Marshall Breeding responds to questions submitted by readers. Have a question that you want answered? Email it to Samantha Imburgia, Associate Editor for ALA TechSource, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With all the consolidation in the industry, what do you think the industry will look like in another five years? Where do you think the innovation will come from? What are the most innovative things you have seen related to library tech? What excites you about the future of the industry? How will artificial intelligence, big data, and the tech titans (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon) affect the future of libraries? Does everyone have to be an IT professional in the future?
This cluster of questions involves a somewhat speculative look forward into the future of library technologies. Although no predictions can be certain, I think that current trends underway provide glimpses into where some of these areas of the library might be going in the next five years.
The history of library automation tells us not to expect radical or sudden change. Libraries and the organizations dedicated to developing technologies for this sector have never executed rapid change. Libraries tend to be adverse to risk and have deliberate, time-consuming decision-making processes. The pace of change has been steady, seasoned with episodic bursts of innovation.
The ILS can be seen as the core strategic technology that has slowly and steadily evolved over its history of about forty years. The ILS has continually gained new capabilities, but has stayed fairly contained within specific confines of functionality. Its roots come from the realm of print, and much of the workflows and metadata structures are well engrained. Public libraries today manage large inventories of physical materials and seem to be generally well served by ILSs, with incremental enhancements to accommodate e-book and audiobook lending services.
Library services platforms represent an innovation in the library technology industry which began five or six years ago. Even after this phase of development and implementation, this genre of resource management infrastructure has advanced considerably, but cannot be regarded as fully mature. The next five years will hopefully see this important new category of library software meet its potential and more fully deliver on their promise to modernize the ways that libraries manage their collections and fulfill access to patrons. This trajectory of development seems lengthy, but, in my experience, there are no shortcuts to creating new technologies able to address the ever-increasing complexity of multi-format library collections with access and lending policies constrained by external legal and commercial forces. The mechanics of managing library collections and operations has become more complex through each phase of its history. But even in this relatively early phase of their product cycle, library service platforms have already had some success in supporting large-scale collaborative partnerships as shared technology infrastructure and to help libraries regain balance in their approaches to the management of electronic and print resources. The concept of the library services platform can be seen as a burst of innovation, which has to be realized though a very long and incremental process of ongoing development and enhancement. Smart Libraries Newsletter has chronicled the emergence, development, and adoption of OCLC's WorldShare and Ex Libris Alma as the two library services platforms that have reshaped the landscape of academic library automation. It will naturally be interesting to track the impact of Axiell's recently launched Quria as a new library services platform for public libraries.
Open source software has the potential to spark innovation in the library technology sector. To date, open source applications have been part of the slow and steady path of advancement in our sector. Koha, for example, has seen more than a decade and half of continually improving software and ever-increasing adoption in libraries. The open source Evergreen ILS has likewise provided an alternative in the arena of public library consortia. Both remain viable alternatives for many categories of libraries, and I anticipate ongoing success in the future. So far, however, the open source ILS has not changed the tide of the broader library automation industry, which continues to be dominated by proprietary software. The Kuali OLE project attracted a great deal of attention since its inception in 2008, but ultimately was not able to realize its vision. Today, FOLIO stands as a new approach to open source library service platforms with great potential. It benefits from its ability to tap into current-day technology architectures, agile software development methodologies, and a fresh understanding of library workflow concepts. The project seems to be gaining considerable engagement with library developers and administrators. It will be interesting to see if FOLIO will see the typical incremental pace of advancement or whether it will spark a new burst of innovation.
Another important trend to watch involves linked data technologies. Interest has been brewing for the last few years. So far, we have not yet reached a tipping point where these technologies explode onto the scene. Rather we have seen a measured roll-out of BIBFRAME, schema.org, and other linked data implementations, with a growing number of implementation examples. It will be interesting to see if the impact spikes once linked data technologies are fully operationalized within core library systems and services. Linked data could potentially be one of the major technologies that reshapes the library technology scene. It represents a movement from protocols and standards invented by libraries and understood and implemented within our domain to a more native or organic adoption of structures and technologies of the broader web.
I see the future of the library technology industry as incredibly interesting and important to the success of our profession. On the business side, the relentless succession of business transactions has reshaped the industry from fragmentation into consolidation. New rounds of consolidation or other business transitions will inevitably take place, and it seems that each new round of change is more profound than the last. The consolidation of the industry has instilled impressive capacity for development in the few remaining vendors at the cost of a much narrower slate of options for libraries. The recent set of changes have placed the library technology industry more directly within top-level companies, providing a range of products and services to libraries, including content, discovery, and resource management. The position of library technology as a more integrated component of the higher-level business ecosystem has both positive and negative implications.
This elevation of the library technologies still remains quite distant from the titans of the global technology realm, such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon. I continue to believe that libraries remain fairly obscure relative to the strategies of these companies. I do not anticipate any of them developing products targeting libraries, but rather see library patrons as a segment of their customer base. Amazon, for example, has developed incredibly complex inventory management and e-commerce solutions in support of their own operations. I do not see these technologies as a good fit for libraries, which follow a much different set of fulfillment expectations and embrace almost contradictory values. Libraries exist considerably downstream from these companies that create the core technologies and establish global trends, which, in turn, help shape the directions within our much smaller sector. While the synergies between the global giants may be a bit indirect, they are also incredibly important in shaping the technology ecosystem that libraries inhabit.
The future of libraries will be carried out by librarians, with their special role in society focused on providing access to information and embracing the established values of the profession. Library technologies exist to support librarians and their organizations. While the nature of librarianship may be ever more reliant on technology, I do not necessarily see librarians as having to be information technology professionals to be effective in their work. Successful technologies must be accessible by library personnel without advanced technical training, just as our patron-facing services must be easily understood and used by patrons without explanation or training. Although some librarians may gravitate toward digital and electronic information, I also see this as a relatively small segment of the profession. Some may become experts in using and teaching technology. Many others may use technology to a greater or lesser extent, but remain focused on their domain expertise. The best technology works mostly transparently behind the scenes at the service of individuals and society.