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Smarter Libraries Through Technology: Striving for Neutral and Objective Coverage

Smart Libraries Newsletter [March 2015]

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In my role as a journalist and analyst for the library technology industry, I aim to provide objective coverage of all the major stakeholders. Maintaining objectivity means taking a non-promotional, or neutral, position relative to the organizations, products, technologies, and even development models.

My readers include library staff that use technology products and services and the people who create and support them. I aim to help libraries understand the range of options available, providing enough information, context, and perspective to help decision-makers shape technology strategies and assemble their technical infrastructure. The newsletter's readership also includes future library or information professionals. I'm delighted when I meet new librarians and students who mention reading my essays and articles as part of their education about technology in libraries. People on the supply side of library technology products and services represent another important segment. Not only does each organization pay close attention to how they are covered, but they naturally want to thoroughly understand their competition and all alternatives available to libraries.

In my coverage of the library technology industry, I aim to be neutral relative to each of the organizations involved and the various organizational and development models. I have valued relationships with individuals at all levels of the organizations—often including the CEO—of each of the major companies in the industry. These relationships provide important opportunities to gather information about the products, roadmaps, and strategies of each of the companies that inform specific articles or reports that I write or that provide background context. In all these relationships is an explicit understanding that I will not publicly promote any given organization above another and that I will cover each objectively, including both strengths and weaknesses. My ability to continue these relationships and to gather information about the companies and products depends on maintaining confidences and by ensuring the accuracy and balance of my reports and public presentations.

I often write about the business side of the industry, including the mergers, acquisitions, and ownership status of organizations. The industry comprises a diverse range of organizations-- for-profits and nonprofits; companies owned by founders or their families others by private equity or smaller investors; and even publicly traded. I appreciate the benefits of each of these ownership models as well as the potential pitfalls. I generally observe the strategies and personalities influence outcomes for libraries more than the ownership arrangement or organizational models.

The library technology industry includes a mix of open source and proprietary offerings. Here also, I hold a neutral stance. I have been involved in open source projects and use open source software and see many positive qualities in this model of software development. Companies that produce products and services not released as open source dominate in most segments of the industry, providing products that benefit libraries. But even these proprietary products are increasingly expected to provide robust and well-document APIs that open their data and functionality to libraries.

In the current state of the industry, proprietary and open source products compete vigorously in many sectors. Open source ILS products, such as Koha and Evergreen, now considered mainstream options, compete with the proprietary offerings based on their merits in functionality, design, architecture, support services. With both the open source and proprietary products, I also aim to provide as much information as I can about the organizations behind their development support. In an industry of mostly private companies, I am generally pleased with the level of disclosure by these organizations. For my various reports they provide figures regarding many aspects of their businesses, such as sales performance, numbers and allocation of personnel, and often customer lists. In the finite universe of libraries, it is usually possible figure out what systems are acquired by what libraries in any given year through other means, but getting that information directly enhances my ability to track and analyze the trends in the industry.

In describing the organizations that produce technology products, I am constantly reminded of the difficulty in comparing the companies that produce proprietary products with the communities involved in creating open source software. Among the many characteristics of these organizations, I consider their capacity for development and support one of the important factors. When these functions fall within the same organization, it is relatively easy to quantify them. To the extent that organizations disclose the numbers of personnel allocated to these activities, it is possible to at least make rough comparisons regarding their relative capabilities.

In developing the open source Koha ILS story in this issue, I wanted to provide perspective on the relative size of its development community compared with that of the organizations that product proprietary software. My initial strategy involved attempting to aggregate the numbers of developers employed by each of the firms involved with Koha, as well as those working individually. Outside of the support firms, many individuals working in libraries voluntarily spend part of their time contributing to open source projects, some with no specific affiliations. Throw in similar scenarios, involving hundreds of individuals distributed throughout the world with no specific organizational structure, and the calculation of effort turns out to be a quite complex task. This ethos of open source development does not necessarily lend itself to the tracking of time.

Projects such as Koha, when managed through GitHub or similar repositories provide another set of measures, especially the number of lines of code committed by each developer. The statistics describing the Koha codebase are truly impressive. So while I have not yet been able to derive a general comparison between the Koha development community and the development resources available to the proprietary products, I have gained more of an appreciation for the quantity of efforts contributed and for the fundamental differences in these two approaches to software development.

Neutrality does not imply lack of critical assessment. It means approaching each product, company, or development model without an initial bias. Absent that bias, a multitude of comparisons can be made to identify the relative merits and weaknesses of each alternative. It's also important to recognize the differences in the requirements of libraries where any given characteristic may be well-suited for one type of library and a liability for another. Creating data and points of reference that help to objectively compare and analyze the various alternatives have long been the basis of how I cover this incredibly interesting and complex library technology industry.

View Citation
Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 03
Issue:March 2015
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:20598
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:18:25
Date Created:2015-05-08 11:54:11