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Smart Libraries Q&A: Outsourcing technology

Smart Libraries Newsletter [April 2019]

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What recommendations do you have for libraries outsourcing technology, such as hosting, etc.?

Libraries and related organizations do not perform all aspects of work involved in their operations. It is a common practice to contract with external organizations that have specialized expertise and equipment and that can carry out the task with more efficiency and at a lower cost. Such arrangements enable the library's own staff to concentrate on critical and strategic activities with direct impact to their patrons.

In the earlier years of the adoption of technology by libraries, it was more common to manage everything internally. In those days, it was common for libraries to not only install and maintain their internal networks, but also to operate their own email servers, file storage, and manage all aspects of desktop computer support. Libraries would be fully responsible for the hardware and software related to specialized applications, such as their ILSs. Times have since changed considerably. Almost all academic institutions and local governments have centralized their IT operations, bringing many previously distributed components and services into centrally managed data centers. Libraries are generally part of this trend for commodity infrastructure, though many retain the management of specialized systems.

Many aspects of library support are routinely outsourced, either by the library's parent institution or by external firms. Obvious areas include building maintenance and janitorial services. Some libraries might also outsource delivery of materials to a courier service or logistics provider. I have even worked with libraries that use contract workers to perform routine tasks, such as sorting and shelving of books.

Outsourcing can also be taken to the fullest extent. Many cities or counties in the US, for example, have contracted with firms like Library Systems & Services for comprehensive outsourcing of their libraries. LSS reports that they manage 83 libraries in the US. Other prominent examples of comprehensive library outsourcing include Civica's management of school libraries in Singapore and Axiell, which has recently initiated a new services division and has been contracted to operate 4 libraries in Nacka, Sweden. Comprehensive outsourcing of library operations is controversial.

The American Library Association has issued a policy statement on the topic opposing “the shifting of policy making and management oversight of library services from the public to the private forprofit sector.”[1] But for many libraris, these arrangements have resulted in providing more services at lower costs with full accountability to the established governing entities.

Selected outsourcing of technology infrastructure and support lies within much safer ground than the broader arrangements. Low-level technology, such as wired and wireless networks, internet connectivity, and associated equipment can be considered in the same category of building infrastructure as plumbing and electrical power. Network equipment and cabling requires specialized expertise and tools to effectively manage effectively and securely. Networks have become incredibly complex as the demand for reliable bandwidth continually increases, with no tolerance for failures. Few libraries today are able or even interested in carrying the cost of employing a dedicated network engineer within their direct budgets. Most libraries depend on the IT departments of their parent organizations or on external specialized contractors for basic network and internet support. The skills involved generally do not overlap with the core competencies of library personnel. That said, it is important for the library to be involved in specifying functional attributes, such as the expected levels of bandwidth needed, wireless coverage, and other parameters that impact the ability of library personnel to do their work and for the library's services to be accessed by their patrons.

There should be a service level agreement, even when the services are provided by another department within the institution. Such an agreement should specify the levels of usable bandwidth delivered, any acceptable levels of service interruptions, mechanisms for problem resolution, and penalties for unsatisfactory service.

Outsourcing of some aspects of technology can bring substantial benefits. Especially for commodity infrastructure, a specialized IT services department or firm can provide more robust, secure, and reliable capacity than would be possible if managed within the library. A large IT organization can dedicate specialized engineers to each aspect of infrastructure support, such as network security, systems administration, and operations as well as provide sophisticated monitoring and management components that can identify and resolve problems before they become apparent to network users.

Beyond the outsourcing of commodity technology components, the pressing issue today relates to specialized systems and services. In my experience, the management of specialized applications such as ILSs, discovery services, cataloging interfaces, interlibrary loan tools, and the like can fall either within the responsibility of the library or the IT department of its parent organization. These are the types of components where the library may be much better positioned to manage. They require significant understanding of the specific tasks and workflows involved, library-specific protocols, and relationships with vendors generally outside the domain of general enterprise systems. In the same way that libraries don't necessarily need to hire their own network engineers, IT departments are not usually able to hire specialists for departments within their scope of service such as libraries. This is an area where the longstanding tradition of systems support within a library continues to flourish. It's vital to have individuals within the library that can bridge the divide between commodity IT infrastructure and the specialized needs of the library and to manage the quirky systems and services implemented for each area of work within the library. I also see it as beneficial for the library to maintain, within its own ranks, individuals with a strong knowledge of technology and not be entirely dependent on external departments or organizations.

Even when the library assumes general responsibility for specialized systems, there are many possible arrangements for their management. It's increasingly rare for applications such as ILSs to be physically housed in the library. On-premise deployments are more likely to place the servers involved in the institutional data center, taking advantage of the cooling equipment, fire control, uninterruptible power, monitoring and management tools, as well as dedicated operations personnel.

These co-located servers almost always involved some degree of shared responsibility. The IT department running the data center will usually take care of the physical upkeep of the physical server. In many cases, the data center will administer the operating system but leave the configuration and operation of the application software to authorized library personnel. The division of labor between library and IT personnel can vary, but the ideal arrangement would result in enabling the library to configure and operate the system to meet its operational needs. It's also increasingly common for libraries to contract with external organizations to house and manage the servers associated with their ILS and other specialized applications.

The most common arrangement is for the vendor supplying the software to also provide hosting services. This type of deployment, where a given instance of the system and its associated software is managed by the vendor, has been around since the 1990s through offerings called application service providers, which today are usually marketed as software-asa-service. Vendor hosting of ILSs has become a widespread trend. The developers of the software are best positioned to specify and deploy the ideal hardware configuration. Since they support hundreds, if not thousands, of such deployments, they can provide industrial strength data-center services and lower costs per customer relative to individual on-premises installations. In the absence of special circumstances requiring local housing of servers, vendor hosting of ILSs has few downsides and is increasingly becoming the standard deployment option.

It is also important to keep in mind that these hosting options apply only to applications that continue to be installed on dedicated servers. More recently developed applications generally are based on multi-tenant platforms, where the underlying hardware is opaque to the organizations using the service. Discovery services and library services platforms are designed to be accessed only via web interfaces with no option for local hosting of the underlying hardware. Any semblance of local control of hardware resources associated with library services is an artifact of the current transitionary state of technology that will eventually give way to the modern paradigm where all functionality is delivered via a URL associated with a platform offered via a software-as-a-subscription license.

These broad shifts in the way that technology-based systems are delivered will inevitably result in less need for inhouse management of technology infrastructure. That does not necessarily mean that all technology support will be outsourced. It will be important for libraries to continue to maintain local expertise to optimize their use and to deploy additional services beyond the core vendor-provided systems. By relying on vendors to manage core automation systems, the library can channel its own resources towards specific local needs and value-added services.

Notes

  1. “ALA Policy on Outsourcing and Privatization,” American Library Association, accessed March 10, 2019, http:// www.ala.org/tools/outsourcing/background.
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Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 04
Issue:April 2019
Page(s):5-6
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
ISSN:1541-8820
Record Number:24234
Last Update:2022-12-05 14:48:58
Date Created:2019-04-20 14:46:05
Views:102