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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Resource Management, Discovery, and Content Interwoven

Smart Libraries Newsletter [November 2015]

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The industry of organizations oriented to libraries has gradually evolved toward an overlapping array of products and services around creating and publishing content as well as technology platforms for the discovery and management of collection materials. Today a growing set of companies provide both technology and content products, sparking a variety of issues for libraries.

Previously, in the landscape of library-oriented suppliers, organizations occupied more homogeneous categories. The library technology industry was once almost entirely dominated by organizations that primarily developed specialized software for the management and access of content. During the era when library collections comprised primarily print materials, this distinction was clear. Publishers operated in a separate category and were not involved in generalized resource management technologies. They naturally had platforms for the selection, procurement, and access to their own offerings, but were not especially involved in providing tools that addressed the broader scope of library collections. Ongoing rounds of mergers and acquisitions as well as diversified product strategies have resulted in the creation of a small number of very large companies that offer a diverse range of content, metadata, resource management, and discovery products to libraries. The most conspicuous examples include EBSCO Information Services, OCLC, and ProQuest.

Knowledge Bases and Central Indexes

The management and access of electronic resources has advanced through the creation of knowledge bases pre-populated with data describing the titles and holdings of each of the content packages available. These knowledge bases power both context sensitive linking applications, such as the original SFX product from Ex Libris, and those that followed from Serials Solutions, Openly Informatics, EBSCO, and OCLC. The ability to provide article-level discovery centers on massive central indexes populated with metadata and full text from this same body of scholarly and professional content.

Creating technology to manage and provide access to library collections necessarily includes both software and content components in the form of these central indexes and knowledge bases. The creation and maintenance of the content components requires considerable investment of capital and personnel resources and developing a network of business relationships with content providers. Organizations that are content providers themselves are particularly well positioned in this regard. Populating knowledge bases and central indexes doesn't happen passively, but requires concerted effort. Organizations must establish business and legal agreements to gain access to content and also develop technical platforms and processes to ingest, normalize, and index it.

Knowledge bases and indexes provide valuable capabilities to the libraries that use these associated products. It's far beyond the resources of individual academic and research libraries to track at a granular level the vast amount of material held within the many packages of electronic resources to which they subscribe or have purchased, plus what is open access. A commercial or community-based project can assemble this data once for the benefit of thousands of libraries. But it is essential that these knowledge bases and indexes are constructed to cover the full range of publishers and content products of interest to a library and to guide access to users in a neutral way.

Content Neutrality

The intent for content neutrality is a given for any resource management or discovery product developed for libraries. While there may be some speculation or implication that a given discovery service may give preferred treatment of one publisher's content, I do not believe that any of these products have been designed with intentional bias. Any overt or intentional bias of favoring content from a company's own content over that of competitors would likely not be tolerated by libraries that purchase either the content or technology products.

In the current discovery arena, scenarios exist where creators of content—especially those involved with abstracting and indexing services—resist contributing those assets to index-based discovery services. The presence or absence of such metadata has implications regarding the performance of content from those providers in discovery services. I expect that the gaps in participation of producers of A&I resources will eventually narrow or close, mitigating these concerns. But I do not see evidence that the technical design of any of the discovery product intentionally favors in-house content over that of competing publishers.

Overlapping Roles

Given the high levels of investments involved in creating and maintaining knowledge bases and discovery indexes, it is not surprising to see a only small number available. Currently only Ex Libris, OCLC, ProQuest, and EBSCO Information Services have created these components in a way that generally addresses the range of electronic content published globally. The Global Open Knowledge Base (GOKb), has been launched more recently as an effort to create an open access community supported knowledge base, but does not yet match the comprehensiveness of the established products. The commercial knowledge bases and indexes are created by organizations with different profiles of business activities: Ex Libris develops technology products; OCLC offers a wide range of services inducing metadata, resource sharing, and community research, in addition to is technology-based products; ProQuest and EBSCO both produce and distribute content products and are increasingly involved in resource management and discovery technologies. Organizations that produce content as well as provide resource management and discovery tools, such as ProQuest and EBSCO, are naturally subject to the most scrutiny regarding neutrality of these overlapping products.

The recent acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest—covered in this issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter—consolidates two of the organizations that have developed knowledge bases and discovery indexes. Although the messaging surrounding the yetto-be-finalized acquisition emphasizes that no products will be eliminated, it does leave open the possibility that the knowledge bases and indexes that power the products of both antecedent organizations might be jointly managed. I see considerable benefit in initially filling in gaps across the two sets of knowledge bases and indexes or even eventually consolidating them. Given the differences in architecture of the Ex Libris and ProQuest platforms, creating a converged knowledge base or discovery index able to drive both products would not happen overnight, but has the potential to strengthen both product families.

I do not see the acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest having a major impact on the issue of product choice or content neutrality in the library resource discovery arena. For the reasonably long term, I anticipate that the number of index-based discovery services will remain at the current four products.

Apart from the official messaging related to the acquisition announcement, it makes sense for the combined organization to continue to develop and support both Primo and Summon. These two products offer substantially different approaches to library resource discovery and appeal to different types of libraries. Primo offers a more complex and configurable interface, while Summon takes a bit more turnkey approach. Libraries that have selected one of these would not likely be quite dissatisfied if forced to shift to the other. The history of the library technology industry has reinforced multiple times that preserving products over a relatively long time leads to better business success than abruptly or prematurely terminating well established products.

Does the potential consolidation of the underlying knowledge bases have implications regarding content neutrality? Ex Libris has been able to position Primo as unbiased because the company functions as a technology provider and not as a content publisher. While Primo is designed for content neutrality, the current gap in content from EBSCO and other A&I providers remains an ongoing issue. ProQuest has positioned Summon as providing “democratic discovery” through its architecture of combining all references to a given content item to a single record and giving libraries the ability to prioritize the versions presented to users. Given my perception that all four products embody a high standard of content neutrality, as long as ProQuest does indeed preserve both Primo and Summon, any cross-pollination or even consolidation of the two knowledge bases and discovery indexes will make only a nuanced difference in the choices available to libraries.

Resource Management Neutrality

Issues also arise as organizations with primary interests in publishing and distributing content provide resource management tools. Libraries depend on strategic technology platforms to manage the totality of their print and electronic collections. In previous times libraries implemented integrated library systems to manage their print collections and separate systems, either formal electronic resource management systems or local spreadsheets or databases to track their subscriptions to e-journals and e-books. This bicameral approach is increasingly being displaced by a unified model as embodied by library services platforms such as Ex Libris Alma, OCLC WorldShare Management Services, and ProQuest Intota.

The issue of neutrality arises as much in the resource management arena as it does in with index-based discovery services. EBSCO and ProQuest both provide resource management tools. EBSCO has to date not directly entered the market to offer its own integrated library system or library services platform, but rather has engaged in a strategy to integrate EBSCO Discovery Service with all of the other products on the market. ProQuest has more directly engaged. The company has long offered the 360 suite of products for managing electronic resources and has been developing Intota as a library services platform to manage a library's full range of resources. ProQuest has now acquired Ex Libris, which offers the now well established leader in this genre, Alma.

Because it is a given that libraries will purchase content from a variety of providers, it is essential that any resource management tool function objectively relative to all potential providers. These products provide a sophisticated set of services surrounding the acquisition, description, and fulfillment of resources. Libraries increasingly require tools that provide sophisticated support in building collections with the highest impact within severe budget constraints.

The issue of neutrality applies even more to resource management products as it does to discovery services. Academic and research libraries acquire content products from dozens or even hundreds of suppliers. The reality of limited budgets requires that librarians constantly make difficult decisions regarding what materials to acquire and which to deselect. Supporting collection decisions, library services platforms include integrated collection analytics that collect and analyze statistics and other data on the relative performance of existing items and of those under consideration.

In the same way that libraries must have confidence that discovery services provide unbiased access to collection materials, they must also be confident of a neutral and objective platform for the selection and management of resources. The 360 suite of resource management products from ProQuest has earned a good reputation for not privileging the company's own content products. Ex Libris, which does not produce or market content has never to my awareness been considered to favor the content of any publisher. As ProQuest completes its acquisition of Ex Libris, it will be essential to avoid any glint of preference in the way that Alma or Intota support the acquisition of collection resources.

Content-oriented companies can gain benefits from offering resource management platforms while keeping to a strict firewall of content neutrality. On one hand, the library technology sector has proven to be a strong and stable business environment. These sale or subscriptions of technology products provide an additional source of revenue, though on a smaller scale than its content products. But resource management products can also create synergies that support the content business indirectly without crossing any lines of neutrality. If a content company's tools to help libraries operate more efficiently, funds for additional collections may become available, and the company may compete for these purchases. These tools also provide insight into the internal processes behind the selection and management of content resources. Such insight might enable the company to strengthen its content products to better meet the needs of libraries and to eventually improve its competitive position.

The increased involvement of content-oriented organizations with strategic library technology products and services comes with an interesting set of dynamics. Publishing content, managing resources, and providing discovery products are related business activities, but they must be performed in ways that do not compromise the ability of libraries to work with competing providers in any of these areas.

Earlier phases of consolidation in the library technology industry consisted mostly of the mergers of companies with similar product profiles. We're now entering a phase where the consolidated library technology companies are of interest to larger organizations in adjacent, though highly related industries. I can't predict what might happen next, but it is likely that this latest business transaction will not be the last in the ongoing evolution of the library business landscape.

View Citation
Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 11
Issue:November 2015
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:21272
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:13:50
Date Created:2016-01-12 10:11:14