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Technology Strategies for an Uncertain Future

Computers in Libraries [October 2020]

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Abstract: Libraries depend on technology to support almost all aspects of their daily work and to convey services to their communities. It is essential to make wise investments in technology to support the demands of current activities with the flexibility to adapt to the changing realities of libraries and the communities they serve. While most libraries follow such practical planning, it is in times of crisis that these plans are put to the test. Here, Breeding examines whether the technology strategies currently in place can support abrupt changes in library services and withstand catastrophic budget scenarios.


Libraries depend on technology to support almost all aspects of their daily work and to convey services to their communities. It is essential to make wise investments in technology to support the demands of current activities with the flexibility to adapt to the changing realities of libraries and the communities they serve. While most libraries follow such practical planning, it is in times of crisis that these plans are put to the test. Can the technology strategies currently in place support abrupt changes in library services and withstand catastrophic budget scenarios? The dramatic events of recent months will inform ongoing planning to help libraries ensure they have the technical tools for essential support through the aftermath of the current crisis and for any future events.

Begin With a Flexible Future-Proof Design

A guiding principle in technology planning involves working toward a coherent design, which will be developed incrementally and over a long period of time. Libraries need systematic technology infrastructure that's able to support all of their key activities and to optimally handle the many interactions of data exchanged with external organizations. It is rarely possible to acquire and build a comprehensive set of systems all at once. Especially in libraries with modest budgets, technology components are acquired incrementally over long time periods. Such an incremental approach means having a broad and detailed road map of current systems and anticipated needs. The schematic of technical infrastructure will encompass individual products or systems that meet specific workflow or business needs as well as the standards, protocols, or APIs that tie them together.

Continual Modernization

Libraries often work with aging applications that do not necessarily lend themselves to an interoperable ecosystem. As libraries replace outdated systems or acquire new technology products or services, it is important to prioritize them based on their fit with the library's technical ecosystem in addition to considering their functional capabilities. Otherwise, the library may have to deal with an assemblage of standalone systems, missing out on opportunities to automate the flow of data or to create new services based on interoperable components.

Expect to replace components over time. Many incumbent products may not follow modern architectures or offer needed interoperability capabilities. Shifts in the library's operational requirements may outpace system enhancements. When possible, libraries should phase out products that no longer fit their requirements. Budget allocations for system replacements are difficult to come by, and libraries often continue using systems long past their expiration date. On average, libraries use the same ILS for 12 years, with many in place for multiple decades. Reliance on core systems that no longer support the current workflows for library personnel or that fail to deliver modern services to library users can hamper the organization's overall progress in its strategic mission. It's also important to regularly assess smaller components in an organization's network and make needed changes as the library works toward comprehensive technical infrastructure with full interoperability.

Sustainable Resource Allocation

Libraries naturally need to ensure that the technology strategy aligns with reasonable assumptions regarding financial and personnel resources. Those lacking in-house technical personnel may find technology deployed via SaaS to be a good fit. SaaS implementations generally require annual subscription fees, which must be well-protected in the library's budget. Both open source and proprietary products can be implemented via SaaS subscriptions and without deep local technical expertise. Libraries lacking funds for ongoing subscriptions or licenses to proprietary software and that have in-house technical personnel may be in a good position for local implementation of open source products. Locally implemented software requires ongoing commitments of systems administrators who are increasingly scarce in the library world. It is also essential to ensure that critical systems are not dependent on the expertise of any single individual. A technology strategy that lacks budget support for either ongoing subscription or licensing fees and that also does not support local technology personnel and equipment may not be sustainable.

Balance Practical and Innovative Technologies

Organizations will naturally channel their efforts and resources into the technologies that will make the most difference for strategic priorities. For most libraries, this means that patronfacing services will take precedence over backroom activities. However, this assertion contrasts the reality in many libraries where the cost and management of systems that support technical services is high. It is essential to provide the best tools to support core activities related to collection management such as acquisitions and cataloging. For behind-thescenes work, the supporting technology systems should emphasize simplicity and efficiency. Complexity and customization come at great cost. Use default functionality when possible, reserving the maximum technical capacity for patron-facing services in which personalized features, detailed configuration options, or the local development of features may make more of a positive impact. Technology planning must strive to achieve a balance between practical technology and innovation.

Plan for an Uncertain Future

Libraries need technologies that will carry them through unanticipated challenges. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of unexpected disruption. Technology planning needs to accommodate many different contingencies in addition to meeting current and anticipated operational needs. We have learned that the future is uncertain and that libraries may have to make dramatic changes in response to events that defy planning in advance.

It's important to keep an eye on the horizon to plan for large-scale changes that will affect libraries. Turning back to the early days of the web, the arena of scholarly communications made a rapid transition from print to electronic journals. Libraries did not respond quickly to this change. It took a decade for effective technology products to emerge that provided effective support for ejournals. E-resource knowledgebases, link resolvers, and metasearch products were eventually developed, but it took yet another decade for the emergence of index-based discovery services and comprehensive resource management solutions. Today, scholarly publishing is navigating a transition from subscription walls to OA. A series of transformative agreements by large players in this arena are driving rapid change to new business models based on article-processing charges, either individually or in bulk, and away from library-based subscription. It is incumbent on libraries to adopt technologies that are able to manage the transition to open access business models with more agility than the initial shift from print to electronic publication. This issue is just one example of systemic changes in external ecosystems with massive implications for libraries. Libraries must also be prepared for further changes in the ebook and streaming media sectors, copyright or other legal frameworks, or general economic or societal events that might bring implications for library service or funding models.

No single approach will prepare libraries to navigate these uncharted and possibly stormy waters. Moving toward flexible, extensible, and reliable technologies may lay a strong foundation that can be built on quickly in response to changing conditions. Continual rounds of innovative development can lead to technologies that are able to meet changing community needs. At varying levels, such efforts are well underway by libraries and the communities of developers and technologists that support them. But technology only plays a supporting role as libraries advance toward an unknown future. By embracing the unique values and expertise of the profession, library workers at all levels within their organizations will guide the way.

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Publication Year:2020
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 40 Number 07
Issue:October 2020
Page(s):9-11
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:26402
Last Update:2021-06-23 13:04:40
Date Created:2021-06-23 13:04:01