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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Consolidation in the Library Materials Management Sector

Smart Libraries Newsletter [February 2021]

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The commercial realm of materials management incorporates a broad array of technologies that assist libraries with their physical collections and spaces. The traditional core products in this sector enable self-service borrowing of library materials, antitheft or security technologies, and automated materials handling, which includes automated returns, conveyers, and sorting machinery. This technology sector increasingly diverges into new areas that expand libraries' engagement with users within their physical facilities and creating bridges to digital content and services.

This business sector is distinct from the group of organizations that offer integrated library systems, library services platforms, discovery services, and related products. None of these companies offers its own ILS or has preferential arrangements with those products. Materials management products are implemented in libraries independently of the ILS installed. There seems to be a common strategy of neutrality relative to the ILS products used so that there are not limitations in what libraries may implement their self-check, AMH, or other products.

The business neutrality between materials management vendors and ILS vendors has technical implications. The ecosystem is supported through the reliance on reliable and pragmatic interoperability protocols, given the inherent requirement for these types of products to work together regardless of the specific vendors involved. SIP2 (Standard Interchange Protocol) serves as the core interoperability protocol, though some implementations may be based on other APIs. SIP2 has been universally implemented across these products. Libraries should be careful to tunnel the communications among these systems and products via encrypted streams because they often include data related to patron circulation transactions.

Many libraries, especially those with high-volume circulation, find automated material handling and self-service equipment to be indispensable. Such automation enables libraries to focus the efforts of their workers on more meaningful service activities, rather than routing and repetitive tasks. Libraries often implement these automation systems when launching new facility or during a renovation. They also may phase them in when upgrading technology infrastructure. For libraries, the costs in these technologies include purchase or lease of equipment and annual fees for support, service, and software upgrades. For many libraries, these investments result in increased productivity and efficiency. In libraries with especially high volumes of circulation, managing operations without some level of automated material handling would be challenging and costly.

Self-service check-outs and returns have become especially common in busy public and academic libraries. Patrons often appreciate the convenience of self-service, avoiding lines and quickly dispatching their business. Library workers can focus their energies on assisting uses with their reading or information interests or other service interactions. Face-to-face interactions continue for those that prefer not to use self-service options, to resolve exceptions or problems, and for the many other services and programs the library offers. Self-service and automated material handling were proven to be especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, avoiding the need for personal contact and to reduce exposure through materials.

A number of companies have emerged to develop and support products in response to the widespread interest in self-service and automated materials handling. Often characterized as the library RFID industry, the materials identification technology does not necessarily define the sector. Though RFID has become well established as a technology for the identification and security of library items, barcodes and electromagnetic strips continue to be viable and are preferred by many libraries. Rather, the common factors around equipment and technologies define this business sector. A variety of technologies help libraries efficiently manage their physical collection materials, enrich the use of their facilities, and smoothly interact with the core integrated library system or other relevant business applications.

Many of the products in this sector rely on specialized hardware. Automated material handling installations include industrial machinery such as conveyer belts, sensors, controllers, and other robotic components. Unlike other areas of library technology based primarily on software that operates on commodity computing infrastructure, the materials management sector is based on hardware and machinery that must be designed, manufactured, and integrated. The companies participating in this sector either operate their own manufacturing facilities or contract with third party manufacturers.

Some companies may manufacture equipment for multiple industries, leveraging that capacity for specialized products for libraries. The library AMH sector is characterized by high manufacturing costs with relatively narrow profit margins. Beyond the hardware factor, software represents a key ingredient. Software not only controls the operation of the equipment, it also interfaces with the circulation management functions of the ILS for configuration and control by library staff. Data collection and analytics not only document system volume and performance but can also inform operational strategies. Self-service products include patron-facing interfaces, representing a critical point of user experience and engagement, standing in the place of direct interactions with library workers. Opportunities for innovation emerge more from the software and interface components of these products than the industrial hardware. The Intelligent Material Management System from Lyngsoe Systems is one example. It overlays the basic routing features built-into the ILS with more sophisticated workflows for floating collections that optimize the deployment of materials and balance the use of collection spaces and storage facilities. The interfaces presented on selfservice stations represent another important focus of innovation. The user experience must be friendly and efficient, enriched visually with cover art. It must proactively promote the brand of the library and increase engagement through personalized recommendations for print and digital materials. The interface presented by a self-service kiosk may be an even more critical point of user interaction within the library than its online catalog or discovery service.

Other threads of innovation can be seen in the development of products and concepts that leverage the technologies of self-service, RFID, and system interfaces. Examples include bundles of technologies to support unstaffed facilities that extend library services to areas not served by existing branches. Other products, such as smart shelves, advance the capabilities of RFID technologies to automate the manipulation and tracking of materials' status.

This sector is generally oriented toward tangible materials and spaces but is also able to build connections into the ever-growing involvement of libraries in digital content. Some of these organizations are also involved in digital collections. Bibliotheca, for example, offers the cloudLibrary platform, one of the most popular services for library e-books and audiobooks after Overdrive.

Consolidation prevails through the library materials management sector with patterns similar to the library technology industry. Continual rounds of mergers and acquisitions have resulted in two large, consolidated businesses, though many smaller companies continue to flourish in different geographic regions and addressing specialized product areas. The two large businesses, bibliotheca and Lyngsoe Systems both are owned by private equity firms and comprise of antecedent companies acquired from companies in diverse global regions. While bibliotheca is the larger of the two, Lyngsoe Systems' recent acquisition of P.V. Supa makes it a closer competitor. The companies have distinct product portfolios. Lyngsoe Systems specializes more in the large-scale automated material handling arena, and bibliotheca has interesting diversification in the digital platform arena with cloudLibrary.

Between these two large businesses and assorted smaller companies, this sector continues to see vigorous competition. The library materials management arena includes many other smaller companies, most of which operate with a single geographic area. Tech Logic, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Library Corporation ranks as a small competitor in this sector. It operates primarily in the United States, with some installations in Australia. Founded in 1997, Tech Logic was acquired by The Library Corporation in 2005. Although Tech Logic shares ownership with The Library Corporation, its products work with any integrated library system.

Comparing bibliotheca and Lyngsoe Systems
bibliothecaLyngsoe Systems
OwnershipOne Equity Partnersmajority ownership by CataCap
Acquisitions3M Library Systems,
Bibliotheca RFID,
Integrated Technology Group,
Trion AG,
Aturis, Cordura
FKI Logistics, Codeco,
P.V. Supa,
Primary HQRotkreuz, SwitzerlandAars, Denmark
Sectors servedLibrariesLibraries, postal services,manufacturing, healthcare, airports
Global Employees400210

Invengo ranks as another major company in the library materials management arena. A global company based in China, it focuses mostly on libraries in Asia and Australia, though it also has customers in the United States and Europe. In 2014 Invengo acquired FE Technologies, which serves as its primary business unit for library-oriented products.

Both bibliotheca and Lyngsoe Systems are based in Scandinavia. It is not surprising because libraries in this region have been early and enthusiastic adopters of RFID, self-service, and automated materials handling and are generally well funded. Table 1 shows some points of comparison. Public data is not available that would objectively compare the scale of the two companies in terms of revenue, employees, or libraries served.

This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features Lyngsoe Systems and its recent acquisition of P.V. Supa, including the background of both companies and their previous acquisitions. The acquisitions related to rival bibliotheca were covered in the December 2015, July 2011, and December 2007 issues.

View Citation
Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 02
Issue:February 2021
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:25896
Last Update:2022-12-07 15:13:17
Date Created:2021-02-11 10:13:49