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Smarter Libraries Through Technology: Challenges in the Small Library Sector

Smart Libraries Newsletter [September 2014]

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Library technology vendors tend to time their big announcements for release ahead of the ALA's Annual Conference. Typically, the month following is a quiet one. The content of this newsletter tends to focus on the systems and vendors and their product announcements, mostly oriented to large libraries. We'll take this opportunity to focus our attention on the challenges faced by smaller libraries with limited resources. We'll look at strategies that might enable progress.

Smart Libraries Newsletter often features a company following the announcement of a major new product or business transition. Companies that stay out of the fray of mergers and acquisitions and with steady product offerings therefore receive much less exposure. In this issue we feature Biblionix, as an example of a company exclusively focused on creating and supporting technology products for small public libraries.

Apparent Disparities in Technology Adoption

I have spent most of my career working with very large libraries, through 27 years employed by Vanderbilt University Libraries as well as my consulting activities. I enjoy the challenges of working out technology strategies for these large and complex organizations. My travels around the world and in the United States have also provided a lot of exposure to libraries at the small end of the spectrum. Both in person and through e-mail correspondents I have opportunities to learn about the challenges these small organizations face. While some individuals in small libraries voice content to perform their work manually with a personal touch and without the assistance of computers, the majority of those I have encountered seems eager to gain access to better technology, but don't have the means. As I conduct research on the various ways that libraries make use of technology, I have become increasingly aware of the positon of small libraries. I observe that large numbers of libraries with much to gain from technology remain largely shut out due to the lack of affordable options. It's not surprising that small libraries throughout the world have to make do with little or no technology to help serve their communities more efficiently or effectively. I'm more troubled that there continue to be large numbers of libraries in the United States that either have no automation system or are using an obsolete system. My ongoing work in maintaining the (formerly lib-web-cats) component of Library Technology Guides heightens my awareness of this issue. It tracks libraries and their technology products, including ILS, electronic resource management, discovery, link resolvers, digital asset management, and RFID products as well as details such as addresses and links for the library's website and online catalog. The ongoing rounds of updates to the database and verifying links and other details provides constant exposure to a very large number of libraries and provides both objective data and personal impressions of how differing categories of libraries make use of technology.

Every few years I make a pass through my database to get a reading of the small library sector. When I initially populated it with the US public library data more than a dozen years ago, I saw how many public libraries had no website or automation system. I recently reviewed a sample of entries in this category to learn now many have since implemented new systems, with generally disappointing results. Few in the sample had implemented more modern systems. I plan to do a more comprehensive review of libraries in this sector later this year, if possible.

Some statistics from illustrate the portion of public libraries in the US that operate without formal automation systems. currently lists 9,434 public libraries with an aggregate total of 17,071 branches. Of these, 623 are specifically coded that they have no automation system, which in most cases was verified through an e-mail exchange or through data available from a state agency. Another 730 entries have no data in the current ILS field, a very strong indicator that the library is not automated. I estimate a total of 1,200 nonautomated libraries, or around 7 percent.

Limited Web Presence

Many of these same libraries also do not provide a website or and many that do are minimal at best. The database currently indicates about 1,500 entries with no link for the library's website. Some portion of this number may correspond to libraries that may now have a website, but populating this link has always been a priority, so the figure is probably not entirely exaggerated. Confirming the correlation with library size, more than 1,400 of these libraries have collections of less than 50,000 volumes. Many of the small libraries that do have a website offer a simple static page with descriptive information about the library, its location, contact information, and hours. But they pale in comparison to the polished and engaging virtual branches of an urban library.

At least one project provides an example of filling some of the technology gaps for underserved libraries. The Plinkit Collaborative ( has developed a content management system to assist small libraries to deliver a more full-featured web presence. The project was launched in 2006 to create a template-based library website, based on the open source Plone content management system. The Plinkit template, through relatively plain, provides a sustainable and easy to update web hosting platform for a small library. Plinkit in most cases is offered as a service of a state library agency. Participating states include Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. (For a list of libraries using Plinkit: http:// The Plinkit template has not been significantly enhanced since its initial version and shows its age relative to current expectations, such as HTML5, responsive design, as well as aesthetic qualities.

Budget and Pricing Issues

The limited resources naturally affect small libraries' capacity and choice in acquiring and deploying in technology. The budgets, personnel resources, and technical expertise available often fall short of what is needed to purchase and operate many of the current technology products on the market. The rising costs of the top-tier systems and the eroding budgets of many public libraries have widened the gap of affordability. Recent years have even seen some small libraries move off of top-tier products in favor of less expensive alternatives.

Those that deal with the procurement of software know that there is no specific price for any given product. Vendors scale the amount charged for any major system according to the size and complexity of the library. Libraries can expect price proposals to be based on a variety of factors that might include number of physical facilities, collection size, number of staff members that will operate the software, and the population of the community served, as well as amounts for each of the specific modules or components licensed. In most cases vendors do not publish the exact formula used to calculate the price of the software offered to the library. Through the application of these formulas, contract negotiations, or other competitive issues, libraries pay different amounts for exactly the same software.

This sliding scale is a realistic approach given that more complex libraries tend to press the limits of technology products and thereby require more attention and support. This pricing model also roughly corresponds to a libraries ability to pay and stays within the budgets of more libraries compared what might be the case if prices were fixed.

The variable pricing model has limitations relative to small libraries. The prices can scale upward almost infinitely. Especially with ever larger groups participating in shared automation projects, the capacity of the platforms and associated costs likewise climb upward. Pricing for these systems does not scale downward to the same extent. The lowest possible price which approaches the cost of providing the system for most of the top-tier systems far exceeds the budgets of the smallest tier of libraries.

Industry Favors Larger Libraries

The development of technology for libraries skews toward the interests of large organizations. Developing products for libraries that might be able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars is far more lucrative than systems for those that can afford a few thousand at most. As chronicled in this newsletter, the new and evolving systems being created for the large and medium-sized libraries manage an increasingly broad range of resources, especially electronic scholarly content and e-books. In this sector, the trend is for more complex products that command higher prices, justified by their displacement of multiple incumbent systems and by displacing local hardware through software-asa- service deployment.

Smaller libraries have distinctive needs that may not necessarily be well serviced by the technology products designed for their larger and more complex peers. The products designed for larger public and academic libraries may also be cumbersome and overly complex to use for small libraries that might exercise only a fraction of the features available.

Economic Factors for K-12 Schools

The economy of school library automation operates on a different scale than that for publics or academics. The numbers of school libraries are vast, their collections small, and their budgets limited. These factors result in software prices that may start at the hundreds of dollars per year per school rather than the thousands or tens of thousands that apply for public and academic libraries.

The budgets for school libraries for automation systems have historically been modest. The size of the potential market as measured by number of school libraries make it worthwhile for companies to offer systems to these libraries at low costs per library. Positing an average of $2,000 annually per school library times the roughly 100,000 public school libraries would result in $200 million in annual revenue to support the companies operating in this sector. The size of the school market sector is larger than this figure because it doesn't include libraries associated with private schools, sales of additional technology and content products to the library, schools, or district.

The comparatively low prices of automation systems designed for K-12 School libraries has led to their use in a number of small public libraries. While the system may not be ideally oriented for a public library, it provides adequate functionality, especially for these libraries that just need basic circulation, cataloging, and an online catalog. The tendency for small public libraries to use systems designed for school libraries is long-standing. Products such as Winnebago Spectrum, Athena, and Circulation Plus, all developed or acquired by Follett, were relatively common in small public libraries. These systems have not been developed for more than a decade, yet many implementations remain in active. Some public libraries have migrated to Follett's Destiny platform, which is even more explicitly oriented to school libraries.

From Individual to Shared Automation

The technology available to a small library varies considerably relative to its ties with organizations with greater scale and leverage. From earliest years of library automation, libraries have joined together in consortia for the acquisition and operation of integrated library systems. Likewise many libraries are administered through county-wide or regional systems able to provide technology infrastructure.

Shared technology infrastructure has become a growing trend in the deployment of automation systems. Ever larger groupings of libraries are forming to share large-scale systems, increasingly at the regional, state, or even national level. Participation in these large-scale projects provides access not only to top-of-the-line technology products that may be beyond the reach of the individual participants, but also to a pool of collection resources to offer to their patrons that far exceeds offerings of any of the individual members. Participation in a shared system can expand the available resource from thousands to millions of items.

The penetration of these large-scale shared systems seems to be higher when they are deployed centrally and made available universally to individual libraries without additional cost. The opt-in projects with fees for cost-recovery and administration that have to come out of the library's existing budgets may still be out of reach.

Implications of a Subscription-based Technology

A transition is currently underway in the general technology sector from a purchase model for software to access through annual subscription payments. Adobe, for example, recently changed its business model to make its Photoshop suite available only through subscription, causing a bit of stir in the graphics and design community. Microsoft is following a more gradual transition with its Office Suite of productivity applications, but is on track toward a subscription-only business model. The library technology realm is likewise moving in the same direction, with many of the new library services platforms and discovery services available only through SaaS subscriptions. The change from a model of one-time payment to perpetually recurring fees requires a major adjustment in how budgets are allocated.

In the previous phases of library automation, small libraries might be able to acquire a lump sum to purchase a computer and software for automation. The ongoing cost of operating the system might be quite low. The business model of purchased software might typically involve annual maintenance fees of 15 percent of the purchase price. A software package purchased for $5,000 would require around $750 in annual maintenance. It's my observation that many small libraries would use these systems for a decade or longer, and many may opt not to pay maintenance fees. Forgoing maintenance fees not only incurs some risk in case of a problem, but also means that the functionality of the system remains frozen. This disadvantage diminishes once the software is no longer being developed, increasing the temptation to operate unsupported systems.

Software-as-a-service obviates much of the up-front costs that would be needed to purchase hardware and software. The ongoing subscription fee must be included in the library's annual budget instead. Subscription fees usually are higher than the maintenance fees assessed on purchased software, but may represent a lower total cost of ownership over time. These fees cover all aspects, including technical support, hosting, and ongoing product development.

The subscription model for technology benefits libraries through its inherent character of being up-to-date. SaaS platforms provide automated updates to all users, unlike locally installed software that remains static unless new versions or releases are specifically installed. While I see significant advantage overall in the deployment of library products via SaaS, its budget model with fixed annual costs can be a significant challenge for smaller libraries.

Open Source Possibilities

Many small libraries have been intrigued by open source, which has seen increasing adoption by all types of libraries in the United States. The two major open source systems in the US are Koha and Evergreen.

Koha been implemented by academic, public, school, and special libraries around the world, with as many as 5,000 installations globally. Some 1,500 libraries in the United States use Koha or one of its variants. This figure includes 725 public, 113 academic, and 476 schools. According to counts derived from, ByWater Solutions provides support for 851 libraries in the US, another 487 are supported by LibLime, and 114 implemented the software on their own.

An even larger number of public libraries in the US use the Evergreen ILS. At least 1,200 libraries have implemented Evergreen, primarily through large consortial implementations. Equinox Software, Inc. stands as the major provider for services surrounding Evergreen and is well positioned to do so. Equinox is a spin-off of the Georgia Public Library System, which initially created Evergreen to power its statewide PINES network.

Two key points apply regarding open source software for small library sector. First, the adoption of open source software requires no more local technical expertise than do the proprietary products. The statistics presented confirm that most of the libraries that implement open source products in the US do so through the services of commercial support firms. These support arrangements address all aspects of implementation, training, and ongoing support. Most of the libraries adopting these systems also depend on the support provider for hosting of the system. That the license model of the software itself is open source has little bearing on the technical resources that the library will need to operate the system. Those that do have local programmers or other technically oriented personnel may find ways to exploit or extend the software, but this is not part of the typical deployment scenario.

The other issue regards cost. Open source software does not come with licensing fees for the software itself and persons or organizations can freely use, modify, and distribute the application and its source code, but that does not necessarily mean that libraries can expect an automation system that can be operated with no financial overhead. Again, libraries that adopt open source in most cases do so through commercial support contracts. The minority of libraries that do implement open source ILS products independently incur local costs related to technical personnel and hardware infrastructure.

Open source software has been successful in the library automation arena, especially with mid-sized and small libraries. These systems offer competitive functionality and the cost of the support contracts can often fall below licensing or subscription fees of the commercially licensed products. Yet, open source software has not been a magic bullet in providing automation to small libraries, though it has lowered some of the barriers to technology adoption.

Focus on the Under-served

The reality that a significant number of public libraries in the United States continue to function without the benefit of even a basic automation system does not reflect well on the overall industry. The inability of these libraries to afford such systems highlights issues of funding libraries and the lack of grants or other special sources for technology projects. It also shows that the cost of acquiring and operating automation systems in libraries is not trivial. I do not necessarily think that the organizations that provide the systems or support services charge too much. Integrated library systems are complex business applications that require substantial resources to create, enhance, and support. The implementation of such a system continues to be a labor intensive process involving populating the system with a complex array of bibliographic and transactional data. The fees associated with the implementation and support of open source systems in many cases also remain above the threshold of affordability for the smallest tier of libraries.

The prospects for whether or not a small library will be automated vary significantly state-by-state. Some states have organized statewide or regional programs that provide a more universal level of technology support to libraries, including participation in a shared ILS. In other states, libraries depend more on local resources to fund automation. In the current economic and political climate it seems unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in library funding models in ways that might accelerate technology adoption. I am aware of many efforts by state library agencies to build programs that provide more opportunities for the adoption of technology, but resources are scarce.

The current dynamic around automating smaller libraries involves companies that specialize in this sector, support offerings surrounding open source ILS products, and opportunities to join shared consortial implementations. Yet, after preliminary research, the pace of progress seems quite slow to me. At this rate, the time by which all public libraries in the United States become automated may be a decade or more away. The vendor community might explore ways to lower barriers and moderate the uneven adoption of technology among libraries. The tier of small libraries may not necessarily represent a great business opportunity individually, but may be worthwhile in aggregate. In this era of cloud-based systems, it seems that there should be more flexibility for pricing at the lower end of the spectrum compared to previous times when the cost of providing a system was higher. It also seems that vendors that serve libraries would gain considerable positive exposure through creation of discounted programs that benefit those libraries not able to pay the full market-driven cost. The goodwill earned might subsequently result in opportunities in more profitable sectors.

I plan to continue to monitor the churn of technology adoption in this sector and hope to see the numbers of non-automated libraries decrease. I've discussed a number of factors in play that contribute to and detract from the adoption of technology in the small libraries. An ambitious, but reasonable goal might be to see all public libraries in the United States automated by the year 2020. I'll be interested to learn of any programs that might accelerate the current pace of technology adoption.

This discussion has focused mostly on whether or not these small libraries have implemented an ILS as a measure of technology adoption. It is important to recognize that the implementation of an automation system may provide significant improvements to help these libraries better serve their communities, but is only an initial step. Libraries of all sizes face challenges as their communities have ever changing expectations, at least a certain extent driven by technology. These expectations include increased interest in e-books and access to all forms of electronic information. I hope that technologies and services in these other areas likewise find ways to prosper in the small library sector.

View Citation
Publication Year:2014
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 34 Number 09
Issue:September 2014
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:19998
Last Update:2022-11-15 19:10:23
Date Created:2014-11-09 15:25:55