Tim Buckley Owen reports on a radical view of the future from library automation specialist Marshall Breeding.
People are "less than happy" with the current choice of integrated library systems (ILSs) , which consists of mature products that are approaching the end of their life cycle, suggests Marshall Breeding, Director for Innovative Technologies and Research at Vanderbilt University Libraries in Nashville, Tennessee. Developers don't seem to be having much luck with new ones -- and the old ones don't age as well as wine.
Breaking out of the current mould was the theme of Marshall Breeding's presentation, to a packed audience, at information and library management technology company Talis's Insight Conference in Birmingham earlier this month. Existing monolithic systems are less and less in tune with user expectations or the way 21st-century libraries work, he believes, and big changes are on the horizon.
Consolidation among providers has resulted in "an uncomfortable narrowing of options that are available to libraries". There's dissatisfaction with the commercial offerings and with closed source systems — and it's throwing up opportunities for the open source community.
Too little innovation
It's all come about because there's too little innovation at present. "How many of you believe that your library automation system gives you everything you need?" he challenges. "Is it cooler than your iPod?"
However, it's pretty tough to ditch your existing system unless you're forced to — and forced migration is relatively rare. You get a bad fundholder reaction if you want to buy a new system, he acknowledges.
There are better things to spend your money on — new interfaces for library users, federated search.
The world is less ILS-centric now, he suggests, and there are plenty of companies that are in library automation but not involved in ILSs at all. Open source alternatives to commercial systems are becoming more of a practical option.
However, open source is not cheaper, he warns. What you may save on acquisition costs you spend on more local support. The open source market share is minuscule at the moment, he acknowledges. But it will grow over the next three to five years, and be a catalyst for further developments, not least because it will present formidable competition for the commercial providers.
There will be no real 'traction' until open software has a real impact on the commercial systems, he suggests. But, when it does, what should emerge should not be more complex, but simply more robust and functional.
Take inter-library loans; they're not well automated at present. Existing systems simply don't reflect the way libraries operate today.
However, we don't want to create a new monolith; what we need is a suite of interoperable modules. A more lightweight approach is required, because existing systems are in danger of collapsing under their own weight.
Current systems are too compartmentalized. Why, for example, handle physical and digital materials separately? Why focus on the online public access catalogue (Opac)? It doesn’t cover online articles; it's only a small part of the system. We need more service-orientated architecture, more applications for the libraries of the future.
Exploit global interfaces
This means more interoperability, including meshing in with global resources such as Google Scholar. We must exploit global interfaces to drive users towards library resources, he continues—using the search engines to get into our own collections. With such a model, I he challenges, do we even need our own OPAC?
We're actually moving into a post-metadata discovery is done world. Library resource Discovery is done through the actual searching of the digital objects themselves. Users are underwhelmed by what they find on library websites, compared with well-engineered and funded services like Amazon.com, he believes.
The old marketer versus consumer relationship between vendors and libraries is not helpful any more either; partnership is what's needed.
"I feel like we're behind," he concludes. "If we don't do things quickly, we're going to get further behind."