An important set of contracting trends can currently be seen in play in the library technology arena. The issue centers on whether the scope of technology systems should continue to expand to encompass an ever-broader universe of functionality and services, or should products ideally focus on a more finite scope with an emphasis on interoperability so that libraries can assemble customized environment?
The products and technology of Ex Libris follows strategy of expanding unification. Beginning in about 2009, the company began articulating a product strategy based on “unified resource management” and “unified resource discovery and delivery.” The strategy centers on the premise that library work can become more efficient when the same platform is able to manage all formats of content compared to scenarios where staff work with different specialized systems. Likewise, library users expect all the resources available from the library to be searchable and accessible through a single interface without having to deal with separate systems for print materials, electronic resources, or other types of content.
The initial fruit of this strategy was seen in the creation of the Primo discovery interface and later supplemented by the Primo Central index. The concept of unified resource discovery was not unique to Ex Libris with ProQuest launching its Summon service even before Primo Central. OCLC developed WorldCat Local and EBSCO launched EBSCO Discovery Service at about the same time. Index-based discovery has become the prevalent genre of library-provided search.
This strategy of unified resource management was formed in the context of an era where integrated library systems (ILSs) were well established but did not work well with electronic resources. Specialized electronic resource management (ERM) systems were emerging but were not gaining wide acceptance. Ex Libris posited that creating a new platform consolidating all formats would create efficiencies that could not be attained through strengthening the interoperability between specialized systems. Initially the company stressed Alma for managing print resources and electronic resources though recently it has also emphasized its capabilities for managing digital collections. Alma was launched as a unified platform for managing electronic and print resources in about 2011 and has since been widely adopted by academic and research libraries globally. OCLC's WorldShare Management Services embodied many similar concepts, though some of its capabilities for electronic resources were packaged separately as WorldShare License Manager.
As Alma gained a growing customer base globally, the company began to build other products on its foundation. These products so far have included Leganto course reading list application and Esploro, a new set of services in support of academic research activities. Ex Libris has also developed Primo VE, a new version of its discovery solution managed via Alma rather than through its own dedicated back office console. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features yet another product genre to be built on the Alma platform, Rialto, a new selection and ordering service. This strategy of unification of functionality and services through Alma has resonated with many libraries, as seen through its growing dominance in selections by academic libraries moving to new systems.
The model of unified platforms of ever-expanding reach also has detractors. Many libraries prefer interoperable components of finite scope. Many vendors of ILS products continue to strengthen interoperability with specialized ERM systems. SirsiDynix, for example, has developed its BLUEcloud Campus suite that relies on the library's Symphony or Horizon ILS for print resource management in conjunction with the open source CORAL ERM and article-level discovery taking place through EBSCO Discovery Service.
The Virginia Tech University Libraries have recently opted to implement an integrated set of systems rather than a unified platform. As described in the March 2018 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, this university has partnered with ByWater Solutions to implement an environment of open source products, including the Koha ILS and the CORAL ERM. It is yet to be seen whether this integrated approach will be a sustained trend relative to the now established model of unified resource management among large academic libraries.
The FOLIO initiative also embraces a more modular approach to library resource management and discovery. The FOLIO platform can be seen as a layer of infrastructure able to support a wide range of modules or applications addressing many different areas of functionality. Each library, however, can opt to implement the modules most suitable for its requirements as they become available. The FOLIO community is not only developing a set of applications that replace the functionality of ILSs, but they also are building tools and modules to address other aspects of library operations or services. The FOLIO platform and modules are reportedly at the cusp of entering the implementation stage. Expect to see more coverage of these activities in future issues of Smart Libraries Newsletter.
The presence of multiple models relative to unification or interoperability represents a healthy competition for the library technology industry. Many libraries may appreciate a mature and unified platform able to support their work without a great deal of technical intervention. Others may be concerned by becoming overly dependent on a single vendor and relish the opportunity to assemble their own preferred set of components. We can also anticipate that the developers of unified platforms will continue to explore new areas of service able to leverage their existing technical infrastructure. But even the most ambitious platforms are unlikely to solve all the needs of the library and will therefore need to interact with many other systems through APIs and other interoperability mechanisms.