When I look at the academic and research library arena today, I observe a growing disconnect between the strategic priorities of academic libraries and the technology environments in place to support their work. Academic libraries struggle to find the most effective technologies that will help them to fulfill their missions within their larger institutions, to manage their internal operations as efficiently as possible, and to optimally deliver access to their collections and services to their users. One of the overarching concerns that I see today involves narrowing this chasm between the pressing realities of academic libraries and their supporting technologies.
I don't necessarily mean that most libraries don't do a great job in wielding technology to address their needs. Most are able to employ a variety of products to provide automation support for each area of their operations. The problem lies more in the complexity and cost resulting from the use of many disconnected systems and in the ongoing gaps where key aspects of library operations lack systematic automation support.
In this month's column, I'll explore some of the ways that library automation has grown apart from the current needs of libraries, mention some of the developments underway that may help to realign technology with library priorities, and identify some of the gaps that, in my opinion, still remain.
Pain Points Differ by Library Type
The tension between current automation models and transformed library missions hits academic libraries especially hard today. The continuum of change hits each library type at different times. For special libraries, especially those in large corporate or nonprofit organizations, the shift away from physical collections happened long ago, and they have moved away from traditional ILS products to enterprise knowledge management platforms. The pressures for public libraries aren't far behind what academic libraries feel already. Public libraries continue to see great demand for their print and media collections, though with an ever-growing presence of ebooks, article databases, and other nontraditional formats. Involvement in ebooks may be poised to spike upward in parallel to consumer adoption of ebook readers and publisher interest in shifting away from print. It will be critical for public libraries to have access to automation systems that provide equivalent functionality for the management and delivery of ebooks as they do for traditional materials. These differences in broad strategic issues point toward an increased divergence among the automation requirements of public, academic, and special libraries that has widened over time and will make it increasingly difficult for the same automation products to serve all library types.
The Monolith ILS Fractures
Until recent times, the basic model of library automation centered on an integrated library system, including an online catalog for search and patron services related to lending such as viewing checkouts and renewals, placing holds, or paying fines. Today the task of automating internal library operations and that of patron interfaces and discovery have split into two distinct product areas, and collection management has likewise bifurcated across print and electronic formats. As the emphasis of academic libraries made a dramatic shift toward access of subscribed electronic content and digital collections, the online catalog of the ILS functions more as an advanced search tool for the physical collection as discovery interfaces step in to take the role of broader discovery across all varied components of library collections. Many academic libraries also employ specialized products such as electronic resource management systems to automate the complex tasks associated with managing large collections of ejournals and ebooks. In contrast to early expectations that moving away from print collections would simplify collection management, the everchanging pricing structures, content aggregations, license terms, authentication issues, and persistent and intelligent linking requirements result in a cumulative effect of great complexity and time intensive workflows. The business of automating academic libraries today is more complex than ever, with an ever-expanding suite of software products needed to achieve comprehensive automation support.
Unified Management of Collections and Operations
In the current phase of library automation, we're seeing nascent transitions from the traditional models that have been entrenched for decades to the emergence of new conceptual approaches that in one way or another strive to support libraries in ways more in tune with current realities and future expectations. Projects such as Alma from Ex Libris, Web-scale Management Services from OCLC, the Kuali OLE project, and the extension of existing ILS products through the creation of new layers of APIs and web services aim to address the disconnects inherent in legacy automation, though these products remain in development or very early cycles of deployment.
Academic and research libraries take on increasing responsibilities for managing and publishing the intellectual assets of their organizations. Institutional repositories, programs for electronic theses and dissertations, digital collections of manuscripts, still and moving images, repositories of scanned books, and repositories of research data represent a few examples of the kinds of institutional content that may now fall within the scope of an academic or research library. Aproliferation of stand-alone asset management and publishing platforms cannot sustain the ever-expanding portfolio of content offerings. Rather, we need robust, flexible, and scalable platforms capable of handling diverse materials.
We're seeing another major transition in the realm of library interfaces directed at their end users. Anew generation of discovery interfaces has emerged over the last decade and continues to mature. Products such as AquaBrowser and Summon from Serials Solutions, Primo and Primo Central from Ex Libris, Enterprise from SirsiDynix, Encore and Encore Synergy from Innovative Interfaces, and LS2 from The Library Corp. as well as open source projects such as Blacklight, VUfind, and SOPAC all aim to modernize the interfaces that libraries present to their users and extend or unify the search process to simplify the research process. Products such as Arena from Axiell and Iguana from Infor, so far seen mostly in Europe, not only address discovery of library resources but also provide a managed approach to all the components of a library website.
The proliferation of all of these separate genres of library automation software to address the complexities of academic libraries results in a very complex and expensive ordeal. In the next cycles, I hope to see alternative strategies for automation that will take a more holistic and streamlined approach.
Although the ILS can no longer stand as the sole basis of library automation, a new monolith with extended scope is not the solution. No single system can effectively address all the different aspects of technology support for the complex requirements of academic libraries, especially when they reside within even more complex parent organizations. Rather, it seems beneficial to adopt an enterprise computing model where multiple components, those designed to share common technical infrastructure, cooperate to fulfill all the automation needs of the organization without significant redundancy in functionality or overlap of data stores. A thorough implementation of service-oriented architecture can serve as the basis for this model of distributed computing. This contrasts with the modules of an ILS that operate to address specialized functionality within a closed application or the implementation of multiple standalone products, such as the integrated library system, electronic resource management system, and discovery interfaces that tend to operate independently with relatively thin channels of intercommunication rather than the full embodiment of architectures designed for interoperability.
Most largish organizations today expect an enterprise orientation for technology support, usually through some overarching framework that systematically spans all aspects of its activities rather than relying on standalone disconnected systems. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) products help organizations manage, track, assess, and analyze all of their assets, especially their personnel, and customer relationship management (CRM) platforms automate and optimize the way that they deliver their services to their customers. Once managed in a systematic platform, or in a cluster of interoperable components, organizations can shift their personnel strategically to operate most efficiently and to fine-tune their services to offer the highest quality services. ERP systems provide extensive qualitative and quantitative data to help administrators make operational and strategic decisions. CRM systems provide operational support and assessment data for end-user services.
The presence of ERP or CRM systems doesn't guarantee success, but it provides powerful tools to help managers allocate resources. In the business world, it's hard to say that these enterprise systems have universally resulted in higher levels of customer service. Yet in today's era of highly constrained budgets (that may see no relief in the foreseeable future), it's vital for libraries to have at their disposal the same kinds of tools that would be expected in other businesses and nonprofits.
In the library arena, the integrated library system or, especially, the newgeneration products with more comprehensive scope largely fills the role of enterprise resource management. The domain of customer relationship management for libraries remains largely unfulfilled.
Support for In-Depth Public Services
Academic libraries already see diminished activity related to their print collections. Access to electronic articles has almost entirely obliterated interest in the massive collections of back runs of scholarly and professional journals. Web-based search engines have taken a toll on certain categories of reference questions, both in person and virtually. Yet academic libraries continue to attract visitors to their physical facilities. Students and researchers appreciate places of quiet study, comfortable social spaces, areas for collaborative learning and research projects, and venues for campus events. Though not as much focused on access to physical collections, academic libraries remain vital centers of support for the academic mission of colleges and universities.
As demand slackens for routine reference questions, opportunities expand for in-depth services that involve higher levels of expertise and deeper engagement with patrons. Examples include support for data management plans associated with grant-funded research projects, services related to public data sets, especially those involving geospatial coordinates, services related to digitization or multimedia production, and the development of ontologies or taxonomies.
With these changes in the shape of public services in academic libraries comes the need to advance from tallies of questions answered to project management and service quality assessment and advanced infrastructure in support of end-user services.
Customer Relationship Management for Library Services to End Users
Public services, such as those offered for reference inquiries, research requests, and other activities that represent key interactions between library personnel and their clientele, often lack even basic automated support tools. Many academic libraries that I'm aware of count reference questions and other services in very basic ways, often without sophisticated tools to provide measurement and assessment of service quality.
Specialized support for public services activities has been a long-standing omission in library automation. The core integrated library system, which supposedly provides comprehensive automation support for libraries, has narrowly focused on support for activities such as technical services and circulation and has not delivered functionality for reference, outreach, information literacy, interlibrary loan, and other crucial library services. Yet, as these activities grow in strategic importance in academic libraries, they likewise require stronger automation tools.
Some tools exist for narrow activities, such as those for the provision of virtual reference or for scheduling service desks. But these utilities remain disconnected from the fabric of the technical infrastructure that supports the organization. As part of a CRM environment, these tools could be populated from the authoritative source of personnel data, extrapolate costs associated with services provided, and measure the promptness of responses. Such data would be invaluable to administrators as they increasingly need to justify the costs associated with library services.
As new platforms emerge that aim to provide more comprehensive automation for libraries, I would hope to see them take on more of a flavor of customer relationship management and to bring the long-neglected realm of end-user services under the umbrella of library automation.