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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Evolution or Revolution?

Smart Libraries Newsletter [May 2019]

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The current slate of technology products and services has come about through the developments of a diverse set of companies, non-profit organizations, and open source initiatives. The library technology industry has seen an overarching trend of incremental, evolutionary development. There have also been some episodes where new products have been introduced that depart substantially from the prevailing path through a more revolutionary vein. Sometimes the revolution has been a minor deviation; in other cases, it has led the way to establishing new trends, which then become the basis for a new wave of evolutionary development.

The general model of the integrated library system (ILS) was cast in the 1970s. Prior to that time, there were systems to automate specific areas of library operations, such as circulation, cataloging, and acquisitions. Over time these systems coalesced into a unified set of modules that shared a set of common databases. The advent of the ILS eliminated many of the duplicate workflows and technical overhead involved when operating multiple separate programs. For most libraries, the initial foray into automation came once the ILS had become the established model. ILSs enabled libraries to save enormous time and gain efficiencies compared to the manual procedures previously in place. The initial phase of ILSs came at a time when library collections were comprised of print materials and when computing mostly took place on mainframes or midrange computers.

A very long phase of evolutionary development followed the initial establishment of the ILS. Although dozens of ILS products were developed and implemented, there was far more resemblance among them than differences. Although not well differentiated, there was a vigorous competition among the players based on the maturity of features, quality of support services, and reputation. This lack of substantive differences among a crowded field of players led to multiple rounds of mergers and acquisitions, gradually consolidating a previously highly fragmented industry.

Some of the survivors of this evolutionary development pattern can be seen in products still in use today:

  • The current SirsiDynix Symphony ILS traces its origin to the Sirsi Unicorn introduced in 1982.
  • Innovative Interfaces ILS products have seen a series of incremental transitions: INNOVACQ (1982), INNOVAC (1989), Millennium (1997), and Sierra (2011). Each of these products inherited major components from its predecessor, though reengineered to current technology architecture and new feature enhancements.
  • Polaris, which was introduced in 1997, has seen continuous incremental enhancement throughout its product history.
  • Ex Libris Aleph was launched in 1980 and evolved through multiple versions through Aleph 500, which remains in use today.
  • Library.Solution from The Library Corporation has seen continual enhancement, including major transitions to webbased interfaces. CARL.X has evolved from one of the pioneering ILS products developed in the early 1980s and has been thoroughly but gradually reengineered from its original proprietary Tandem-based hardware and software platform to a more open and standard environment.
  • OCLC has recently launched a new product branded as Wise for public libraries in the United States positioned as a patron engagement system. This product has a long evolutionary history, descending from the bicat ILS developed by HKA, which OCLC acquired in 2013.

These are just some examples that illustrate the overarching pattern of incremental development, often spanning multiple decades. This evolution falls into the brownfield development, where new products and versions are based on previously established products or software.

The library has also seen some examples of more revolutionary product development, following the greenfield development pattern of creating a new product independent of any previous product. This revolutionary path usually means substantially longer development time to create a new product since it means essentially starting over rather than extending an existing codebase. This path also involves substantially higher risk since the initial versions may not be as rich in features and may enter the market after critical points of opportunity.

There are some greenfield revolutionary product initiatives in the library technology industry that didn't achieve success. Examples include:

  • Taos, a new automation system developed by Data Research Associates based on an object-oriented database (ObjectStore from Object Design) in addition to other modernized technical components. Its initial development phase began in about 1995. Despite being selected by a number of major libraries, its development languished, and it saw a relatively low level of sales and implementations. Its final demise came with the merger of DRA into Sirsi Corporation and subsequent acquisition by Vista Equity Partners. Despite some remaining promise of viability, the product was terminated.
  • Virtua was likewise positioned as a new system based on forward-looking technologies when it was launched by VTLS in 1995. Its development took longer than expected, missing some important market opportunities. The product did make it into production use, seeing mixed results in the market. There were some high-profile failures, such as aborted implementations in Oxford University and New York University as well as major successes in Queens Borough Public Library and Hong Kong Public Library. Absent major market momentum, the development of Virtua ceased following the acquisition of VTLS by Innovative Interfaces. Many implementations of Virtua remain and support continues, though Innovative no longer offers the product for sale.
  • The open source Kuali OLE project, despite initial enthusiasm, ultimately did not result in a completed product. Launched at the onset of the new interest in developing library services platform offering comprehensive resource management, the development of Kuali OLE software took far longer than anticipated. During this interval, the underlying service bus framework became obsolete, and the commercialization of the broader Kuali initiative left the project without a viable route forward. The organization behind the project have since shifted their efforts to the FOLIO project.
  • ProQuest, through its Serials Solutions subsidiary, also entered the library services platform movement. It launched a development initiative to create a new product branded as Intota in 2011. This product also fell victim to long development cycles and business transitions. Following ProQuest's acquisition of Ex Libris in 2015, its attention was focused on Alma, which was already well established.

Moving beyond the risks that didn't pay off, there have been a handful of revolutionary, greenfield initiatives that have seen considerable success and have established new directions in the industry. These include:

  • Summon, the initial entry into the web-scale index-based discovery, was launched by the Serials Solutions division of ProQuest in 2009. This product was based on a massive index of article-level scholarly content in addition to the library's local resources. Summon provided a significantly better model for academic library search and discovery compared to the federated search technologies prevalent at the time. Other products soon joined the competition for index-based discovery, including Primo with Primo Central, WorldCat Local, and EBSCO Discovery Service. These four products continue to prevail in this product sector.
  • Ex Libris launched a new initiative to develop its unified resource management platform, later branded as Alma in 2009. This product proved to be transformative for Ex Libris and for the library technology industry at large. Instead of reworking either of its successful, though aging, ILS products, Ex Libris opted to create an entirely new product, not only based on current technology components and architectures but also on new assumptions and workflows for managing collections in academic libraries dominated by electronic resources. Alma has gone on to see almost unprecedented success.
  • OCLC WorldShare Management Services was also launched at about the same time as Alma in 2009. This initiative built on the WorldCat bibliographic database through an entirely new platform based on current technology and architecture. OCLC has not seen the same level of success with WorldShare Management Services compared to Alma but should be recognized as a visionary product that helped drive the movement of academic libraries to library services platforms.

Summon, Alma, and WorldShare Management Services illustrate the possibilities for revolutionary products gaining success. But these are the ones that survived and prospered, and just as many projects ultimately did not see completion or success in the market.

In more recent times, there are some additional initiatives that fall into the higher-risk category of greenfield development. These would include the Axiell Quria, a new library services platform for public libraries, now in use in a handful of libraries in Europe. Systematic Cicero currently supports all the public and school libraries in Denmark in a remarkably largescale implementation following an ambitious development initiative from the Danish company Systematic.

In this issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we take an early look at Innovative's new Inspire Discovery product. Innovative Interfaces has previously been the champion of evolutionary development, following a consistent pattern of building new products on the shoulders of its prior offerings. In a sharp departure from this tradition, Innovative has developed an entirely new platform, branded as Inspire, with Inspire Discovery as its initial product. Following this introduction to the product and Innovative's new development strategy, look to future issues of Smart Libraries Newsletter as we track its ongoing development and adoption cycles.

View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 05
Issue:May 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:24465
Last Update:2023-01-19 20:42:52
Date Created:2019-07-26 07:19:22