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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Looking Forward to 2017

Smart Libraries Newsletter [January 2017]

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The advance of a new year on the calendar prompts consideration of what we might expect in the next phase of library technology. Avoiding any attempt at exact predictions, at best we can extrapolate from existing trends to make informed projections and set expectations within areas of interest. Technology planning requires at least a degree of anticipating the future in order to shape strategies and prepare long-term budgets and resource allocations. Areas of interest where we can make some predictive observations include the next phases of library services platforms and integrated library systems (ILSs). These genres of resource management systems remain distinct, with differing directions of strategic development. The privacy of online patron activity has become a critical concern, which stands out as a priority for attention by both libraries and the vendors providing technology products. Since business transitions can have a major impact on the products and services available to libraries, it is always important to monitor relevant industry conditions.

Building Out the Platforms

The genre of library services platforms has become well established, especially for academic libraries. These products, in development since 2009 and in production since 2012, provide business process automation with workflows better optimized for the current reality of multi-format collections than the traditional ILSs. Delivered through multi-tenant platforms, these products have seen continual enhancements since their initial deployments. While the satisfaction with these platforms is far from perfect, they can be seen as providing technical infrastructure to help libraries address their operational requirements for resource management and service delivery with increasing sophistication. The library services platform aims less at replacing the detailed functionality embodied within the ILS, and more towards providing the technical infrastructure to support activities aligned with current strategic priorities. In addition to the embedded functionality, these platforms expose APIs that can be exploited to address additional needs for data exchange, interoperability with external systems, or the creation of new applications or widgets.

Building on the foundations of the library services platform, the next phase of library technology for academic libraries will be seen in the delivery of new products and services addressing the increasing bounds of involvement that academic libraries have assumed within their institutions. Academic libraries find themselves increasingly interested in going beyond the traditional roles of building, maintaining, and facilitating access to print and electronic collections. This traditional role persists as the foundation of library services to the university, but exploring new opportunities beyond the core can help strengthen its value. The development of library services platforms and other strategic technology infrastructure continues in two directions: filling gaps in functionality related to resource management and in extending their scope to address new areas of library involvement.

Many academic libraries seek to increase their strategic position through closer involvement with the research process, such as in providing new services related to research data. The creation of data management plans as well as the organization, preservation, and management of research data tap into the core areas of expertise of libraries and help to strengthen their value to the institution. I anticipate that extending the library services platform to address various aspects of managing research data will be one of the key enhancements to library services platforms in the near future. These capabilities could be addressed either through a new suite of functionality created within the existing workflows and interfaces or through new applications or modules operating adjacently that take advantage of the core platform services and functionality. In this era of library services platforms, creating new standalone applications can be seen as promulgating fragmentation compared to leveraging the library's existing strategic infrastructure.

The library services platform must also be better leveraged to address the resources needed in support of the curriculum. The genre of index-based discovery services has seen mixed results as a tool for students and researchers to gain access to the materials in the general body of scholarly information of interest. With the majority of students and researchers relying on tools on the broader web, such as Google Scholar, library-provided discovery services address a niche of research activities centered on subscribed and open-access materials specifically vetted by the library. These index-based discovery services provide an important service to students and faculty that happen to visit the library website and perform their research through the tools provided. In reality, only a subset of research is conducted through library-provided interfaces, making it essential for libraries to exploit other channels more directly within the daily routines of students and instructors.

The learning management system plays a crucial role within the university as a mandatory interface for students and instructors. Most educational institutions have implemented one of these platforms with increasingly high adoption as the strategic platform through which the activities of university classes are conducted. Thus, it is increasingly essential that libraries find points of entry into the learning management system to deliver access to their print and electronic resources and other services. It is not necessarily realistic for libraries to assume that students and instructors will always go out of their way to figure out the tools that the library offers on its own website to discover and access materials used for their courses. While some, or even most, course materials may be available from the library, it is essential to provide discovery and access to these materials through the learning management system itself. This reality drives the need to provide services via the learning management system that tap into the resources provided by the library.

The genre of reading list management tools has been established in the higher educational sector of the United Kingdom for a few years. Products such as Aspire from Talis and the open source rebus:list application developed and supported by PTFS Europe have been leaders in establishing this genre. Technology products designed to offer better support for incorporating library resources into learning management systems have come much later to North American universities. In the last couple of years, EBSCO has introduced its Curriculum Builder, and Ex Libris has introduced Leganto to address this need. The phase of dedicated electronic course reserves seems to have waned. Many libraries have abandoned these programs since faculty and research assistants have started to manage the required and supplemental articles and book chapters directly through their course pages in the learning management system. In many cases, these materials were not well coordinated with the resources provided by the library. Personal copies of an article from the instructor might be scanned rather than linked to a digital version available through the library's subscriptions. The creation of extensions to library services platforms or discovery services that tap into institutional learning management systems helps the library to assert its role in supplying the information resources in support of teaching. This approach enables the institution to optimize investments made in the library's content subscriptions and improve copyright compliance.

Integrated Library Systems

The ILS continues as the prevailing model for the automation of public, school, and most special libraries. This genre of technology product has evolved over at least three decades, maintaining its general organizational structure for data and functionality and has been adapted to the architectures of each major technology cycle. Its innate orientation to workflows and data structures favoring print resources can be seen as the impetus for the creation of the genre of library services platforms to serve academic and research libraries that need to manage multi-format collections. These collections are dominated by electronic and print materials. Yet the ILS continues to prosper among other types of libraries that remain more book oriented. Even as these libraries increasingly become involved in e-books, ILSs have been able to evolve to accommodate them without changing the foundational automation model. The structure of bibliographic records with associated holdings can easily accommodate electronic versions.

Regardless of the underlying drivers, so far only academic libraries have moved in large proportions to library services platforms, and ILSs continue to dominate the automation of other library types.

Accelerated Shift to Web-Based Interfaces

The transition from workstation-based staff clients to web-based interfaces stands out as the key technology trend for ILSs. Most of the major ILSs today utilize software that must be installed on local computer workstations for use by staff members. These staff clients can provide efficient interfaces but require considerable work to install and constant upkeep as new versions are produced. In this current phase of information technology, almost all new business software in other sectors makes use of web-based interfaces. The library arena has been behind the curve in making this transition, though incremental progress has been made over the last two or three years. Progress has been hampered previously by the difficulty of programming the complex editors and workflow tools into web-based forms and templates. With the advent of HTML5 and sophisticated JavaScript frameworks, such as jQuery and Bootstrap, the gap between what can be accomplished in a graphical desktop versus a web interface has closed. For the integrated systems that still require workstation-based staff clients, I anticipate that this year will be one of significant progress. This transition to web-based interfaces for staff functionality seems long overdue.

Vendor Hosting

Another trend that will accelerate in the coming year involves increasing proportions of ILSs hosted by the vendor instead of the library or consortium. Vendor hosting has become the preferred deployment model for the majority of new ILS implementations. Even libraries not interested in changing ILSs will shift to vendor hosting services when their local hardware comes to the end of its life or when local data center arrangements change. Many institutional data centers have changed their attitudes from avoidance of hosted servers to acceptance or encouragement. As more vendors gain certifications for security and quality assurance with rigid terms of service, institutional information technology administrators see hosted services as beneficial in terms of risk and cost. From the library perspective, moving to a hosted environment enables local technical personnel to refocus their work on high-level services instead of routine server and network administration. Many library products are offered only through software-asa- service (Saas), where local hosting may not even be possible. These products would include all the library services platforms and index-based discovery services. The model of purchasing software to be installed on local servers will be increasingly rare, implemented only when required by special circumstances. This shift in technology has major changes for technology budgets, with less spending on individual hardware and software components and facilities, displaced by inclusive SaaS subscription fees.

Privacy and Security

Despite the prevailing attitudes and policies in the library profession concerning the protection of patron privacy, the adoption of technologies to safeguard data related to online patron activity on library provided interfaces has been lax. The number of libraries that currently use HTTPS to encrypt their websites, catalogs, discovery services, and other web-based services remains low. This was demonstrated by data collected and reported for an issue of Library Technology Reports that I authored on the topic and on my subsequent observations. Many factors are now in play that should accelerate the adoption of HTTPS in library interfaces. These factors include higher awareness of vulnerability to domestic and international electronic surveillance as well as a variety of initiatives within the commercial sector, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and library-specific initiatives. HTTPS will soon become the expected transmission protocol for all web-based activity. Web browsers will soon begin presenting warnings for sites transmitting via unencrypted HTTP, and search engines may give preferential ranking to content delivered through secure protocols. Early adoption of secure transmission technologies would be consistent with library ethics and values. Unfortunately, libraries have been slow to make the transition. Heightened awareness by libraries and proactive measures taken by vendors could drive a rapid transition to secure handling of patron interactions with library resources in the coming months. This remains an urgent and pressing challenge.

Business Activity

Mergers and acquisitions has been a continual theme in the library technology industry for the last two decades. Each year brings another set of business events resulting either in incremental change or larger-scale transformation of the industry. 2016 fell into the former category, with no major events changing the dynamics of the industry. The acquisition of Baker & Taylor by Follett was the biggest event of the year, with no major impact on the library technology division of Follett. On the international front, Axiell acquired the German ILS vendor BiBer, and OCLC acquired its small distributor in Italy (IFNET). Compared to 2015, which saw major events such as the acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest and 3M Library Systems becoming part of Bibliotheca, this year was quite calm.

Of course, it is not possible to predict specific business events that may take place in the coming months or years. It would be highly unusual for the industry to go a year without some activity. But in the current highly consolidated industry, few opportunities remain for mergers among competitors. It would not be surprising to see one or more companies see new ownership arrangements, especially among those held by private equity investors. I anticipate that the coming year will instead be characterized by activities related to the business integration and strategies put in place as a result of the major events of 2015. This timing would be consistent with the process of business integration and the execution of strategies emerging from merged organizations.

Smart Libraries Newsletter covers the major events, products, and companies of the library technology industry. In each issue, we aim to provide objective reporting and informed perspective. Time will tell whether the events of the coming year will follow the trends we have anticipated or veer in other directions. Either way, I'm sure it will be another interesting year in the realm of library technologies.

View Citation
Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 01
Issue:January 2017
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22270
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:05:43
Date Created:2017-02-17 10:11:05