In the July issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we looked at technologies that enabled groups of libraries to collaborate where each has implemented a separate integrated library system. Direct consortial borrowing products such as Auto-Graphics SHAREit, Innovative's INN-Reach, or Relais ILL from Relais International, provide functionality that operates through exchanging data and transactions through each library's existing automation system. Another approach, which is gaining increasing popularity, relies on libraries not deploying independent automation systems, but rather sharing an instance of a single system.
Shared technology infrastructure has the potential to enable a deeper collaboration among libraries than possible through add-on resource sharing systems. One of the major trends in library technology is the interest in library services platforms shared by groups of libraries, rather than each institution implementing its own independent system. This model of shared technical infrastructure provides a variety of benefits, primarily in strategic cooperation, lower costs, and in access to expanded resources for library users.
Sharing an automation system among large numbers libraries falls well within the capacity of many of the products available today. Those deployed through multi-tenant platforms, for example, are built using technologies and architectures similar to those that power popular consumer services serving extraordinarily large numbers of institutions or individuals. The hardware and software limitations used as the basis for many of the configurations of existing implementations no longer apply. Libraries can consider much more expansive options going forward.
Simply by purchasing a system together, libraries gain financial leverage relative to each institution's selecting and negotiating independently. Even with little anticipated operational coordination, groups of libraries are likely be offered attractive group pricing to purchase a system through a joint contract. Libraries participating in a joint contract might also be able to benefit from shared training events and expertise because they all would be using the same system.
Even more than cost savings in purchasing the system, libraries participating in these projects can opt to shift to group-oriented workflows to lower operational costs. Some projects might involve collaborative approaches to acquiring and processing collection materials. Patron-oriented discovery and cross-institutional resource sharing can help to increase the impact of the individual and collective collections.
A limited amount of savings and efficiencies can be achieved through joint purchase agreements or add-on resource sharing systems. Deep collaboration requires a strategic commitment. Participating libraries change at least some operations to gain advantages collectively. Examples include agreeing to a single set of policies and procedures along with centralized management, selective simplification of policies, or redistribution of activities. Implementing a shared technology environment can be a key factor in strategic collaboration.
The groups selecting shared technology infrastructure include both consortia of independently governed libraries and systems of libraries operating under the same higher-level organizational structure. Examples of systems might include a state university system composed of multiple campuses, each of which might have multiple libraries or state-wide public library projects. Consortial implementations tend to be complex. Independent governance of the participating institutions may bring a need to emphasize the branding and policies of each local institution, to segregate patron or financial data, or other functional characteristics. Although some degree of institutional independence must be maintained within these shared systems, maximizing collaboration stands out as the overarching principle.
Shared technology infrastructure enables organizations to collaborate in multiple areas. Some may engage in collaborative collection development. in the context of aggregate collections, sharing a bibliographic database and acquisitions processes makes the selection and acquisitions of new materials or subscriptions to electronic resources easier. Although libraries can also work toward collaborative collection development when they have separate automation systems, the effort to search each system separately can make the process unwieldy. Shared systems can also more easily produce reports or analytics to help selectors make more informed decisions their own institutional collection in relation that of the consortia.
Shared infrastructure provides options for the distribution of activities among the personnel of the organization. Individuals with specialized expertise may be able to apply their work more broadly throughout the consortium. Catalogers with knowledge in a given language, for example, may not be fully tapped by the work within their home institution and may be able to handle materials acquired for other institutions within the partnership. A consortium sharing an automation system also has more options technical services functions. It may choose to use centralized cataloging or acquisitions or multiple processing centers instead of the traditional arrangement where each institution exclusively handles their materials.
The move toward large consortial projects alters the competitive dynamics of the library technology industry. These projects often result in a “winner-take-all” gambit, where incumbent installations spanning many different products or vendors are replaced by a single new provider. A significant amount of business can be won or lost in a single procurement. As these large-scale projects become more frequent, vendors with the capacity to develop sophisticated products oriented to consortial implementations through highly scaleable platforms gain an advantage relative to those oriented to single- institutional implementations. Groups of libraries seeking platforms for shared infrastructure make their evaluations based on their relative abilities share resources among their collective user populations and to gain efficiencies in managing both print and electronic collections.
This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter surveys some of the recent projects where libraries have opted for some level of shared infrastructure. These projects reflect a distinct trend that is likely to expand in the coming years according to the perceived success of these projects. Some high-profile implementations have already sparked interest. While the majority of institutions will likely continue to implement automation systems individually, projects involving shared infrastructure are an option that libraries interested in strategic partnerships will choose with increasing confidence.