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Smarter Libraries through Technology: The Beginning of the End of the ILS in Academic Libraries

Smart Libraries Newsletter [August 2011]

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The integrated library system has fallen onto hard times, especially when it comes to academic libraries. Over the last decade or so, libraries in colleges, universities, and other research organizations have been at the forefront of a broad trend where electronic content has grown more and more dominant. Unfortunately, library automation systems have been slow to respond to this obvious and fundamental change. The essential model of the integrated library system, one comprised of functional modules such as cataloging, acquisitions, serials, circulation, and an online catalog, was conceived in the print era. It seems that now, the ILS has prevailed past the time when its functionality reflects the best way to organize a library's strategic activities.

To the extent that the ILS specializes in managing print resources, it's subject to an ever diminishing role in academic libraries. The original model of the ILS emerged during a time when libraries primarily dealt with print materials. Once electronic materials became a major aspect of academic library operation, we saw a proliferation of products that were designed to supplement the ILS and provide capabilities to manage them. Library personnel divide their attention among products like link resolvers, electronic resource management systems, digital asset management systems, and institutional repositories in addition to the various modules of the ILS. The support and operation of this assortment of separate systems has become an immense burden that can't be sustained in the long term.

The online catalog as a module of the ILS has already begun to fade, displaced in many academic libraries by discovery services that present a modern, more intuitive interface. These systems allow patrons to search a much broader representation of library collections that extends beyond books, to include articles within e-journals, multimedia collections, and other digital assets. We're now seeing a new round of library technology products that embrace a more unified approach, where a single platform supports the management of all forms of content. Rather than operating several distinct products—often from different providers—that do not work well together,this new genre aims to manage all forms of content and to offer new groupings of functionality in a format shaped much differently than the traditional ILS modules. Most of these products function through some form of cloud computing, delivered through software-as-a-service, with highly shared data models relieving individual libraries of the need to redundantly manage databases of bibliographic records. These products provide an opportunity for libraries to transform that they perform their work, moving away from patterns dictated by the previous generation of automation systems and instead offering the freedom to follow workflows more natural to their current reality, which is dominated by electronic content. These systems, through embracing a more overarching vision of functionality, avoid monolithic self-contained architectures and facilitate interoperability and library-driven development by exposing layers of Web services and other application programming interfaces.

In previous issues of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we've covered each of these new ground-breaking products as they have been announced or released: Ex Libris took some of the early steps in this new model when it articulated its vision of a Unified Resource Management System in June 2007, which has been recently been named as Alma. This product, due for initial release at the end of 2011, integrates the management of all library formats, will be delivered through software-as-a-service, and offers a multi-layer data approach with shared repositories in a community zone and library-specific information held in a local zone.

The Kuali OLE project embraces this general model as an open source initiative. This project, which got underway in late 2007, envisions a platform that supports print and electronic workflows, well-integrated with the broader technical infrastructure of a university, created as open source software. Indiana University leads the current two-year development effort, and is joined by a number of other major research libraries and consortia. This group operates under the governance of the Kuali Foundation from which it borrows several underlying technical components.

OCLC announced its Web-Scale Management Services in May 2009, with libraries in production since January 2011. This platform brings the functionality of the traditional ILS into a new platform based on WorldCat, obviating the need for a library to operate a local automation system. This new product leverages OCLC's extensive bibliographic database (originally oriented toward print) into the realm of management and access of electronic and digital content. OCLC has designed this new service for libraries of all types, with a diverse selection of organizations already engaged as early adopters and development partners.

Innovative Interfaces has also announced a new-generation automation system, called Sierra, initially announced at the ACRL conference in March 2011. Innovative has followed a more integrated approach for managing print and electronic. Its Electronic Resource Management product works in close concert with its Millennium integrated library system. Sierra fosters a higher degree of functional integration, delivered on a modern, service- oriented platform.

In this issue, we report on the Serial Solutions' vision, announced at the ALA Conference in June 2011. The goal of Serials' development effort is to create a new product, not yet named but referred to by the category name Web-Scale Management Solution. This product extends the company's prowess in developing tools for management and access of electronic resources into a comprehensive library management platform.

This new genre of products will phase in over the next technology cycle. I would anticipate that products beyond those mentioned in this issue might also join the fray. Though this change is happening rapidly in library time, don't expect it overnight. The wheels of technology turn rather slowly in libraries. The change cycle beginning now will take many years to complete. Only a minority of libraries find themselves in a position to jump in as development partners or early adopters; most wait for products to mature and demonstrate their worth.

For the last year, I've struggled with what to call this new genre of library software. It is clear that the connotation of the term “integrated library system” fails to capture the essence of this new generation of products, as does the term “library management system,” though it is used in other parts of the English-speaking world. While the new genre entrants are indeed integrated—even more so than those of the past generation— the term ILS has become synonymous with the printoriented products. We see that OCLC and Serials Solutions have both latched onto the term “Web-scale.” Ex Libris tags their product “unified resource management.” One might be tempted to use a term such as “next-generation integrated system,” but such a designation comes with a short shelf life, especially for long-overdue revitalizations.

I'm gravitating toward the term “library services platform” for this new software genre. The products are library-specific, they enable the library to perform its services, internally and externally though their built-in functionality, as well as exposing a platform of Web services and other APIs for interoperability and custom development. In a time when long-standing terms like “integrated library system,” or OPAC bring along considerable negative baggage, we need new terms when we talk about what comes next.

In the same way that discovery services has become a fairly well accepted genre for the patron interfaces that replaced online catalogs, I posit something like library services platform for the genre of software that replaces the legacy of integrated library systems. But the term used to label the category is a small issue relative to the potentially dramatic impact this new genre promises to academic libraries.

View Citation
Publication Year:2011
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 08
Issue:August 2011
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:16140
Last Update:2022-11-29 01:06:06
Date Created:2011-10-07 12:29:30