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Moving Forward, Letting Go

Computers in Libraries [May 2017]

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Copyright (c) 2017 Information Today

Abstract: I have been fortunate to have opportunities to work with almost all aspects of technology used by libraries. One of my main areas of interest is helping libraries identify and implement the technologies that are most able to help them succeed in their strategic missions and to perform their daily work more effectively. In that context, I have come to see technologies as falling into a spectrum of innovation, ranging from those with a cutting-edge flavor to those that are well-established with proven capabilities. Although I have always enjoyed learning about and working with new tech gadgets and services, my work with libraries has been mostly about the larger-scale strategic systems that are mostly at the other end of the spectrum.


Libraries strive to be current and relevant in the ways they serve their communities. At the same time, we hold fast to certain values and well-established ways of accomplishing our work. These two tendencies exist in tension and define many of the struggles libraries face in their organizations.

The technology products supporting library operations are often caught in the dynamics of these opposing tangents. The technologies and standards involved in the management of library collections have been shaped by a rich history, each stage of which has led to better cooperation and more efficiency. The key events and concepts have been cast in the mold shaped by the possibilities and limits of the technology available in that period. The history seemed to advance in slow, incremental steps. More recently, the pace has accelerated dramatically, driven by the rapid cycles of change in society and technology. The time has come when incremental advances must give way to a more thorough reorganization of technical infrastructure in order for libraries to advance their role in society and within their communities.

Libraries will venture into the future, balancing opposing tendencies to hold fast to certain well-established principles and practices while embracing new channels of innovation. The technology-based systems that support libraries likewise exist in the context of this same tension, supporting appropriate aspects of long-standing practice and standards as well as enabling libraries to be agile and meet fast-changing expectations.

Past as Prologue

ILSs have stood for several decades as the essential infrastructure to support the backroom operations of the library. These products were created to take advantage of computers to automate the routine library tasks that were much less effective when performed manually. The early automation systems enabled libraries to more efficiently describe and control their collections, and they also provided library patrons with much more powerful tools to locate materials. The nature of library collections, the workflows for resource management, and the expectations for end-user services have changed fundamentally since the conceptual model of the ILS was formulated. Moving forward in the realm of library automation means rethinking some of the basic characteristics of legacy systems. The quest for technology infrastructure that's more responsive to current realities can be seen in the launch of library services platforms as a new model of automation as well as more aggressive evolution of existing ILSs.

Libraries have produced a variety of standards to facilitate efficiency and collaboration. They include protocols and metadata formats, supporting consistent procedures and task workflows within the library community. The MARC formats, for example, enabled libraries to exchange bibliographic records with each other to facilitate cataloging and to create union catalogs, optimized to conserve disk storage and data communications links that were extremely constrained and expensive. Z39.50 was developed as a standard mechanism for the exchange of MARC records. The concept of copy cataloging, in which libraries collectively avoid redundant work by downloading an existing record rather than creating a new one, became the foundation of the bibliographic ecosystem. The elements that comprise bibliographic records, holdings statements, acquisitions processes, and almost all other aspects of technical services became largely homogenized among libraries worldwide. This standardization of record formats and in processing details engendered cooperation, which has been of great benefit to the global library community.

Today's Reality

Fast-forward to the present, and many of the assumptions from which metadata standards and processing workflows emerged have changed drastically. These changes are driven by new possibilities with technology as well as increased expectations for cooperation among libraries.

The limitations of storage that shaped the definitions of the MARC record formats have evaporated entirely. The dense and obscure syntax of the MARC communications format was designed to store bibliographic records with great economy of space in an era when disks were expensive. Today's incredibly lowcost storage means that metadata standards can be transmitted in less-compact formats, which are much more easily understood by humans and can include more extensive descriptive information, as well as the full text, images, or other literal representations of the item. Not only do storage concerns no longer apply, but there are other options for libraries aside from a self-contained bibliographic ecosystem.

Libraries increasingly benefit from a deeper participation in the information ecosystem of the web. The MARC record formats, the Z39.50 and related communications protocols, and other library-specific standards have enabled incredible advances in efficiency and cooperation among libraries, but they have also reinforced a self-enclosed ecosystem. Our library standards are not understood or implemented by any other type of organization across the broader information arena. While the need to support library standards is important for internal processes, we also need to adopt technologies and standards consistent with the broader web for our externalfacing processes and services.

Libraries hold strong commitments to create and maintain high-quality metadata within our own systems. Robust and consistent metadata is essential for efficient management of resources and for sophisticated discovery and access services. Creating metadata at the highest level of quality and completeness for every item within a collection can overwhelm a library's capacity. Libraries often face difficult decisions regarding settling for lighter-weight metadata to provide at least limited access to some categories of materials versus providing a complete description for a subset of their collections. With increasing proportions of digital and electronic materials comprising library collections, it is essential to implement highly scaleable processes for metadata creation and resource management.

Projecting Forward

To strengthen their relevance to their communities, libraries need to be wellrepresented on the web. While some library users come to our sites and make use of the interfaces and search tools we provide, most perform their research with Google and other search engines. It is essential for library resources to be prominent in those search results. Adopting linked data as the basis of bibliographic description makes progress toward the diffusion of library content on the web. BIBFRAME has the potential to dramatically improve the relevancy of libraries through a better integration with the broader web. Embedding Schema.org structured data on library-provided resource pages will also improve search engine indexing and search performance. Library metadata strategies must target use beyond the systems and platforms we directly control. Eventually shifting from libraryspecific to broader web standards seems to be a promising approach to increase the visibility of library content and services. The transition, however, will also be incredibly expensive and difficult. In the realm of metadata, moving forward may mean eventually letting go of longstanding and cherished formats that have become the basis of the craftof cataloging and metadata management.

No single path can be seen as the way forward for all libraries with regard to technology and metadata. Each type of library faces its own distinctive set of challenges. Within the context of some trends that seem to prevail across the broader community, each library has to make its own difficult decisions regarding the practices and technologies it has adopted in the past that it must let go of as it moves forward to fulfill its changing expectations.

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Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 04
Issue:May 2017
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:23094
Last Update:2017-12-08 11:59:30
Date Created:2017-12-08 11:41:13