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Divergence and Convergence: Trends in Academic and Public Libraries

Computers in Libraries [July - August 2016]

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Abstract: Public and academic libraries currently face distinctive challenges. A different set of trends can be seen in the composition of collection materials and in the services they provide to their respective clientele. To accommodate these differences, public and academic libraries have, in recent years, gravitated toward different strategies related to the technologies they employ to support their respective operations. Looking forward, people can also expect to see increasing points of commonality in libraries of all types as the production and consumption of content become increasingly digital and oriented to social platforms. Public libraries still see intense interest in physical collections by their clientele. Circulation transactions of physical materials remain strong. These libraries continue to acquire and manage print collections and require automation systems rich in features to support these tasks. The ILS, tracing its heritage to the time when libraries dealt exclusively in print, has continued to evolve, gaining more sophisticated capabilities for physical materials.


Public and academic libraries currently face distinctive challenges. A different set of trends can be seen in the composition of collection materials and in the services they provide to their respective clientele. To accommodate these differences, public and academic libraries have, in recent years, gravitated toward different strategies related to the technologies they employ to support their respective operations. Looking forward, we can also expect to see increasing points of commonality in libraries of all types as the production and consumption of content become increasingly digital and oriented to social platforms.

Academic Libraries Centered on Electronic Content

Academic libraries have seen an almost complete transformation of their collections from mostly print to largely electronic in the last 2 decades. The typical academic library devotes an overwhelming majority of its collections budgets to subscriptions to electronic resources. This reality has driven these institutions to adopt library services platforms primarily oriented to the management of electronic resources. Academic libraries continue to deal with print collections, but in diminished quantities, both in terms of new acquisitions and in circulation transactions.

Print Dominates Public Libraries

Public libraries still see intense interest in physical collections by their clientele. Circulation transactions of physical materials remain strong. These libraries continue to acquire and manage print collections and require automation systems rich in features to support these tasks. The ILS, tracing its heritage to the time when libraries dealt exclusively in print, has continued to evolve, gaining more sophisticated capabilities for physical materials.

Ebook-lending services have become enormously popular in public libraries. Many of their patrons enjoy reading as much on tablets and ebook readers and appreciate the downloadable digital offerings increasingly provided as a benefit of their library card. Most public libraries offer some type of service to lend ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital materials, relying on external providers such as OverDrive's service, Bibliotheca's Cloud Library, or Baker & Taylor's Axis 360. The lending of digital titles generally extends a layer of new services and does not lessen the volume of circulation transactions for print materials.

Lending print and ebooks fits reasonably well into the feature set of the ILS. Challenges include more thorough integration between external ebook-lending platforms, such as those from OverDrive, and the online catalogs and ILSs to produce a more seamless experience for patrons. In the current phase of library technology, evolved ILSs, plus enhanced discovery interfaces, have persisted as the prevailing technology infrastructure for public libraries to support lending of both print and digital materials.

Layers of Nuance

These trends of divergence among public and academic libraries are not absolute. Print will never become extinct in academic libraries, and public libraries will inevitably become increasingly more involved with electronic materials. Automation systems for both types of libraries must have capabilities for managing resources in multiple formats, with specialized functionality as needed. The distinctions in automation strategies that seem quite prominent today may converge over the longer term. Academic libraries may benefit by tapping into technologies crafted for or by public libraries to foster end-user engagement. Public libraries will likewise need more capability for managing electronic resources as their magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals shift exclusively to digital delivery.

Although public and academic libraries face different realities, they have a lot in common. Academic libraries, for example, have pioneered the path of transition from a mostly print to a mostly digital reality. While I anticipate that the proportions and priorities may differ, public libraries likewise can anticipate a future in which their collections and services veer toward digital formats. There are many staff workflows and underlying data structures related to processing and providing access to library materials that must be supported by the resource management systems used by the library. Academic libraries require functionality for managing subscription-based electronic resources and the corresponding knowledgebases. They see benefits when this capability is built in to the system, not through a separate module or application. I expect that ILSs will continue to evolve to better incorporate support for electronic resource management, including access to knowledgebases.

Technology providers that serve multiple types of libraries have a strategic interest in shoring up capacity for managing electronic resources to satisfy their academic customers. Otherwise, the academic libraries using their systems will migrate to library services platforms specifically designed for their needs. Any reasonable extensions to the model of the ILS to better support electronic resources will also benefit their public library customers. While public libraries do not manage the quantity of electronic resources as their academic colleagues do, most subscribe to at least a core set of article databases and seek better exposure of those investments. Even though electronic resources represent a small portion of a public library's collection budget, any help in managing and providing access to these materials beyond the traditional capabilities of the ILS is worthwhile.

Common Challenges in Linked Data and BIBFRAME

Another set of challenges that libraries of all types must prepare for concerns the imminent changes afoot in the fundamental metadata used to describe library collection items. The reliance on MARC standards has led to a degree of isolation within the broader universe of information systems. A powerful movement is underway now to reorient how libraries describe, manage, and expose their collections toward broadly established mechanisms such as linked data. An important part of this effort can be seen in the development of BIBFRAME, a carrier for bibliographic description based on linked data rather than on MARC 21. The Library of Congress, OCLC, Zepheira, and other organizations have been major participants in this movement.

All those providing library resource management systems and discovery services must collectively and individually develop a road map to make the crossing from a bibliographic terrain (dominated by MARC) to a landscape in which linked data is fundamental. I do not necessarily see the transition to linked data as one in which either public libraries or academic libraries are the natural pioneers. To date, there have been important projects involving public libraries to provide enhanced exposure of their collections via linked data, especially through partnerships with Zepheira. Many academic libraries have led major initiatives to create infrastructure and to operationalize BIBFRAME and other forms of linked data. The transition to BIBFRAME will be a common burden and will hopefully result in substantive benefits to all types of libraries.

Generalized Versus Specialized Systems

Today's landscape of technology providers includes an interesting mix of business and product strategies. Some specialize in a specific library type. Ex Libris Group sets its sights almost exclusively on academic and research libraries, Follett on pre-K-12 schools, and Lucidea and Soutron on corporate and other special libraries. OCLC has seen a bit more uptake of its WorldShare Management Services by midsize academics, but it has been recently chosen by a network of public libraries in Australia. Others provide their products to multiple types of libraries.

For example, SirsiDynix and Innovative have all types of libraries using their products. For both companies, their public library customers have demonstrated the highest levels of loyalty, with some attrition by academics toward specialized providers and products. A natural defense is the strengthening of their products for more robust management of electronic resources. This move to retain academic libraries can also prove to be a good offensive move for public libraries as they devote increasing portions of their collection budgets toward ebooks and other types of electronic resources.

I anticipate that at least some of the ILSs will evolve in scope of functionality and in technology infrastructure to increasingly resemble library services platforms. Libraries will require a more comprehensive approach to managing their resources across differing formats, web-based interfaces, integrated knowledgebases, and technology architectures amenable to deployment via SaaS and robust APIs. The current set of library services platforms incorporated these characters from their inception; more and more, ILSs will gain them via evolution.

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Publication Year:2016
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 36 Number 06
Issue:July - August 2016
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:22055
Last Update:2016-12-04 16:54:34
Date Created:2016-12-04 16:38:52