I have long held that libraries should not be passive consumers of technology products, but rather, active partners in shaping them. Libraries have a great deal at stake in how well these products work. They benefit from individual or collective efforts to influence product development in order to address ever evolving requirements. Not all libraries have spare resources to lend to such efforts, and opportunities for involvement vary widely. Libraries can take many different routes to have the most impact, depending on their circumstances.
The conventional route for libraries to influence the shape of a major software application takes place through user groups. Almost all the major integrated library systems or other strategic applications have formal organizations that represent the interests of the institutions that have licensed or purchased the product. These user groups may be sponsored by the company that produces the product or be legally independent. Either way, they represent an additional layer of accountability to the vendors. In addition to providing educational opportunities, user groups apply the collective wisdom of their members to identify priorities for enhancements. Participation in these enhancement ballots is one of the avenues that libraries have to influence product development that requires a minimal investment in time and resources. I see user groups as a critical component in the relationship between the community of libraries using a product and the company that provides it. It is important for these groups to provide constructively critical feedback and not just serve as a venue for companies to give sales presentations for new products.
Some libraries may choose to enter into arrangements with vendors to perform beta testing for new product releases. Beta testing involves a significant commitment of resources on the part of the library, mostly in the library staff time spent putting the software through its paces, fully exercising its functionality to ensure that all features work as expected. Such arrangements benefit the larger body of users of the software because problems may be found and resolved in early testing before release to the entire customer base. Libraries volunteer to beta test software to get discounted pricing, for the satisfaction of helping the broader user community, and to gain early access to the software and thereby improve operational efficiency or service performance.
An even deeper level of engagement takes the form of development partnerships between a number of libraries and a company creating a new product. Development partner libraries have the ability to influence the general shape of the product as well as to help refine specific areas of functionality. The extent of the impact depends on how early development partners are invited into the process and on how open the vendor is to making adjustments to their development agenda. Ideally, development partnerships represent a concerted, cooperative effort of mutual benefit: libraries end up with products better aligned with their needs, and companies have stronger products to offer to their customers. In many cases, the terms of a development partnership include agreeing to implement the software in production once it is completed and meets mutually agreed upon requirements and performance benchmarks. Libraries that make commitments as development partners will have to allocate significant staff time towards the effort. If the project is successful, the library benefits from a heightened sense of ownership of the product, detailed attention from the company in implementation and support issues, and other direct and indirect benefits. The library may also be offered substantial discounts on the cost of the software.
This month's lead story provides an example of a library that elected to become a development partner on a major library automation project. Boston College has been working with Ex Libris as a development partner for Alma for the past three years and has recently placed the software into production. Though development was a lengthy and time-consuming process, the partnership seems to have been a positive experience overall.
Libraries can also take even more ambitious paths in the creation of software through involvement with open source projects. Either through financial investments in development projects or in-kind contributions of personnel for programming, project management, or quality assurance, a library can help build systems for its own use that are then available without license fees to others with similar needs. The Kuali OLE project serves as an example. A cadre of libraries is working together to design and build an enterprise level library management environment for research and academic libraries with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, matched by both direct funding from the partner institutions as well as inkind contributions of personnel resources.
In recent news, Villanova University has signed on as an additional investing partner, joining Indiana University, the University of Chicago, a consortium of universities in Florida, Duke University, North Carolina State University, Lehigh University, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan. While it's important for a library to cultivate positive relationships with the organizations that supply its strategic technology products and to be engaged in whatever ways available to make needed improvements, resources are always limited and it's necessary to be selective regarding commitments. In many cases, products already meet basic needs and competing priorities warrant a more passive approach.
Libraries should not be too quick to jump into beta test or development partner relationships. Make sure that terms are mutually agreeable and that the partnership has strong possibilities for concrete benefits with manageable risk factors. Libraries should not be timid when negotiating terms for such engagements. These companies stand to gain from the increased value of products that they will then market to other institutions. Those libraries that invest substantial in-kind resources should expect to receive adequate value for those efforts. In the end, libraries will be better served by products in which they participated in their development. Fortunately, few vendors in the library automation industry would choose a course of unilateral development and instead welcome participation by the potential users of their products.