I've just returned from the ALA Mid-winter Meeting in Philadelphia. As usual, I spent a large portion of my time visiting the vendors of automation products in the exhibit hall and talking with some of their top execs. I'm always glad to have the opportunity to learn what each of the companies has been working on the last few months. Since my interest lies with the automation vendors, I don't cover the ones that sell databases and other forms of content-that's a whole other field outside my realm of expertise.
Many companies use the ALA conferences to make major announcements-at times going to great lengths to keep developments quiet until they can make a big splash at a big conference. No earthshaking news this time, though I will mention a couple of new product announcements. [Editor's Note: A number of ALA announcements were included in CIL's Newsline section in the March issue.]
Given the current harsh economy and the trend toward consolidation of companies, it's hard not to expect some news in the mergers and acquisitions arena. Despite some tough times, all the major companies are still with us. The last consolidation event took place in July 2001 when Sirsi acquired DRA. While I continue to expect some developments in the near future, all has been quiet for almost 2 years now.
Veteran Company, New Name
The only business change that was announced can be characterized as cosmetic-epixtech, Inc. now calls itself Dynix. But, along with the name change, the company clearly intends to reshape its image. It wants to be known not as a company that specializes in public libraries, but as one with a high level of expertise in software development that can fulfill the automation needs of all types of libraries.
I'm not surprised that the company ditched the epixtech name; it's both unmemorable and difficult to pronounce. The confusion now lies in differentiating between Dynix the company and Dynix the company's now-aging automation system. Horizon is the company's current flagship system. While I heard a few attendees at ALA say that they thought that the name Dynix is a throwback to the '80s, most seemed to think the name change made sense.
The company now known as Dynix has been in the industry for almost 20 years, and has undergone a number of business transitions and name changes. Today Dynix stands as the largest company in the industry and seems revitalized by new management.
A Conspicuous Absence
Geac, one of the former giants of the library automation industry, was conspicuously absent from the ALA exhibition. These days, the library systems division forms only a small niche within a large multinational company, with a focus on software for much larger industries. Libraries are but one of 22 industries served by Geac business applications. Geac corporate faced serious financial problems a few years ago, but has regrouped and returned to profitability, and once again finds itself in a phase of new growth through acquisitions. In previous years, Geac successfully marketed two different automation systems in North America, PLUS and ADVANCE, in the mid-'80s to mid-'90s. Geac promotes another system, called VUBIS, in Europe but not in North America. PLUS and ADVANCE both fall into the "legacy system" category, meaning that while technically still supported, most libraries running these systems are shopping for new ones. Geac has invested heavily in a next-generation version of VUBIS called V-Smart, but again there has been little promotion of the product here. Word has it that Geac plans a large marketing effort for V-Smart in North America beginning with ALA Annual. The company faces an enormous challenge if it intends to retain a significant number of its PLUS and ADVANCE customers and woo them to a new product.
There were only a couple of major announcements by the automation companies. The Library Corporation (TLC) announced a new collection development service, and Sirsi launched a new portal component called Rooms.
TLC's announcement was for a new product for collection development and acquisitions, called the Online Selection Assistant. The service, hosted by TLC, provides a set of online tools that help with the process of selecting and acquiring new materials. A library's staff has access to a vast database of available materials, book lists, reviews, and other information. The system has an integrated search capability to check the local database to avoid duplicating existing items in the library's collection. Once they select items, staff can load MARC records, including holdings, fund control, and distribution data, into the local system. As an ASP service, no hardware or software needs to be installed locally.
TLC describes the product as vendor-neutral, but it works with publishers and wholesalers that partner with TLC to participate in the service. The initial set of partners includes most of the major publishers, and TLC expects the list to expand. The Online Selection Assistant works with any library automation system, not just TLC's own Library.Solution. The system has been designed to streamline the process of ordering materials, potentially resulting in labor cost savings. TLC collects a 15-percent commission from wholesalers and publishers on items sold through the Selection Assistant-which may be comparable with commissions that apply to materials sold through other channels.
Libraries considering this service will need to evaluate the potential labor savings and efficiencies gained versus any possible impact on the cost of the materials, particularly from missed discounts they might be entitled to through traditional acquisitions processes. I'm intrigued by this system since it gives libraries an alternative to some of the acquisitions processes that don't always have the best results for them. In an era where consumers can buy books online with next-day delivery, surely libraries can devise ways to greatly improve the speed and efficiency with which they stock their shelves.
Sirsi Corp. launched its new product called Rooms, which allows libraries to create discipline-specific virtual collections. Sirsi calls Rooms a "context management solution." I find the product hard to characterize precisely-it's not exactly a portal or search interface, but rather a set of tools that allow the institution to organize its electronic resources into focused groupings. "Rooms" plays on the metaphor of the way a library places specific types of materials within its physical building. It might have a genealogy room, a children's room, and so forth. Sirsi Rooms enables the library to create as many virtual rooms as it pleases and to furnish them with relevant content items.
The types of items that can be placed in a room include electronic journals, databases, Web pages, items selected from the online catalog, and just about any other electronic resources. The institution can also provide a query box that searches a set of resources that have been designated as relevant to the current room. Using the Sirsi Single Search technology, the user's query is passed to the selected research databases, and an integrated result set is returned and displayed.
Some Common Themes
While only two new products were debuted at this conference, there were new releases and incremental improvements in almost every vendor's offerings.
I should point out that all major library automation products can be considered fully functional and complete. It wasn't that long ago that several of the newer-generation systems were still in development and possibly waiting for various modules to be finished. That isn't the case today. I'm very much impressed by the level of functionality available in each of the major automation systems on the market. It no longer makes sense for libraries considering a system migration to "wait and see." Many institutions running legacy automation systems have been delaying moving on to new systems until the offerings improve. While there's always room for improvements and enhancements, it seems to me that the current generation's playing field is set. Given these factors, I expect a surge in systems migrations to take place in the next few years.
Last year's news involved the rush of the automation companies to come to market with content-enhanced, personalized Web OPACS. They've all done that now. While there were some companies out of the starting gate early with online catalogs that sport book jacket images, publisher promos, reviews, and abstracts, today these capabilities are standard, though usually added-cost, features. Content providers such as Syndetic Solutions benefited enormously from the industry's rapid movement toward enriched OPACs. The modern Web OPAC also includes personalization, self-service renewals, and other service requests as standard features. Clearly, the bar for the Web OPAC has risen considerably from the first generation, which essentially operated as an electronic card catalog.
Today, the forefront of activity lies in meta-searching, advanced linking, and context management. Libraries need tools to manage and provide access to their ever-increasing collections of digital content. The role of the OPAC versus that of a broader library portal seems to be a major question facing us. How much information can we stuff into our online catalogs, and how do we provide access to the vast array of information resources to which we subscribe that remain outside the OPAC? The complexities of this problem remain largely unsolved, but many tools are emerging that help.
Searching a single resource at a time no longer seems to be satisfactory. Why should a user have to go from one resource to another to find information on a given topic? Most library users don't have that kind of patience or persistence. A variety of companies now offer meta-searching or federated searching technologies that allow a single query typed by a user to be cast among a large set of information resources and a single unified result set to be presented in return. While this sounds great in theory, it's not easy to implement. Among library systems, we've long been able to use Z39.50 as a standard protocol to accomplish meta-searching. But no such standard exists among the multitude of Web-based information resources that sell subscriptions to libraries. In the absence of such a standard, meta-searching engines rely on XML translators, screen-scrapers, and other fragile techniques. Companies like MuseGlobal and WebFeat have emerged as leaders in this arena, and both license their technologies to automation companies and directly to libraries.
While linking from one resource to another is a fundamental characteristic of the Web, the use of static, hard-coded links is proving to be unmanageable. Individual items of content rarely have single URLs that can be counted on for all time. Also, when a library changes subscriptions from one vendor to another, it may also need to change thousands of hard-coded links. A more suitable approach involves creating links dynamically, relying on software to construct the link that will take the user from one item to another based on relevant context. The OpenURL specification has emerged as a key component in dynamic linking environments. While not yet adopted by NISO as a formal standard, it is undergoing the consideration process, and the pre-standard specification is well documented and finding wide adoption. The first vendor with a dynamic linking product based on OpenURL was Ex Libris with SFX. Endeavor followed with LinkFinderPlus, and many other companies are beginning to show new products in this genre.
I believe that development on these products that expand the OPAC into the library portal is in a very early stage. I expect the offerings in this area to soon be more sophisticated, working toward a comprehensive portal that can better manage a library's growing arsenal of traditional and electronic resources. So, while core ILS functionality has basically achieved a high level of maturity, the larger portal infrastructure is still very much in flux. I'm sure that within the next year or so, that we'll see significant progress in this area.