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Smarter Libraries through Technology: The Challenge to Cooperate and Compete

Smart Libraries Newsletter [April 2013]

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In my view, the library automation industry, though extremely competitive, maintains a flavor of collegiality. I'm not close enough to other competitive sectors to really know, but I suspect many are considerably more ruthlessness. The organizations that create technology products for libraries must take the sensibilities and values of their customers into account if they want to be successful in the long term. While each organization naturally presents its products favorably and isn't reluctant to mention weak points of its competitors, I rarely come across discourse that I view as intentionally untrue or malicious. In today's tech environment, libraries are involved with multiple vendors, which have to interoperate and cooperate with each other.

One of the interesting aspects of the library automation industry involves the multiple and overlapping roles among the organizations involved. While some focus on a single product or a single sector of the market, many have much more complex involvement. Examples of organizations with multi-faceted roles abound. We see some companies—ProQuest and EBSCO come to mind—with strategic business in content products as well as the library technology sphere. OCLC acts well beyond its original roles related to bibliographic and resource-sharing services through a wide range of activities within the scope of library automation. Innovative Interfaces, primarily a technology company, entered the bibliographic services arena through its SkyRiver spin-off. Ex Libris, expanding from the libraries that use its strategic automation products, has been able to place its linking and discovery products in libraries that are also customers of its competitors. The Library Corporation, with primary products in library automation and discovery, also offers bibliographic services, including eBiblioFile, which offers rapid delivery of MARC records for e-book collections and is used by many libraries that are not its ILS customers.

This complex array of overlapping products and services results in many scenarios where any given library finds itself involved with organizations that compete with each other, but that need to cooperate in some areas, in order to meet the needs of their shared customers. It's increasingly less tenable for companies to build solid walls against their competitors. Rather, they often need more permeable boundaries, to be open to collaboration in one product front even if that means yielding some ground in another. The challenge often lies in finding the areas of mutual advantage in broad strategies rather than within each narrow product category.

We can see many examples of cooperation among competitors. Though, as a nonprofit, OCLC does not view itself as a commercial competitor, it has extensive relationships with libraries all over the world through its varied products and services that increasingly overlap with those of for-profit providers. How OCLC may or may not cooperate with commercial companies can be an important issue, especially in regard to WorldCat. We see a number of partnerships with OCLC, such as that formed recently with Ex Libris, providing access to the WorldCat Search API through Primo, even though WorldCat Local competes with Primo in the discovery services market. EBSCO partners with several providers of discovery interfaces to provide access the EBSCO Discovery Service index, including SirsiDynix, Innovative, VTLS, and others. It's beneficial for libraries to be able to use a competing discovery interface and to subscribe to the index that they prefer. The Library Corporation supplies libraries with MARC records through its eBiblioFile service, even if they use a competing ILS.

As APIs (application programing interfaces) become more widely offered, libraries will increasingly want to exercise them in ways that interconnect diverse systems and services among multiple providers, including those that compete with each other. In the growing ecosystem of APIs, I think that it will become increasingly common for companies to enable access by third-party commercial organizations, including those that offer competing products.

It is through this dynamic of simultaneous cooperation and competition that I see the withdrawal of the lawsuit between Innovative Interfaces and OCLC. Sierra competes with WorldShare Management Services. SkyRiver competes with OCLC's bibliographic services and Encore with WorldCat Local. Yet, a large number of Innovative's customers are also members of OCLC. As long as the lawsuit continued to languish in the court system with no resolution in sight, it held a cloud over two very key companies in the industry. While the lawsuit itself did not legally preclude cooperation between the companies, it reflected a tone of hostility that made any practical cooperation between the two organizations unlikely. While no specific plans or projects were announced, the withdrawal of the lawsuit should clear the air at least somewhat and open the possibility for more cooperation between these two competitive organizations.

View Citation
Publication Year:2013
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 33 Number 04
Issue:April 2013
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:18071
Last Update:2023-01-31 11:26:09
Date Created:2013-06-22 14:03:42