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Technical Infrastructure in Libraries: To Tweak or Transform?

Computers in Libraries [January/February 2013] The Systems Librarian

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As we move into another year, I am looking forward to tracking any developments in the library technology arena that will provide libraries with better infrastructure and tools to support their strategic missions. We're at an incredibly interesting point in the realm of library technology with some entirely new systems rolling out in parallel with incremental evolutionary changes in existing systems. Open source products now routinely compete with those offered through proprietary licenses. A broad shift is under way from systems housed on local hardware to some flavor of cloud computing. Many different possibilities in technology and in functional organization of systems are in motion.

Disintegrated Library Systems

One of the constant themes about which I have written and spoken over the years involves the need to carefully align the technology products with the broad goals and daily operations of libraries. At one level, most libraries generally make effective use of technology in ways that greatly increase their efficiency and allow them to provide ever more effective access to their collections and support their programs and services. Yet, a deeper and more critical assessment of library technologies reveals many gaps and disproportionate support of some categories of library activities relative to others that remain underserved. More importantly, I often observe libraries cobbling together an assemblage of components that don't necessarily work well together to separately address different aspects of their operations or collections. It can be quite a challenge to build and support such a disintegrated environment, with many different applications and platforms that need to be installed, configured, maintained, and, most importantly, integrated together.

The combination of integrated library systems, electronic resource management utilities, OpenURL link resolvere, e-resource knowledgebases, digital collection management platforms, institutional repositories, discovery services, and other library-specific and general-purpose applications represents an approach for providing technology support that has evolved somewhat haphazardly. If designing computer systems for libraries today from a blank slate, I don't think anyone would come up with anything that resembles what we see used in libraries today. At the same time, there is a great deal of highly functional software in use today that should not be thrown out wholesale.

Increasing Complexity of Libraries

Libraries have gone through tremendous change over recent decades both in terms of the shape of their collections and in the kinds of services offered. Print materials still flourish in most libraries, but involvement with electronic content accessed from external publishers or providers and locally digitized content represent ever higher proportions of their collections. In the current digitally dominant realm in which many libraries exist today, management of content in new formats or media cannot be an afterthought. The different content formats come with the need to handle metadata in different ways to be able to optimally describe each category of material, but, more importantly, they bring into play different business and legal scenarios relative to the processes needed for acquiring, managing, and providing access to library patrons. Content items may be purchased, licensed, or acquired through open access channels. Lending and access rights may be governed by principles such as the doctrine of first sale that has prevailed in the realm of physical materials, by the terms of contracts made with content providers, or though terms granted in the different levels of Creative Commons licenses. Libraries need technology infrastructure built to handle an increasingly complex array of content types and their associated policies and processes.

Revolutionary Developments

Given the inefficiencies that I see in the currently prevailing disjointed technology infrastructure, I see the emergence of the new library services platforms that aim to provide a more comprehensive approach to managing library collections as a promising move. These systems, such as OCLC's WorldShare Management Services; Ex Libris Alma; Sierra from Innovative Interfaces, Inc.; Intota from Serials Solutions; and the Kuali OLE open source project, each in their own way bring together functionality that was previously managed in multiple, separate systems into a software with more modern architecture and expansive scope. But I see these new products as just an initial step into rebuilding systems in alignment with library realities. They are early in their life cycles and, in many ways, are modest in their scope and in the level of functionality offered. As these new products mature, I hope to see them expand their scope even further.

Incremental Improvements

In addition to these new products, I expect that some of the incumbent integrated library systems will evolve in ways that better address the ever more complex needs of libraries. The realm of library automation seems to generally favor evolution, with many products surviving through many decades of use. Yet, it seems to me that, in recent years, the rate of evolution has languished behind the changes in libraries, opening opportunities for the creation of new revolutionary systems. It will be interesting to observe the competition among evolutionary and revolutionary library technology products over the course of the next few years. I anticipate that academic libraries will gravitate toward those products that take a fresh start and that public libraries will remain mostly with evolved systems.

Address Remaining Gaps of Support

While there is productive momentum toward automation systems that narrow the chasm between available and expected functionality, I still see a great need to continue to press for ongoing development and continual reassessment. Even the new products that embrace the most ambitious and expansive scope do not necessarily address every aspect of a library's operational requirements. We're early in a new phase of innovation. But it's not too early to begin pressing forward toward new breakthroughs in technology that are needed to stay ahead of the curve in the never-ending cycles of change surrounding libraries and society.

Libraries Vote With Their Pocketbooks

The procurement process presents an important opportunity for libraries to influence the shape, scope, and functionality of technology products. The way that a library describes its expectations when going out to acquire its next automation system provides critical information to the development community. With considerable variation, the data that I collect on migration patterns of automation systems shows that libraries on average operate a system for about 10 years. Given this decadelong commitment, it's essential that libraries take the most forward-looking process possible when choosing their next automation system. In my view, a library's selection and procurement process functions both for the individual library organization to pick its next system but also as an indicator from within the broader library community. The aggregate message seen across procurement documents within a given time frame guides the shape of the systems that will be developed.

Drive Enhancements Strategically

Libraries should also not miss any opportunities to exert their influence on the development of systems that they currently use. Once a library has committed to use a system, it has a tremendous vested interest to prod the ongoing enhancement and development of that system. Whether it is through a collective enhancement ballot process, user group discussions, or meetings with company representatives, there should be an ongoing, constructive conversation between the libraries that use a system and the organization that creates it. It's only when the structure or architecture of the system has reached a dead end or when the organization for any reason has chosen not to invest in further development that libraries are forced to focus their energies on moving to a new system.

Majoring on Minors

When considering the capabilities of current or future technology infrastructure, I encourage libraries to balance their thinking between both the broad view of strategic technology support and the nuances of detailed functionality. I often see the syndrome of focusing on minor frustrations while areas of activity remain largely absent of systematic technology support. I've observed, for example, continual fine-tuning of functionality for the circulation of print materials while systems lack much of the basic functionality of managing electronic subscriptions. It seems to me that it is better to focus development efforts more on those areas of strategic importance that have been under-automated than to worry about incremental changes to traditional functionality ad infinitum.

Be Careful What You Ask For

I generally hold the view that libraries are generally responsible for the inertia of the current generation of integrated library systems. While it might be easy to blame vendors for the lack of innovative development directions, they have largely built the systems libraries asked for. The detailed RFP documents that describe a conservative view of library automation with requirements specifying well-established, if not already antiquated, workflows and methods have not provided the feedback for vendors to develop forward-looking systems. It has only been in the past few years that libraries and system developers have mutually shifted the conversation to a more thorough rethinking of the broader automation infrastructure instead of reinforcing the model of separate silos of functionality.

Why Not Best of Breed?

Libraries have long hoped for a bestof-breed approach for automating their libraries. Why shouldn't a library be able to acquire individual modules that offer the strongest functionality within their area and assemble them together to form a system that excels in all areas? Unfortunately, during the era of the integrated library system, no underlying communications structures existed to allow modules from competing systems to work together efficiently. The database interdependencies and proprietary internal communications defied the ability to mix and match traditional modules such as circulation, cataloging, acquisitions, and authority control. Discovery interfaces have emerged as one component that can be implemented separately.

Outside of the ILS, libraries have followed something like a best-of-breed strategy for activities deemed to lie outside its scope. Electronic resource management, OpenURL link resolution, digital collections, and other essential functions have been accomplished through separate systems. It's hard to see this approach as broadly successful. Only a few hundred electronic resource management systems have been deployed in production, for example, despite the ever-increasing proportions of library collection budgets dedicated to electronic content. It seems to me that it is just as much the strategy of separate platforms for each type of resource that failed to resonate as the merits of the specific systems developed. It will be interesting to watch over the next few years if the more comprehensive resource management strategy embraced by the new library services platforms finds more success than that of the disintegrated systems.

In this next phase of library automation, I expect to see more movement away from individual applications toward more comprehensive platforms. Although the modern service-oriented architecture of these new systems provides inherent capabilities for communication with external applications, the increasing reliance on knowledgebases and other shareddata components make a mix-and-match approach less attractive. One of the key characteristics of most of the new library services platforms involves managing library collections through shared metadata rather than through the traditional local bibliographic database. When the metadata or knowledgebases also power discovery services, I anticipate a trend toward reintegration of discovery as part of the suite of functionality provided by a single vendor. While it will be possible to use discovery services from one provider and library management systems from another, the overhead of synchronizing library holdings with multiple knowledgebases may be prohibitive.

Let's Maintain Momentum

Fm optimistic that we're in a phase now where there is a lot of action toward creating technology infrastructure components more in tune with the strategic needs of libraries. Some new systems have gotten to the point of general release and production implementations, with others in development that will be available in the coming months. Traditional integrated library systems are addressing important new areas of functionality, such as the full integration of ebook lending. Discovery services are becoming more mature, comprehensive, and engaging. On many fronts, there seems to be progress in providing better technology support in some of the strategic areas of library service that have previously been underserved.

I still worry that even the spurt of activity in recent years will not be enough to fully give libraries the edge needed to keep pace with the broader changes in society and the growing complexity of their collections. Continued investment in research and development is necessary to ensure that the next round of innovation comes quickly enough. Even if we are catching up a bit now, I don't want to see libraries relapse to a time when they lacked adequate technology tools to carry out their work. It's essential to press for ever more ambitious innovation in the realm of library technologies if we are to keep pace with the relentless cycles of change.

View Citation
Publication Year:2013
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 33 Number 01
Issue:January/February 2013
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Subject: Library Services Platforms
Record Number:17759
Last Update:2024-06-21 02:02:48
Date Created:2013-03-17 19:32:08