac seems less certain. The exception to this pattern of internal consolidation may be The Library Corporation, which has expressed strong commitment to ongoing development of both Library.Solution and the Carl System.
It seems unlikely that the companies in the library automation business will be able to sustain the development and support of multiple core library automation systems indefinitely. Library automation companies, depending enormously on the income generated from the support of existing customers on legacy products, have extended support of outdated systems longer than might be tolerated in other industries. As companies perceive that their new generation of software meets market acceptance, they have strategic interests in providing an attractive migration path from their legacy systems to their current offerings. We can expect strong efforts from DRA, VTLS, Gaylord, and epixtech, to encourage libraries running their legacy systems to consider migration to their next-generation systems. The obvious risk for these companies involves the risk that libraries will adopt the software of a competitor rather than migrate to the next generation system of their current vendor.
To be continued…
These are but a few of the most general or the recent trends that have transpired in the library automation industry. I expect that there will be new developments to report in the coming months. Changes in business arrangements and new product offerings are typically announced at the ALA Annual Conference. Stay tuned.