“Libraries have seen major changes in technology over the years with a feverish pace of development from the mid-80s to the mid-2000s. Now with discovery tools and ILS, it feels like we are essentially done, with minor tinkering needed on language, view options, and full mobile capabilities. What is the icebreaker movement that we should be looking for—when do you think we will see a shift to fully cloud-based services?”
The characterization that the pace of development in library technology was feverish from the mid-1980s until the mid-2000s isn't consistent with my view of that period. This was a time when the ILS and online catalog gained some maturity, but remained tightly bound within a static model of automation cast in the previous phase. ILSs emerged in the late 1970s through early 1980s when the work of libraries almost entirely surrounded print and other physical media. The classic model of the ILS composed of a bibliographic database underlying modules for cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, serials, and a public catalog was cast. Each of the modules gained increasing sophistication in functionality tied to the MARC family of standards and to task workflows, business rules, and fulfillment procedures optimized for physical materials. Much of the development energy was invested in taking this model of the ILS through new technical architectures. The same systems were essentially ported through the successive phases of mainframe/ terminal, client/server, and web-oriented deployment.
During this phase, the basic work happening in libraries was changing dramatically. Academic libraries shifted from print to electronic journals, launched institutional repositories, and created new digital collections, as well as other technology-focused activities as they sought to serve their academic institutions. Special libraries were largely transformed from collections of books and journals to information centers oriented to competitive intelligence and enterprise knowledge management. Public libraries faced challenges to manage the fulfillment of physical materials in the context of ever higher demand and to meet expectations for engaging technology relative to advances in user experience in the consumer arena.
The library technology industry during this critical phase remained fragmented. Many companies focused their development mostly on ILSs with only marginal differentiation from their competitors. Rather than expanding the vision of ILSs, some companies created standalone products to address emerging areas of need, such as link resolvers, electronic resource management systems, and institutional repository platforms. These products seemed to be stop-gap measures that failed to provide adequate technical infrastructure to support the broad range of challenges libraries were working hard to address.
Some interesting advancements have since taken place. Index-based discovery services, starting in about 2009 with the launch of Summon, made a fundamental departure from the concept of the catalog based on entities to a much richer and more granular discovery tool that included all the individual content items with access points beyond structured metadata and including full text. The vision of a resource management system able to manage library collections across all formats emerged in 2011. These platforms embraced an ambitious scope of bringing together the management and fulfillment of electronic, print, and digital materials with respect to their different metadata structures and workflows. Library services platforms have been working toward greater maturity for the last 6 years and have become increasingly dominant in academic and research libraries. ILSs continue to prevail in public and school libraries and are making incremental advancements to address increased involvement by these libraries in lending digital materials.
Library resource management systems and discovery services have made long strides to catch up with the current realities of libraries. These products are shifting to the latest technology expectations, such as modern web-based interfaces delivering user experiences on par with consumer-oriented destinations and social networks, including usability on mobile devices.
Library technologies, despite recent progress, still fall short of providing the business infrastructure needed to advance libraries' strategic positions in society and their specific communities. It seems important for libraries to stay reasonably current in their technical architecture by using cloud-based infrastructures and interfaces optimized for a society increasingly oriented to social networks and mobile devices. But my greater concern lies in a more progressive vision of technology infrastructure able to keep pace with the more complex requirements of libraries as they evolve as institutions. I think investing in development that mostly focuses on tinkering around the fine points of existing functionality and leaving new areas of work unaddressed will represent a major lost opportunity. The need for substantive innovation in the realm of library technology has never been more urgent.