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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2018

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Vol. 38 No. 3 — April 2018
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN

What is ERM? Electronic Resource Management Strategies in Academic Libraries
by Marshall Breeding

As academic libraries made a nearly complete shift from print to ejournals, they faced incredible challenges to manage them efficiently.

[This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Computers in Libraries under the title "ERM Strategies in Academic Libraries: Historical Evolution and Current Context."]

Libraries of all types have seen substantially greater involvement with content delivered in digital formats during the last decades. Both popular reading and scholarly literature have had substantial transformations in the way that materials are produced and distributed. These transformations differ among the different publishing sectors. The scholarly resources have seen an almost universal transition to electronic publishing, while popular reading, arts, and literature continue to be distributed primarily in print—although ebooks and audiobooks represent additional channels of distribution. 

These differences across publishing domains mean that each type of library may need its own specialized systems for managing print and electronic resources. Today, public libraries continue to deal with acquiring print collections, supplemented by digital lending services for ebooks and audiobooks. Academic and research libraries have seen dramatic declines in their new acquisitions of print materials and expend the vast majority of their collection funds on subscriptions to electronic scholarly and professional journals, aggregated databases, or other electronic resources.  

The transition of scholarly literature to electronic formats has had a profound effect on the tools and technologies that academic libraries require to manage and provide access to their collections. During the history of library automation, academic libraries have passed through multiple phases, beginning with ILSs, which emerged to manage print collections. As scholarly publishing shifted to more electronic formats, specialized systems were developed for electronic resource management (ERM). Most recently, library services platforms entered the scene, designed with a more holistic approach to managing complex multi-format collections.

ILSs: Focus on Print Management

The earliest phase of library automation saw the creation of systems that were able to help libraries manage the often repetitive and rote tasks involved in book lending. Subsequently, other systems were developed to help libraries catalog their materials and automate the business process related to acquisitions. These products coalesced in the late 1970s and early 1980s into the concept of the ILS, with modules for circulation, cataloging, acquisitions, and a public catalog all sharing a core set of databases. This model of library automation has endured and remains in place today, although it now coexists with other types of systems following alternative conceptual designs.

The hard-cast model of the ILS lacked the flexibility to accommodate new formats of materials requiring substantially different business processes for acquisition, description, and access. The data structures and task workflows built into these systems were optimized for the purchase of materials and were not easily extended to handle the cycle of licensing associated with electronic resources.

Transition to  Electronic Publishing

Beginning in the late 1990s, academic libraries saw dramatic changes as ejournals became the dominant format. Today, most large academic libraries devote most of their collection funds to subscriptions to electronic content products. But they needed new tools to manage these collections beyond the capabilities of their ILSs. In its initial phase, ERM was accomplished through informal lists, spreadsheets, and databases. Specialized tools and knowledgebases emerged to provide finding aids and enable more reliable linking. Several organizations then developed standalone ERM systems. More recently, library services platforms have addressed both print and electronic formats through a more unified approach to resource management.  

Early Phases of ERM    

Finding Aids and Knowledgebases

One of the first problems addressed involved providing ways for library patrons to know what ejournal titles were available from the library. In addition to ejournal titles acquired individually, content products were available that included aggregations of dozens or hundreds of titles. Initially, many academic libraries created static webpages that simply listed them. This approach proved to be not scalable, leading to database-driven products that were able to provide alphabetical lists of ejournals with search features.  

Manual creation of finding aids for the growing body of electronic resources eventually led to a model of tracking the packages based on a knowledgebase. Rather than each library creating listings of every ejournal held within an aggregated package, an organization would generate and maintain this data. One of the earliest efforts of producing tools based on a knowledgebase was by Serials Solutions, which was founded in March 2000. The Serials Solutions KnowledgeWorks knowledgebase powered an A–Z listing of ejournals available through a library, based on its profile of subscriptions. This knowledgebase became a launching pad for a number of other related applications and tools.

The concept of the knowledgebase has been central to almost all aspects of ERM. The body of content available in the scholarly and professional publishing arena is too vast for any individual library to track, but is finite enough for an organization with sophisticated technical tools and a team of experts to create and maintain. An e-resource knowledgebase would be populated with data received from publishers delineating every ejournal title covered within each aggregated content product and the specific years and issues available. These content products are in constant flux, with new titles added and others dropped as arrangements with publishers and other content producers change. Data provided by the publishers may not be accurate, complete, or consistent, so additional empirical work must take place to align the knowledgebase with the content available in any given aggregation. Librarians using products based on the knowledgebase may become aware of errors, which are then reported to the provider and hopefully reconciled.  

The knowledgebase describes the totality of material available in the scholarly publishing arena that is of interest to libraries. Practical use of a knowledgebase requires a configuration process in which the library activates the specific content packages and portfolios it subscribes to. Once profiled in this way, finding aids, discovery services, link resolvers, or ERM systems can operate with awareness of the many thousands of ejournal titles available to the library based on dozens to a few hundred portfolio activations. This portfolio-based process has resulted in significant efficiency for ERM relative to a process of each library managing each ejournal title individually.

OpenURL Link Resolvers

One of the key problems that emerged as libraries entered the realm of providing access to electronic resources through their websites was creating reliable links to ejournal titles and to the full text of articles. As the body of electronic resources increased in scale, encoding links as static URLs proved unsustainable. Not only was the volume of work beyond what could be accomplished manually, the links changed frequently, both through internal changes that might happen within a publisher’s platform and via libraries making changes in the content packages to which they might subscribe. Context-sensitive link resolvers and the OpenURL standard emerged as a more sustainable approach to providing access to electronic resources. A new genre of link resolver products were developed that created links dynamically, based on metadata passed through an OpenURL and relying on a knowledgebase to connect finding aids or citations to the version of the resource available to a patron through his or her library’s portfolio of subscriptions.  

The idea of context-sensitive link resolvers originated at the University of Ghent in Belgium based on the research of Herbert Van de Sompel. The system was called SFX, and Ex Libris Group acquired it from the university, advanced its development, and offered it as a commercial product. The company marketed SFX to the general academic library realm, expanding its customer base beyond those using its Aleph ILS. SFX sparked broader interest in context-sensitive linking. Other companies also developed link resolvers (Endeavor with its LinkFinderPlus, launched in 2001; Openly Informatics produced related products, including Link.Openly and Link Baton; and Serials Solutions created 360 Link, which was previously known as Article Linker).  

Today, link resolvers are rarely purchased as independent products, although they remain in widespread use by libraries that had purchased them previously. Library services platforms such as Alma and WorldShare Management Services include built-in link-resolution features. Discovery services may include integrated OpenURL-based link resolvers and some type of smart-linking technology, which performs dynamic linking that is predicated on proprietary techniques based on predictive data available in the product’s central index and knowledgebase and the library’s profile of subscriptions.  

Emergence of ERM Systems

As academic libraries made a nearly complete shift from print to ejournals, they faced incredible challenges to manage them efficiently. The business processes for managing subscriptions differ considerably from those of purchasing print materials, and the ILSs do not necessarily adapt well to other formats. Some of the key aspects of managing these subscriptions are recording license terms, renewal cycles, link resolution, and authentication details. The lifecycle of an electronic resource routinely begins with a trial subscription, requiring an initial activation of the resource, then a negotiation of a license, recording those license terms, collecting and analyzing use statistics for the life of the subscription, and decision support for renewals or cancelations.  

The business logic and data models needed for these processes were absent from the ILS and led to a new genre of specialized ERM systems. These products began to emerge in the early to mid-2000s and included Gold Rush from the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (2001), Electronic Resource Management from Innovative (June 2002), Verde from Ex Libris (June 2004), Meridian from Endeavor Information Systems (2005), 360 Resource Manager (formerly ERMS) from Serials Solutions (October 2005), and EBSCONET ERM Essentials from EBSCO (2010). In most cases, these products were part of a suite of components that also included an e-resource knowledgebase, a link resolver, and finding aids for library patrons.

ERM products handle a variety of data types, which need to be managed in a consistent way for libraries to develop common practices and to provide some portability of data should a library need to change systems or interoperate with its ILS or other business applications. In about 2002, the Digital Library Federation convened a workshop that led to the articulation of the Electronic Resource Management Initiative (ERMI). This defined a data model specifying a set of elements that libraries expected to be supported in systems managing these resources. ERMI offered a comprehensive set of data fields, which resulted in a high level of complexity in the systems that fully implemented its data model. In addition to the proprietary ERM systems, a small number of open source alternatives were created. These included CUFTS (developed at Simon Fraser University; SFU) and Coral (created at the University of Notre Dame; see coral-erm.org).  

CUFTS and its GODOT knowledgebase were implemented by a few dozen academic institutions beyond SFU’s libraries. The products were made available with minimal cost and included updates to the knowledgebase made mostly by the librarians at SFU, although others also contributed. The involvement of SFU with CUFTS largely ended when the library implemented Alma from Ex Libris. Other organizations have continued to maintain its knowledgebase and software, although with limited resources.  

Coral stands out as the open source ERM system with the highest level of ongoing development. In addition to its use by individual academic libraries, SirsiDynix has incorporated Coral as a component of its BLUEcloud Campus suite and contributes to its development. Work is underway to strengthen the interoperability between Coral and Koha in order to create more efficient workflows and eliminate redundant data entry for libraries that use both products. Virginia Tech, for example, recently selected Koha and Coral with support from ByWater Solutions to provide an integrated technology suite for the management of print and electronic resources.  

The genre of ERM systems was not entirely successful. Only a few hundred libraries implemented these systems, compared to the tens of thousands of academic libraries using ILSs. Most libraries continued to use informal tools to manage the licenses and other aspects of their electronic resources. The early products were complex to operate and involved significant redundancy of data, which also needed to be manually entered in multiple platforms.  

The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) attempted to address the interoperability between ILSs and ERM systems through its Cost of Resource Exchange Protocol (CORE; niso.org/standards-committees/core-cost-resource-exchange), published as a recommended practice in August 2010. According the NISO press release, “This Recommended Practice defines an XML schema to facilitate the exchange of financial information related to the acquisition of library resources between systems, such as an ILS and an ERMS.” Despite the inefficiencies that many academic libraries faced in managing their print and electronic resources, there were few, if any, implementations of this recommended practice to achieve interoperability between ILS and ERM products. Using standalone applications to separately manage print and electronic resources proved ineffective, and the attempts to create interoperability between them were not particularly successful.

The lackluster cycle of ERM systems, despite obvious need, could be attributed to multiple factors. Not only were the systems cumbersome, but the fragmented processes for separate tools for managing print and electronic resources were challenging. In many academic libraries, a larger team of staff members worked with the ILS to manage print resources, and a smaller group specialized in electronic resources, working either with local spreadsheets and databases or an ERM system. This bicameral model perpetuated an imbalance in which the involvement of library personnel was out of sync relative to the financial expenditures across media types.  

Library Services Platforms: Resource Management for All Collection Formats

In response to the cumbersome approach of using standalone products to manage print and electronic formats, a new genre of software emerged that offered a new conceptual model. These new library services platforms were designed to manage all aspects of electronic and print resources within the same system. They included built-in knowledgebases and support for workflows able to handle all the tasks associated with each format of material. Initially deployed to support electronic and print materials, these new products were intended to be flexible and able to manage digital collections or other types of metadata structures or content formats to accommodate future needs. They are created with current technologies and architectures, including deployment via multi-tenant platforms, hosting on distributed cloud infrastructure, and web-based interfaces for staffers and patron functions.  

The genre of library services platforms, launched in about 2010, so far includes only a handful of products and projects. Not all of the projects have been successful. Alma and OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services were both completed after multiyear development efforts and have seen widespread implementation in academic libraries. ProQuest began the development of Intota, which was not finished. The Kuali OLE project to create an open source library services platform was not successful. A project to develop FOLIO as an open source library services platform is currently underway. Although there are significant differences among the conceptual design, functionality, and structure of each product or project, they exhibit most of the core characteristics of the library services platform.  

Alma has become the leading product in this category, with widespread adoption especially among larger academic libraries and consortia. The company designed the product to embody the concept of “unified resource management,” providing workflow support for all types of library materials with appropriate metadata structures and business processes. Ex Libris had previously developed Primo, offering similar capabilities for unified discovery and delivery across print, electronic, and digital content. Alma has been implemented by about 1,000 academic libraries and consortia, including some of the largest and most complex institutions. It has become established as the dominant product for new selections for academic institutions as they move away from traditional ILSs. Interest in Alma spans almost all global regions. With Alma well-established, Ex Libris has subsequently launched several other products, extending its platform to address other areas of library activities. These products include the Leganto list management application and Esploro for the management of research services in the broader university context. Most Alma implementations use Primo.

OCLC launched its WorldShare Management Services in a similar time frame, with libraries beginning to implement it in about 2011. WorldShare Management Services was created on the concept of expanding the WorldCat bibliographic database as the foundation for all resource management activities. OCLC developed it as an entirely new software application and deployed it through a new multi-tenant platform. WorldShare License Manager was created as optional functionality to support managing subscriptions to electronic resources. Although positioned as an optional service, WorldShare Management Services and WorldShare License Manager were designed to work together to provide a unified set of workflows spanning electronic and print formats. WorldShare Management Services has been implemented by about 500 libraries, with midsize academic libraries representing the largest portion. It has also been adopted by some large academic libraries.

The open source FOLIO initiative aims to develop an open source library services platform following the microservices architecture. The project is backed by EBSCO Information Services, which has contributed funding, technical expertise, and other resources. Index Data has been engaged with the project and developed its core infrastructure. The Open Library Environment was originally involved in creating its own software, Kuali OLE, but has shifted to involvement with and support of FOLIO. A wide range of software development organizations and libraries is currently involved in the design and development of FOLIO. The project has completed many of its benchmarks. According to its current timetables, at least some pilot libraries are expected to begin using the software in late 2018 or 2019.    

The Current State of ERM

Today, no single approach to the management of electronic resources prevails. The genre of library services platforms that offer combined capabilities for managing print and electronic resources has gained considerable acceptance in academic libraries and continues to attract large numbers of academic and research libraries. A cadre of libraries has engaged with the FOLIO initiative, which likewise is designed to follow a unified approach to print and ERM, but in a more modular style and on a platform created as open source software.  

The unified model of the library services platform, although dominant and gaining momentum, cannot be considered universal among academic libraries. A large proportion of academic libraries continues to operate traditional ILSs and manage electronic resources through other means. Many of these libraries may just be in a later phase of moving to library services platforms. At least some portion of academic libraries may be interested in remaining with their ILSs and continuing to use standalone ERM products, anticipating new ways for them to work together more efficiently.

ERM has an interesting history, passing through phases of informal tools, to standalone systems, to unified platforms. It will be interesting to observe how these tools evolve and if they are able to deliver new levels of efficiency in management or more effective means of discovery and access for library users. As libraries of all types see involvement of increasing proportions with electronic and digital formats, technologies and services initially developed for academic libraries may inform products and services created to serve other types of libraries.

Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.