The year 2020 will be long remembered. For organizations, it was a year that saw widespread disruption and strategic responses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Libraries dealt with the closure of most library buildings for extended periods and increased their reliance on digital and electronic materials. They created new services, such as requests and pickup of materials. They deployed new technologies and processes to support self-check and return, as well as procedures to maintain adequate social distancing and contactless services once buildings reopened. Much of the response to the crisis was supported through technologies created or customized by library personnel or through the vendor community. The year 2020 ends with the pandemic surging at record levels, but with the development and approval of effective vaccines, some relief in sight. We can expect the operational impact and budget fallout of the pandemic to persist through much of 2021. Given these circumstances, the library technology industry will experience ongoing short-term impact, even as longer-term trends continue to play out.
We can anticipate that many of the changes made necessary by the pandemic will endure. Increased offerings of digital and electronic materials are not likely to be rolled back. Library patrons who took advantage of virtual access to resources out of the necessity are likely to appreciate its convenience going forward. The transition of content from print to electronic version has come often at great expense. Licenses and platform fees for electronic resources may be several times the cost of the same print item. Patron expectations for electronic content, which usually comes at a higher cost, will certainly present budget challenges for libraries. It is important to keep in mind that the shift from print materials to electronic equivalents also involves a move from the legal status protected by the “first sale” doctrine to the realm of contracts and licenses, with terms and pricing that must be negotiated with publishers or providers.
In response to the pandemic, many library personnel took advantage of work-from-home arrangements. Those with roles usually performed behind the scenes, such as technical services and administrative personnel, made this shift more easily than those that work on the front lines with patrons and materials. For those able to perform their responsibilities remotely, working from home may be an ongoing possibility offering more flexibility in lifestyle. Many library workers honed their skills with videoconferencing platforms and other collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, which will be of lasting value even for those who return to their workplaces or hybrid arrangements. The necessity of work from home has implications for the technical infrastructure of a library. Web-based applications deployed via software-as-a-service (SaaS) are ideal for remote workers. Applications requiring dedicated software installed on the laptop or desktop computer complicate remote use.
The transition from library products relying on workstation graphical software to fully web-based applications has been underway for many years. Comprehensive implementation of web-based interfaces for staff functions is long overdue. Some vendors have longstanding projects, which have not yet reached completion, to develop new web interfaces for their ILS products. The pandemic may provide impetus for completing these projects to deliver modernized web-based access to integrated library systems. Notable projects include the BLUEcloud Suite from SirsiDynix and Leap from Innovative Interfaces. Apart from the newer products, created from the ground up with web interfaces, these evolved products have gradually moved in this direction. We should see the completion of these efforts this year.
Remote learning and work from home involve a more distributed approach to accessing library services and staff applications, removed from the direct institutional network infrastructure. Such distributed access tests the limitations of IP-based authentication. Virtual private network (VPN) components and proxy services have been reasonable pragmatic solutions to providing access to IP-restricted resources to remote users. Federated authentication services based on SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) provide a more modern approach for authentication and access and are gaining wider use in higher education and in academic libraries. SeamlessAccess (https://seamlessaccess.org), for example, is gaining wider adoption in higher education and scholarly publishing. Though conversations continue regarding privacy issues, this service has emerged as one of the leading mechanisms for access to scholarly resources. Though it is unlikely that IP-based authentication will disappear any time soon from the library scene, we can expect to see considerable movement in the next year toward SAML-based authentication and less dependence on IP proxies.
Recent years have seen the transformation of the consumer video arena. Traditional broadcast and cable television services have been disrupted by high-speed internet services and a number of content services. Use of physical media, such as DVD and Blu-ray, has rapidly declined in the consumer sector. Most public and academic libraries continue to lend these discs or make them available for on-site viewing. Like the consumer arena, libraries are making a change to streaming services. Kanopy, Alexander Street, and ProQuest Academic Video Online are examples of services designed for libraries. These services offer business and licensing arrangements that accommodate library models of content delivery, which differ from the direct-to-consumer products. Though physical media for video and audio materials will persist in libraries for a long period, the bulk of library-provided access will shift to streaming services in the next year or so.
On the library systems front, we can expect that 2021 will be an especially slow year for new procurement projects. Most libraries that have made commitments to purchase new systems will go forward with implementation. In libraries hit with severe budget reductions, deals not yet signed may be postponed. My recent analysis of the numbers of library system procurements over the last two decades in US academic and public libraries shows a peak in 2011 with diminishing turnover since.1 The already diminished number of procurements expected according to these trend lines may be even further reduced due to library budget cuts. While 2021 will probably be a lean year for library systems vendors, their longer- term prospects may not be as bleak. The need to replace legacy products will persist past the budget crisis. The pent-up demand will drive higher volumes of procurements in subsequent years. The apex of system purchases seen in 2011 may be at least partially explained by projects deferred because of the recession of 2007–2009.
This year will be a critical year for FOLIO, the open source library services platform that has been in development since 2016. FOLIO may be considered more viable in the mainstream now that several libraries are using it in production and with the completion of releases that represent a more complete set of functionality. The marketing muscle of EBSCO Information Services and an enthusiastic community of developers and early adopters have been effective in promoting FOLIO as a viable alternative to proprietary products. Ongoing budget challenges may alter the considerations that libraries make regarding the risk associated with new products, which may increase interest in exploring FOLIO or other open source products. Some libraries may decide that open source would result in lower costs and less dependence on vendors.
Resource sharing will become a new competitive front for library vendors and collaborative projects. Restricted access to library materials due to building closures intensified use of digital delivery via resource sharing networks and collaborative services such as HathiTrust. Constricted budgets will amplify the ongoing trend for libraries to purchase fewer materials individually and increase involvement in resource sharing partnerships. Products to support resource sharing will see higher demand, including the well-established services from OCLC and the SHAREit service from Auto-Graphics, as well as more recent projects such as Rapido and RapidILL from Ex Libris, Project ReShare, and others.
Public libraries will make more investments in marketing and engagement technologies and services. Products and services to help libraries communicate and promote their services to their communities in more sophisticated ways is becoming essential business infrastructure. We can expect increased interest in the creation and advancements of library-specific marketing products from library systems vendors, discovery providers, and businesses specialized in this niche.
We should expect additional business transitions in the next year or two. The anticipated slow-down in new sales could potentially accelerate acquisitions. Lower revenues may impact company valuations in a way that makes them more attractive to potential investors, especially if they show promise of longer-term recovery and growth. In this phase of the industry, it seems more likely that larger-scale companies will acquire library tech vendors than lateral hand-offs from one investment firm to another. Potential acquirers could include large businesses with direct or indirect dealings with libraries. It seems remotely possible at best that any of the global hightech giants, such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle, or Amazon, would take an interest in the comparatively tiny companies involved in library technologies.
The FTC review of the acquisition of Innovative Interfaces, Inc. by ProQuest that was underway for much of 2020 may have suppressed additional acquisitions under consideration during that period. The conclusion of the review with no divestiture requirements signals the level of consolidation allowable under regulatory restrictions and provides reassurance to investors or businesses interested in acquiring companies in the library technology arena.
For the past two decades, every year has brought one or more major acquisitions. While no deals are known to be underway, it would be surprising to see a lapse of such activity in 2021.
These possible developments in the library technology industry are offered to encourage readers to look ahead and think about the possible changes that may arise out of the trends of recent years. Time will tell whether any of the anticipated events will be realized. Readers can look to the monthly issues of Smart Libraries Newsletter to chronicle major milestones of the industry, ongoing developments in related products and services, historical and contextual information, as well as commentary and perspective.