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Preparing for the Future Implementing Enduring Technology Strategies

Computers in Libraries [September 2021]

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Abstract: Computer technology forms part of the basic infrastructure that supports the work of a library, including both its physical facilities and virtual services. Architects design buildings to meet the current and future needs of the organization, not only addressing fine points of practical use, but putting things together in a way that achieves a particular aesthetic outcome. Great library buildings don't only retain their inspiring look through the decades-they also accommodate the inevitable changes in how the spaces might be used. Technology infrastructure likewise must be carefully designed to endure long-term, to support practical use, and to accommodate the evolution of library services. But unlike buildings, technology components cannot be expected to last more than a decade or so at best. Building and maintaining a solid technology infrastructure requires an ongoing process of incremental adjustments rather than a once-and-for-all effort.


Computer technology forms part of the basic infrastructure that supports the work of a library, including both its physical facilities and virtual services. Architects design buildings to meet the current and future needs of the organization, not only addressing fine points of practical use, but putting things together in a way that achieves a particular aesthetic outcome. Great library buildings don't only retain their inspiring look through the decades-they also accommodate the inevitable changes in how the spaces might be used. Technology infrastructure likewise must be carefully designed to endure long-term, to support practical use, and to accommodate the evolution of library services. But unlike buildings, technology components cannot be expected to last more than a decade or so at best. Building and maintaining a solid technology infrastructure requires an ongoing process of incremental adjustments rather than a once-and-for-all effort.

Factors to Consider

Despite the short life expectancy inherent in any given hardware or software component, it is important for libraries to achieve stable and long-lasting technology infrastructure that they can count on. Such stability comes through a strategic approach to technology selection and deployment focused on standards, interoperability, and a set of core principles aligned with the values of the organization. Stable and reliable technology infrastructure also depends on continual assessment of the current viability of each component and investing in any needed upgrades or replacements. As with a building, continually overlooking technical problems and postponing needed repairs can lead to failures that can be disruptive to the organization.

The specific services and activities that libraries carry out in support of their organizations or communities will naturally change over time. These changes will be driven by trends in society, shifting organizational strategies, or other unpredictable factors. For example, academic libraries saw their collections fundamentally reshaped beginning in the 1990s, as scholarly communications moved from print to electronic publishing. Further change is now underway, as subscription-based business models are increasingly displaced by multiple models of OA publishing. Transformations in scholarly publishing can be seen as a broad societal change, driven by business and technology factors to which libraries must adapt.

Changes in organizational priorities may also impact libraries. While acquiring, managing, and providing access to relevant content remain central, we can expect libraries to continually delve into new areas of service as needed. In recent years, libraries in research-intensive universities have increasingly been drawn into new areas of support, such as providing repositories for experimental data or for collaborating with investigators for data management plans.

Academic libraries experienced wholesale upheaval in their business applications, as the ILSs programmed to manage print collections failed to adapt to new realities. This led to the emergence of library services platforms that were better positioned to manage complex hybrid collections. Libraries will need to look out for new types of products that may include different groupings of functionality that are better suited to their future directions than their incumbent systems.

The continual cycles of change in technologies likewise complicate the development of stable infrastructure. The realm of library systems has been uprooted multiple times, as the broader realm of computing traversed changing paradigms. The history of computing, from mainframes to minicomputers, to client/server distributed systems, and to the current period of cloud-based technologies has left multiple generations of obsolete applications in its wake. Planning for generational changes in computing must be part of an organization's technology strategy. Cloud computing currently stands as a mature foundation for business applications. Ongoing advancements maybe able to take place incrementally without the need for the fundamental rebuilding of core systems. Libraries must also be prepared for some future computing model that will eventually make the current generation of technology products obsolete. But since modern cloud-based platforms can be built to incrementally evolve, there remains a strong possibility that the next round of wholesale change may be in the more distant future.

The changing nature of computing means that libraries will need to follow more of a building-blocks approach to achieve a stable and enduring technology foundation for their organizations. The replacement of selected components over time will prevent an eventual collapse of the structure. Each new block should contribute toward an evolving architecture that moves the organization forward. While it is impossible for anything based on technology to be future-proof, incremental improvements can keep the organization on solid ground and allow it to carry out its work efficiently and to even explore new areas of innovation.

Guiding Principles

Over time, libraries will make new investments in technology products as new needs arise or as existing systems start to become obsolete. A few guiding principles can help ensure that they become building blocks that not only address the immediate need, but also strengthen the organization's overall technology infrastructure. These principles might include the following:

An emphasis on interoperability-Systems should be designed not only to deliver their functions through interfaces used by people, but they must also interact with other computer systems-providing a complete set of APIs has become a basic expectation. These APIs increasingly form the glue that cements the building blocks of library systems into a coherent ecosystem that's able to address evolving changes in business processes or functional requirements.

Basing investments on current and forward-looking technical architecture-The replacement of any component should be seen as an incremental move away from outdated legacy technologies. Acquiring any product still rooted in older computing models will hinder the general advancement of the organization's infrastructure. This scenario may be especially challenging when newer products built on modern technologies may not have all of the same features as mature products that are reliant on legacy computing structures.

Support for applicable standards-Any technology application must have rigorous support for standards, both within its specific domain and those of the broader technology sec- tor. Library applications will naturally support MARC and related standards. But it is increasingly important to embrace those used among the systems of its parent institution and by external organizations, such as publishers or other organizations that may be part of the library's business relationships.

Strict compliance with security-related practices and standards- Aggressive security threats (including the increasing number of ransomware attacks) leave no room for lapses in network and computer security. As technical infrastructure becomes increasingly interconnected, any vulnerable component can lead to catastrophic results for the organization.

Enhanced privacy-Libraries generally have requirements for strict protection of their patrons' privacy. Many technology applications, especially those designed for other types of organizations, may treat personal data more permissively Libraries will need to carefully examine how each component in their environment treats personally identifiable information and configure all of them to either not collect or to anonymize such data.

These principles are a few of the considerations that libraries should address to ensure a stable foundation of technology that will evolve into the future. This approach of incremental investment in building blocks that are placed into a continually modernized architecture can avoid the need to make a disruptive, wholesale renovation. A library's technology infrastructure, similar to its physical structure, requires continual rounds of renovation and investment to support the organization as it advances through each phase of its work.

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Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 07
Issue:September 2021
Page(s):8-10
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:26738
Last Update:2021-10-04 17:00:03
Date Created:2021-10-04 10:50:31