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Disintegration to Integration and Back

Computers in Libraries [March 2016]

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Copyright (c) 2016 Information Today

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Abstract: One of the most important questions in the realm of library technology concerns the composition of the systems that support the library in how it manages and provides access to its collections and services. Is it better to have one do-it-all product or to assemble a set of modules from different providers? The history of library automation has seen a general trend toward more comprehensive platforms, but are we now at a time when it makes sense to consider other possibilities?


One of the most important questions in the realm of library technology concerns the composition of the systems that support the library in how it manages and provides access to its collections and services. Is it better to have one do-it-all product or to assemble a set of modules from different providers? The history of library automation has seen a general trend toward more comprehensive platforms, but are we now at a time when it makes sense to consider other possibilities?

In this current phase, we can see at least two tracks in play-one that emphasizes the efficiencies gained through a fully integrated platform and another based on the flexibility gained through open systems able to integrate diverse components. Today, the key question centers on the extent to which patron-facing discovery products should be packaged together with resource management systems or if libraries can mix offerings from different providers.

Historical Movement Toward Integration

Library automation saw its beginning in the development of computer programs created for one specific area of operations. The first version of what became NOTIS automated circulation for Northwestern University Library (January 1970). CLSI began in 1971 as a circulation system. Innovative traces its earliest roots to technical services, initially as a device to connect CLSI systems to OCLC to streamline access to catalog records and later as an acquisitions system. Gaylord Library Systems, the antecedent company to Polaris, was wellknown for its early circulation with a hybrid implementation based on computers in the library for real-time transactions that included notices and reports performed remotely from the company's mainframe. OCLC began in 1967 as a cooperative project for creating and sharing catalog records for libraries in Ohio. It eventually became an international cooperative, offering a multitude of systems and services.

During that initial period, it was not uncommon for a library to implement automation systems from multiple providers. Some libraries might have used one product for cataloging and circulation and another for acquisitions. This arrangement was burdensome, since it required the installation and maintenance of two major systems. However, it was necessary to gain functionality that wasn't offered in a single product. Many of these systems operated parallel to card catalogs, with systems that either printed them locally or provided access to records by OCLC or other bibliographic services.

The concept of the ILS emerged by about the 1980s in which a more complete set of modules was expected, including cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, and an online catalog. The ILS relies on databases that provide a single representation of each collection item or activity shared across all the modules. A bibliographic record is created and updated in the cataloging module. It provides descriptive information for the public catalog and is associated with an inventory record needed for circulation and acquisitions.

The concept of a single set of databases directly accessed by each module achieves operational efficiency and avoids duplication of effort. Each of the modules, developed as part of the same product, can use internal or proprietary mechanisms to access the data. In this way, an ILS can be programmed as self-enclosed. Any needed interactions among the modules can be coded directly into the application.

While an ILS might be able to function using proprietary programming for accessing data internally, there needs to be ways to move data to and from the ILS relative to external sources. Library standards such as Z39.50, Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP), or NCIP-or industry standards such as EDI-enabled the ILS to exchange data with bibliographic services, self-service equipment, or interlibrary-loan environments. These standards each address specific areas of data or functionality and represent a relatively small subset of a system's broader capabilities. Today, most products expose APIs to further extend the ability to connect with external applications.

Electronic Resources Sparked Disintegration

The design of the ILS emerged during the time when library collections were constituted entirely of physical objects, especially print books and periodicals. At that time, even nontextual materials resided on physical media, such as magnetic tape, vinyl records, or film.

The emergence of the internet and the shift of scholarly and professional publishing toward electronic delivery disrupted the model of library automation based on the ILS. As academic libraries devoted ever larger portions of their collection budgets to electronic resources, they needed systems to help them acquire, describe, and provide access to the resources. Possibilities included adding new functionality to the ILS or creating a new specialized application.

The conceptual model of the ILS proved to be quite hardened at that time, so new kinds of systems emerged to handle different aspects of these materials. Link resolvers, based on the OpenURL syntax and a knowledgebase representing the body of e-resources, emerged to address the complexities of more reliable linking into the full text of articles. Ex Libris Group launched this product genre with its commercialization of SFX, shortly followed by ArticleLinker from Serials Solutions (now ProQuest 360 Link), Link Source from EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO), LinkFinderPlus from Endeavor Information Systems, and a few others. Electronic resource management systems were also developed, devoted to helping libraries acquire and manage their rapidly growing collections of ejournals, databases, and related materials. Examples include Ex Libris'Verde and Serials Solutions' 360 Resource Manager.

The genre of electronic resource management systems was never especially successful, relative to the proportions of electronic content in libraries. In the academic-library sector, despite the increasing domination of electronic resources in their collections, adoptions of electronic resource management systems never gained any substantial momentum. These products were complex and often perceived as more difficult to adopt.

Ultimately, they failed to deliver more efficient management of electronic resources. In retrospect, the strategy of managing electronic resources with distinct systems and personnel contributed just as much to the failure of the electronic resource management systems as the quality of the products themselves. These separate channels of workflow for print and electronic materials led to considerable redundancies, and there were no effective ways to leverage data that might overlap with the ILS.

Reintegration Through Library Services Platforms

Reliance on the same system for an ever broader range of automation functions is a consistent theme. Once the ILS became established, the idea of using separate modules for each area of operation faded. The concept of a best-of-breed approach in which a library might select and implement circulation, cataloging, acquisitions, or serials modules from separate vendors was never practical. There were no efficient mechanisms for exchanging data and services as would be required for that implementation model. The need to deal with multiple vendor relationships for basic automation would also be cumbersome to say the least. Any problem might need to involve support intervention from multiple providers.

The lack of real success in electronic resource management systems reinforces this observation. The many categories of overlapping data and lack of efficient mechanisms for inter-system communications are similar to what would happen if a library wanted to use acquisitions and cataloging modules from different providers. The concept of comprehensive resource management has prevailed, especially for academic libraries.

We are now in a phase in which the concept of platforms that provide comprehensive management spanning electronic and print resources has gained traction, especially among academic libraries. The Ex Libris Alma library services platform was developed to embody the company's vision of "unified resource management," which resonates with academic libraries as seen in its current momentum in the marketplace. OCLC created its WorldShare Management Services on a similar conceptual foundation, also seeing a fairly strong reception by academic libraries. The unified approach isn't universal, with many academic libraries continuing to use ILSs to manage their print collections and other vendorprovided or locally implemented procedures for electronic resources. Given the current trends, it seems that the comprehensive resource management approach will increasingly dominate in academic libraries.

Changing Expectations in Public Interfaces

A different set of dynamics applies to technologies that provide access to library resources by patrons. The model of the ILS included an online catalog module to enable library patrons to search and browse the library's collection. Similar to the other ILS modules, it worked based on proprietary interactions with the underlying database and other components. At the same time, the standard protocols available in the ILS for data exchange and interoperability provided most of what was needed for a separate online catalog. Opportunities for these third-party catalogs or discovery interfaces have been more successful than for other functions of the ILS.

Expectations for patron interfaces are generally perceived as more critical than those oriented to library personnel, and they may evolve quickly. Beginning in about 2005, dissatisfaction with the online catalog modules provided with ILSs became a critical concern, leading to a wave of next-generation library catalogs, which were implemented separately from the ILS. Libraries such as North Carolina State University and Phoenix Public Library used ecommerce technology from Endeca to create more modern interfaces employing relevancy-based search and faceted navigation. Open source projects-such as VuFind (initially created at Villanova University)-as well as commercial products-such as Primo (from Ex Libris) and AquaBrowser Library (from Medialab Solutions)-were all developed in this vein of what came to be called discovery interfaces. Blacklight has more recently become a favorite open source discovery interface for academic libraries.

This new wave of discovery interfaces created apart from the ILS sparked the need to develop a stronger set of protocols to support the needed interactions with ILSs. The Digital Library Federation (DLF) convened the ILS-Discovery Initiative task group to facilitate a more standard way for these systems to interact. The workgroup focused on leveraging existing protocols such as OAI-PMH, Z39.50, SIP, and NCIP to minimize the need to define new system-to-system interfaces. The ILS-Discovery Initiative never became a standard in itself, but the models of interaction have become widely adopted.

Public Libraries: Trend Toward Reintegration of Catalogs

Following the initial period in which many public libraries had implemented next-generation online catalog products, there have been many cases in which libraries have reverted to the online catalog or discovery product provided by their ILS vendor. Examples include the Phoenix Public Library.

Public libraries are more likely to use the online catalog or discovery service developed by the provider of their ILS. AquaBrowser, once used by hundreds of public libraries in the U.S., has largely been abandoned by these libraries, with most migrating to the catalog or discovery interface offered by their ILS vendor. AquaBrowser remains a major force only in its original homeland in the Netherlands. Libraries using Sierra would use the WebPAC Pro online catalog or Encore from Innovative. Polaris libraries use its PowerPAC catalog, and those using SirsiDynix Symphony or Horizon tend to use Enterprise. Some may use the open source VuFind discovery interface instead. Bucking this trend, a growing number of libraries have implemented BiblioCommons to replace the online catalog provided by their ILS vendor. BiblioCommons is used instead of the online catalog associated with the ILS of many major public libraries in the U.S., Canada, and in a few other countries. However, The New York Public Library implemented BiblioCommons in 2010 and recently switched to Encore, the discovery interface associated with its Sierra ILS.

Academic Libraries: Opposing Trends

In the academic library arena, Primo, Summon, EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), and WorldCat Local have each seen considerable adoption, independent of the ILS in use. EDS leads the pack in terms of installations, followed by Primo, Summon, and WorldCat Local. Each of these index-based discovery services has been designed to be implemented with any underlying ILS.

While Ex Libris designed Primo to work with any ILS, it positions it as the primary public interface for its flagship Alma library services platform. Alma does not offer a traditional online catalog, but relies entirely on Primo as its patron interface. While it remains technically possible to use other discovery products with Alma, to date, no libraries have done so. Ex Libris packages Primo and Alma as a tightly integrated product suite, with pricing and support options that favor their use together.

Modern library technology products -library services platforms in particular-expose APIs, which enable interoperability with external systems. Ex Libris asserts APIs as one of the distinguishing strengths of Alma. These libraries could make use of the Alma APIs to use another discovery interface in the absence of direct support from Ex Libris, but this would require considerable effort and expense. This effort would need to be balanced with any net advantage seen in the differences in functionality and coverage between Primo and another discovery service.

This strong affinity between Alma and Primo has competitive implications in the discovery arena. As more academic libraries opt for Alma, those that have previously implemented EDS, WorldCat Local, or Summon have shifted to Primo. So in addition to moving libraries from its legacy ILS products, Aleph and Voyager-and ILS products from other vendors-the momentum of Alma has also translated to migrations from other index-based discovery services to Primo.

One element of the new product strategy, coming out of the acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest, is the planned integration of Summon with Alma. Libraries that have previously implemented Summon will not need to migrate to Primo, and new adopters of Alma can choose either Summon or Primo. Both discovery services will be powered by the same central index. No such relief can be seen for EDS or WorldCat Local.

EBSCO champions the concept of giving libraries a choice of discovery services relative to the resource management products they use. This company has partnerships with almost all of the ILS providers worldwide to create interoperability between their products and EDS. A library might opt to use EDS as the primary interface to its online catalog, providing article-level results from its subscriptions alongside its holdings from its ILS. Alternatively, it could use its preferred interface, such as the one from its ILS provider or an open source product such as VuFind, and present catalog and article results through the EDS API. This strategy of choice and interoperability can be seen both in its partnerships with ILS vendors and through grants it has made to open source projects, such as the one made to Koha in May 2015.

Unlike the providers of the other index-based discovery services, EBSCO has not ventured to create its own resource management product. Instead, it has invested resources to make its discovery service compatible with any ILS or library services the library has implemented. The merger of Ex Libris and ProQuest has raised the stakes as it strengthens its position in both resource management and discovery relative to EBSCO as the dominant force in discovery.

In the academic library, two opposing trends can be seen in play. One path leads toward a more loose connection between resource management systems and discovery services, in which libraries might mix and match among products from different vendors or open source options. The other guides libraries toward a comprehensive package that includes resource management and discovery tightly interwoven. With two of the industry titans on opposite sides of this spectrum, Ex Libris and EBSCO, it will be interesting to see how these contradictory trends play out going forward.

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Publication Year:2016
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 36 Number 2
Issue:March 2016
Page(s):25-26,28-29
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:21509
Last Update:2016-12-04 16:40:20
Date Created:2016-04-20 07:55:27