BiblioCommons, a Toronto-based company providing a suite of applications and interfaces for public libraries, has been acquired by Volaris Group, one of six operating companies of Constellation Software, Inc. BiblioCommons has become established as a major force in the public library sector, and its products have been implemented by an impressive list of libraries and consortia in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This transaction marks a departure from its status as a founder-owned company. Though BiblioCommons will continue to operate independently, it now falls under the ownership of a large multinational technology firm managing a diverse portfolio of technology and software companies. But unlike general private equity firms, Constellation has never sold the companies it acquires.
Given Constellation's approach in retaining the companies it buys, it invests only in companies with strong, longterm prospects. Constellation invests in businesses offering software and services for specific vertical markets. For some of these verticals, Constellation will make follow-on investments to expand its geographic reach or to expand into complementary products. Its portfolio companies usually retain their management teams and other personnel, though with oversight regarding financial performance. The strategic and financial oversight given by Constellation or one of its operating groups replaces that carried out through a Board of Directors of a standalone company. Its portfolio companies also benefit from access to capital and other resources needed to fulfill development initiatives or to expand marketing reach. Portfolio companies are guided by best practices for operations and marketing established by Constellation and its operating groups. This approach focuses on long-term success rather than short-term financial returns.
This ownership model differs from private equity investments, which usually involve limited terms of ownership. Many private equity acquisitions are leveraged buyouts backed by loans from investment banks that much be repaid by the acquired company. The long-term commitment implied in Constellation's acquisition strategy can be taken as a positive indicator of BiblioCommons' current position in the industry and its potential for growth.
BiblioCommons will reside within Volaris Group, which includes companies involved in healthcare, education, food and agriculture, transportation, and financial services. Volaris Group had previously established a vertical market software group for library management that includes Softlink International Software and Prima Informática.
The acquisition does not disrupt BiblioCommons' commercial independence relative to other companies offering integrated library system (ILS) software. Its products have been implemented by libraries using many different ILSs. BiblioCore has been implemented with ILS products from SirsiDynix (Symphony and Horizon) and Ex Libris (Polaris, Sierra, Millennium), Carl.X from The Library Corporation, and the open source Evergreen ILS. Although the ILS companies would prefer that libraries use the catalog or discovery interfaces they offer, they would be even less favorable to having their customers use patron-facing services from a direct competitor. One alternative buyout scenario would have been for BiblioCommons to have been acquired by a company offering an ILS product.
Constellation Software Corporate Background
Constellation Software, Inc. was founded in 1995 and has been a publicly traded company since May 2006. Based in Toronto, Constellation holds a diverse portfolio of companies that do business in more than 100 countries with combined revenues exceeding $3 billion and more than 18,000 employees. Constellation has acquired more than 400 companies organized into six operating groups, each with a slightly different focus, including Volaris Group, Harris Computer Systems, Jonas, Vela Software, Perseus Group, and Total Specific Solutions.
Details of the Acquisition
BiblioCommons was previously privately owned primarily by cofounders Beth Jefferson and Patrick Kennedy. Jefferson and Kennedy will leave the company. Matt Goddard has been appointed the new General Manager, and cofounder Marty Tarle will keep his role as vice president for engineering. Goddard comes to BiblioCommons from Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies. He previously served as Vice President for New Markets and Product Management for Trapeze Group, another company in the Volaris Group portfolio. BiblioCommons currently has 79 employees. New York Public Library (NYPL) also held a minority stake in the company. Constellation has acquired those shares and those of other minority investors and is now the sole owner of BiblioCommons. NYPL had a complex relationship with BiblioCommons. It became one of the largest institutions to adopt the product, migrating from its Encore discovery interface to BiblioCore in September 2011. At that time, NYPL invested around $1 million in the company in addition to the subscription it paid for BiblioCore. In October 2015, NYPL discontinued its use of BiblioCore and reverted to Encore and other interfaces it developed locally.1
BiblioCommons was established in 2007. It specializes in applications designed for public library patrons delivered via software-as-a-service. Its products rely on current concepts in user experience, incorporating elements of social interactions and other features that users expect from web-based services. BiblioCommons continues work of antecedent projects led by Beth Jefferson. Cofounder Jefferson had earlier experimented with reader-engagement projects, including BookTalk, which involved reading discussion groups conducted through an online community system in the Rose Avenue Public School in Toronto, and the Perfink Project at Toronto Public Library designed to get teens reading. The Perfink Project included an online summer reading initiative called SummerSandbox.com. These early projects validated the concept that modern web technologies could be applied more broadly in public libraries to enhance patron engagement.
The company's initial product, BiblioCore, applied the concepts from Jefferson's earlier research to create a modern discovery and access interface for public libraries. The company has since launched additional products that encompass the broader web presence of the library and to help public libraries to strengthen their engagement with their patrons via modern marketing applications.
Some of the initial funding for the development of BiblioCommons came from provincial libraries in Canada. The Alberta Library consortium, Ontario Library Association, and the Libraries Branch of British Columbia provincial government each contributed $50,000 toward the development of the service. These investments plus pre-paid subscriptions provided much of the capital needed to develop the initial prototype into a production platform.
Current Product Line
The company's flagship product, BiblioCore, provides discovery and access to a library's print collections and digital resources, entirely replacing the online catalog. BiblioCore harvests bibliographic and holding data from the library's ILS and interacts with its circulation functions for the display of each item's current status. Patron account and self-service features rely on data and authentication data residing in the ILS.
All these interactions are carried out through APIs and batch process between the library's local ILS and the BiblioCore platform. In support of the ever-growing involvement of public libraries with e-book lending, BiblioCommons has also developed interoperability with the major digital lending platforms. Supported services include OverDrive, bibliotheca cloudLibrary, and Axis 360. This integration enables patrons to discover, check-out, and download e-books and manage holds through the BiblioCore interface.
The development of BiblioCore began in 2006 with the initial version of the service implemented in the Oakville Public Library in Ontario in July 2008. Initial testing revealed the need to strengthen its technical infrastructure for better performance. In 2009, BiblioCommons began additional implementations on the enhanced platform. Since that time, BiblioCore has been implemented by a growing list of public libraries in the US and Canada, as well as the Christchurch City Libraries in New Zealand and Yara Plenty Regional Library in Australia. BiblioCore has been implemented in more than 239 libraries, spanning 1,100 individual branches. Many of these libraries gain access to BiblioCommons through consortial implementations.
BiblioCommons recently reengineered the technology underlying BiblioCore, shifting to a microservices architecture. Some of the components in its technology stack include a React/Redux front end and the Express/Note API gateway. Applications are developed in JRuby on Rails and Java 8.2
The product saw its initial deployment in 2010 based on the Drupal content management system in partnership with the Yarra Plenty Regional Library in Australia. In 2014, the product was entirely rebuilt in partnership with the Chicago Public Library. It used WordPress as its underlying content management engine, which it accessed via APIs through interfaces developed by BiblioCommons. In April 2016, Biblio- Commons rebranded it as BiblioWeb. BiblioWeb v3 has since been introduced with a new page builder component. All 26 libraries currently using the product are now on BiblioWeb v3.
Libraries increasingly rely on calendar applications to manage their programs and events. BiblioEvents enables libraries to manage initial scheduling, creation of content and resources, publicity, and attendance. The software integrates with Springshare LibCal to power its room-reservation functionality.
BiblioCommons most recent product, BiblioEmail, supports a library's marketing initiatives through programmatically generated personalized email campaigns. BiblioEmail taps into content created in BiblioWeb, providing another channel for distributing information about events, resources, or relevant topics.
Another Flavor of Consolidation
Although BiblioCommons is not being merged into another company, it now comes under joint ownership with other businesses in the library technology industry. Within Volaris Group, BiblioCommons joins Softlink International and Primasoft Informática (Prima), both midsized companies offering ILSs and related products. Through its Harris Computers operating group, Constellation also owns the Jaywil Software Development and the ResourceMate ILS for small libraries.
Volaris Group acquired Softlink International in September 2013. Softlink offers the Oliver ILS for Schools and the Liberty ILS for special and academic libraries. Softlink has also developed the illumin research management system.
Softlink was founded in 1983 by brothers Bob Dunne and John A. Donne. It has developed several generations of library automation software, beginning with its initial offering, ALARM, which was introduced in 1985. OASIS—branded as Alice in Europe and Annie in the US—was launched in 1988 and came to be one of the most widely implemented library automation products for school libraries in Australia and other regions. In the mid-1990s, development shifted to its web-based products, Oliver and Liberty.
Nathan Godfrey joined Softlink in 2002. Godfrey previously served as its Chief Operating Officer and currently serves as the Portfolio Manager within Volaris Group. Hilary Noye currently serves as the General Manager for Softlink Education, and John Crook is the General Manager for Softlink Information Centres. Prior to its acquisition by Volaris, Softlink had a complex ownership structure with 48 different shareholders, including majority stakes by the company founders.3
Although Softlink has a modest presence in the US, it has gained a substantial portion of the market for school libraries in Australia and has a strong presence in many countries in Europe and other regions.
Prima, founded in 1993, was acquired by Volaris Group in 2018. Its core products include the SophiA library automation system widely used in Brazil, with a presence in Spain and other countries, and Philos for school libraries. Although Prima does not have a presence in the US, it is a midsized library technology company for Portuguese- and Spanishspeaking countries. The company has about 140 employees and its products are used in more than 3,500 institutions globally.
Constellation Software acquired the ResourceMate library management product from Jaywil Software Development in April 2017 through its Harris Computer Systems operating group.
The transition from ownership and management by its founders to ownership by Volaris Group marks a new chapter for BiblioCommons. In most ways, this move should have minimal impact on the libraries currently relying on its products. The company will operate independently, and its support services and development agenda remain in place. The departure of Jefferson and Kennedy will naturally be felt, given their visionary entrepreneurship that led to the success of the company. Under Volaris Group, the company gains access to the financial capital and organizational infrastructure needed to attract more libraries to its products and to expand geographically. It will be interesting to observe whether partnerships develop among the companies that now reside within the Library Management section of Volaris Group and if the company makes additional acquisitions in the sector.
Public libraries need technology, more than ever to support their customer-facing services and strengthen their marketing efforts. BiblioCommons should continue to have strong prospects. It will be important to watch the progress of the company as it moves forward within its new corporate family.
- See New York Public Library, “Changes to the Library's Online Catalog,” https://www.nypl.org/online-catalog -changes.
- See Huma Zafar, “Introducing BiblioCommons Engineering,” BiblioCommons, Coding the Commons (blog), October 12, 2017, https://www.bibliocommons.com/blog /2017/10/12/introducing-bibliocommons-engineering.
- See the Volaris Group case study, Softlink, September 10, 2019, https://explore.volarisgroup.com/volaris -group-case-studies/softlink.