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Smart Libraries Q&A: Selecting automation systems for the long term

Smart Libraries Newsletter [June 2017]


What measures can we take when looking for new library automation software that can help negate the possibility of winding up with an outdated or obsolete product a few years down the line?

Libraries make significant investments in their technology infrastructure, so it is essential for them to derive the best value from them as possible. The financial costs and the time and disruption involved in implementing a new system motivate libraries to find systems that will serve them well for a very long time. According to data in, libraries on average stay with the same automation system for 12- 15 years. It is not unusual for a library to keep the same automation system in place for over 20 years. The selection and implementation of a new automation system is a long-term commitment, making it imperative to identify that the vendor and products are well aligned with current and future strategic priorities. A variety of factors should be considered in the process.

Consider the Present, Plan for the Future

Given the long-term tenure of these products, libraries should be careful to shape their criteria for selection more on the needs they anticipate for the future. Many aspects of library operations change over time, making it important to look beyond the concerns that may be immediately pressing. It is especially important not to formulate requirements only around current-day or past practices but to anticipate future trends and strategies. Libraries should work to identify products that are able to meet the anticipated high-level goals of the library, even if they are oriented to different approaches to processes or workflows.

When creating requirements for a new system, the organization might use statistics and analytics to predict the types of collections and services that might prevail in the next five years. Keep in mind that three years can easily transpire from the early phase of a procurement process, when system requirements are developed, until a product has been selected and implemented. A short-term focus can therefore result in a system being a bit outdated by the time that it is placed into production use.

Align Operational Tasks with Strategic Priorities

The selection and implementation of a new system should be taken as an opportunity to reevaluate operational priorities, resource allocation, and how routine tasks are fulfilled. As individual staff members participate in evaluating new candidate systems, it is natural for each to think about how each might support their day-to-day work. While respecting that context to the extent possible, it is also important to consider that thinking in terms of supporting the tasks associated with the current system may result in a conservative choice representing lateral instead of forward momentum in terms of supporting new or changing aspects of library services or operations.

Seek Flexible Technologies

This perspective of constant change in libraries means that the technology product or service most likely to succeed in the long term are those able to accommodate new workflows, formats of materials, metadata conventions, or other aspects of functionality. The ILS has been the basic model of automation for several decades, but in many contexts, it is approaching the point where it is not able to meet future expectations. Its fixed modular structure, ingrained design around specific metadata schemes, and its generally rigid approach don't necessarily result in the flexibility and adaptability needed as the speed of the cycles of change accelerate in libraries.

Products designed to accommodate the changing realities of libraries will naturally be less likely to become obsolete. The recent genre of library service platforms embrace a set of characteristics that are not only more consistent with current expectations in research libraries but also are designed in ways to accommodate future changes. Products such as these have been created not only to address currently prevailing practices but also to adapt to future possibilities. Rather than being designed around MARC bibliographic standards, for example, a product might take a more abstract approach to metadata, supporting a range of standards and formats that apply to different collection formats, including those that may emerge in the future. Systems that enable organizations to design workflows around configurable business rules provide more flexibility than those with hardcoded functionality.

Open Technologies Resist Obsolescence

Open technologies also stave off obsolesce by enabling the organizations using them to address new areas of interest as they emerge. Openness can be delivered in multiple ways, such as through open source software, through comprehensive and documented APIs, or through open data models. It isn't possible for any given product to offer every detail of functionality expected by a library in its default configuration. There is just too much complexity and variation among different types and sizes of libraries and related organizations. It is therefore important to provide tools and mechanisms for each library to configure or extend the system to fill in any gaps.

Open source software development can result in the creation of products that can be modified and extended to meet the ongoing needs of a library. Open source ILSs, for example, have become a routine segment of the technology industry. The two leading products in this area, Koha and Evergreen, both benefit from active development communities and a variety of for-profit and non-profit firms offering support services for implementation, hosting, and support. In addition to using their own technical abilities to create enhancements to an open source product, libraries can also contract with a development firm. Open source alternatives have been developed for almost all categories of products used by libraries, such as ILSs, discovery interfaces, institutional repositories, digital asset management systems, and archival management systems. The ability for open source products to avoid obsolescence depends on the completeness and maturity of functionality, underlying technical architecture, the level of capacity and engagement of their development communities, as well as having a critical mass of installations to sustain them.

Open APIs can add an additional layer of extensibility and interoperability to open source and to proprietary software. It is becoming increasingly expected for technology products to be deployed via platforms with comprehensive APIs that enable libraries to gain additional value through writing scripts, modules, or apps that leverage its data and core functionality.

Open APIs enable programmatic access to data and units of functionality without the need to work with the deep code within the application itself. Although highly trained software engineers may be needed to modify and extend complex open source applications, individuals able to use highlevel scripting languages, such as Python, Ruby, PHP, or Perl can easily create services based on the APIs of their core systems.

Open data can also enhance the resilience of a product or service. Technology-based products often have a knowledge base, discovery index, or other data component. The ability of a product to take advantage or to expose open data can help ensure its ability to evolve along with the changes in the library environment.

These examples stand out as some of the factors that a library can keep in mind as it acquires a new technology product to increase the chances that it will remain viable for the long term. Especially in the realm of ILSs or library services platforms, changing systems is expensive and disruptive. But working with a product that has not kept up with the changes in libraries can be a liability. Selecting a system designed to be flexible and extensible in these ways can help ensure that it will not become obsolete before its time.

View Citation
Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 06
Issue:June 2017
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22743
Last Update:2023-01-19 23:09:10
Date Created:2017-07-01 14:33:33