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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Technology Transfer as a Model for Sustainability

Smart Libraries Newsletter [June 2021]

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It is interesting to consider the roots of the products and companies of the library technology industry. Some emerged entirely through commercial development, hopefully with consultation from the library community. Others came out of open source projects, with broad participation among libraries and commercial developers.

Other products find their roots in libraries themselves. In the earlier days of library automation, it was common for a library to develop a product for its own use, and if successful, share it with other libraries through commercial nor non-profit arrangements. Libraries, however, are not well positioned to provide long-term development or support services. Some of these locally developed library systems eventually faded away. Others found more lasting success through the launch of a new company to take the product forward, enabled through a technology transfer agreement from its home institution. These agreements typically assign an exclusive license for the company to develop and sell the software. Financial arrangements vary and can include joint ownership of the company or commissions on revenue. Technology transfers reward universities for their innovation in creating a product concept, while sparing them the substantial investments in the business infrastructure needed to successfully market a product and ensure its ongoing development. Several startups born out of technology transfers contribute to the recent history of the library technology industry.

Northwestern University and NOTIS

The NOTIS library management system was the most successful automation product for academic libraries during the era of mainframe computing. The software was developed by a team of programmers and librarians at the Northwestern University Libraries beginning in the 1970s. NOTIS had advanced features for its time and attracted interest of many other academic libraries. The library initially had a department dedicated to supporting and marketing the product. NOTIS Systems, Inc. was established in September 1987 as a wholly owned entity of the university. NOTIS became the most prominent system used among large and midsized academic libraries in the United States.

Northwestern University sold NOTIS Systems to Ameritech Information Systems in October 1991. At this time, mainframe computers were falling out of favor and NOTIS was in the process of creating a new product based on the emerging client/server architecture. NOTIS became extinct in the early 2000s. Its success marks one of the most successful products created in a library and transferred for commercial distribution.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ex Libris

Ex Libris and its Aleph integrated library system began with an automation project for the libraries of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1980 programmers in the library developed the Automated Library Expandable Program, or ALEPH. It was originally developed to run on Control Data Corporation mainframes and addressed a comprehensive set of features expected by large academic libraries. Following its successful implementation at its home institution, it was adopted by most other university libraries in Israel.

The November 2005 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter iicluded some additional details:

In 1983, the success of the effort caught the attention of Yissum, the University's unit empowered to transfer technologies to commercial enterprises. Yissum hired Morag, a veteran of the software industry in Israel, to lead the company established to commercialize ALEPH; the company was called “Aleph Yissum.”

Another company, Ex Libris, Ltd., was formed in 1986 to market and support the software outside of Israel, allowing Aleph Yissum to focus on the software development and to support its use by Israel-based libraries.

In 1995, Yissum Aleph (owned by HUJ) and Ex Libris, Ltd. (owned by Morag) merged, taking the Ex Libris identity. A year later, the company was reorganized as Ex Libris Group, which stood as the parent company for a growing number of subsidiaries and distributors around the globe.

The partial ownership of Ex Libris by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem continued through the company's sale to Francisco Partners, which acquired full equity from all previous shareholders. With installations in almost all global regions, Aleph proved to be one of the most successful integrated library systems for academic and research libraries.

Aleph's original design took place through close partnership with its founding library, reflecting a key advantage of commercializing a locally developed product. Ex Libris subsequently grew through multiple rounds of private equity ownership, culminating with its acquisition by ProQuest.

RapidILL, Created by Colorado State University

A more recent example of a technology transfer can be seen in the acquisition of the RapidILL service from Colorado State University. This service was born out of the catastrophic loss of materials at the CSU Morgan Library, caused by a fast-moving and massive flash flood in July 1997. The flood destroyed almost all the print journal collection, which resided in the lower floors of the building. The Morgan Library created an expedited interlibrary loan service, in partnership with peer institutions, to provide materials needed for research and teaching. Originally deployed as a one-way service providing materials for CSU, the model proved so successful at expedited article delivery that it eventually morphed into a reciprocal service based on multiple pods of institutions committing to quickly provide materials. RapidILL grew to be a highly regarded service, primarily among libraries in North America.

In June 2019 Colorado State University agreed to sell the service to Ex Libris, which was expanding its product family to include additional resource sharing capabilities.

VTLS, Created at Virginia Tech University

VTLS traces its beginnings to the Newman Library at Virginia Tech University. The VTLS integrated library system was originally created by this library in the absence of any existing commercial product that met all its key requirements. VTLS proved its capabilities at Virginia Tech and was licensed for use by many other libraries and consortia. The classic VTLS ILS has become extinct, though Virtua, its successor, continues to be used by many libraries. The July 2014 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter described some of the details of how the product was created in the library and eventually transferred to a new commercial company.

The Systems Development continued to develop the software, resulting in a complete automation system that included cataloging, serials control, and a public access catalog. In 1980 the Center for Library Automation of the Newman Library was established to market and support VTLS to other libraries. By 1983, the university had sold VTLS to 31 additional libraries and 60 installations were reported by 1985. Acquisitions and Fund Accounting modules were completed in 1989.

July 1, 1985, the project was spun off into a separate company. Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties operated as a nonprofit corporation to facilitate the transfer of technology created within the university to commercial applications. VTIP facilitated the creation of VTLS as for-profit company, which would initially be housed in the recently constructed Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center as its first tenant. The new company was led by Vinod Chachra as its President and CEO.

VTLS, Inc. was initially co-owned by Chachra and VTIP. VTLS was acquired by Innovative Interfaces in July 2014, and its products are no longer actively marketed.

Technology transfer agreements have been the basis of many of the products of the library technology industry. A product initially designed and created in a library will naturally be well aligned with the needs of that institution and its peers. Companies often gain ongoing insights even as those initial relationships become more distant.

This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features another example of a company originally created through a technology transfer agreement with a university. VitalSource Technologies, which has grown to be one of the major global providers of electronic textbooks and online learning services, was the brainchild of an educator with an entrepreneurial vision in the field of dental science. This company's efforts were some of the first to break through the barriers in the print textbook arena to create a new generation of digital learning services.

View Citation
Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 06
Issue:June 2021
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:26344
Last Update:2022-12-05 14:35:38
Date Created:2021-06-14 10:19:05