THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
Library Technology Forecast for 2014 and Beyond
by Marshall Breeding
Libraries continue to face enormous challenges as they continue to deal with woefully inadequate budgets at the same time that almost every aspect of their work has become more complex. In these times when search engines, social networks, and ecommerce sites set an almost unreachable bar for user experience and breadth of content, libraries have to make extraordinary efforts to impress their patrons with the information resources and services that they offer on the web while remaining true to core library values. Thus, the stage is set. I’ll discuss some of the trends that I see playing out on the library technology front as we look ahead for the next couple of years.
|While the pace of development never seems to move quickly enough to keep up with technology, the toolkit available to today’s libraries offers more powerful capabilities than at any time in the past.
Uptick in Strategic Cooperation
Libraries will pursue new opportunities for strategic cooperation to help strengthen their impact on their communities. Libraries have a long tradition of partnering with their peers to gain leverage beyond what is possible as an independent, isolated library. The concept of resource sharing and joint library automation or discovery infrastructure isn’t new. Libraries are naturally collaborative organizations, continually seeking to provide access to materials beyond their local collections on behalf of their patrons.
I expect the trend toward participation in larger implementations of library automation infrastructure to continue and accelerate. This year saw the launch of a shared ILS for the largest consortium in North America, that of the Illinois Heartland Library System, serving more than 427 libraries. Strategies for shared national automation infrastructure are underway for the public libraries in Northern Ireland, for most public libraries in Denmark, and for academic libraries in Scotland and Wales. These are just a few examples of a new wave of strategic cooperation.
Sharing automation infrastructure promises to lower technology costs per participating library and to increase the resources available to their patrons. The limitations of scale, particularly at the level of hardware and software, have evaporated, allowing libraries to work through the more challenging obstacles related to politics and policy as they shape their collaborative strategies. Highly shared systems may involve compromises in functionality, where large numbers of libraries must agree on such things as cataloging conventions, circulation policies, and other operational details. The implementation of an automation system for a single library enables a library to configure it to meet its local preferences, but the options for discovery and access to a b roader universe of resources may be more complex. I think that the concept of built-in resource sharing inherent in large-scale shared infrastructure is beginning to eclipse the model of accomplishing resource sharing through add-on mechanisms such as union catalogs and direct consortial borrowing systems.
In addition to the expansive implementation of conventional ILS products, some of the offerings in the new genre of library services platforms are inherently oriented toward resource sharing. OCLC WorldShare Management Services, for example, plugs libraries directly into its global infrastructure, leveraging the massive WorldCat database to expand the scope of discovery and to enable efficient collection management. Ex Libris Alma likewise provides inherent capabilities for shared automation, based on a hybrid architecture for data that includes both community and local zones.
As a consequence of the trend toward shared infrastructure, the next few years will see continued erosion of the concept of libraries automating independently, each maintaining physically separate bibliographic and holdings databases. Increased participation in regional, statewide, or national automation projects translates into fewer ILS implementations, with a higher number of libraries participating in each on average. Most library consortia will continue to expand by adding new members, possibly with faster growth rates in the future than they have seen in the past due to the increasing obsolescence of some of the PC-based automation systems currently used by many small libraries. Those libraries automating for the first time will find a great advantage in joining a shared system rather than tackling an independent implementation.
No trends are absolute. Some libraries will exit from consortia, usually out of frustration with the politics of the organization or dissatisfaction with the value of the services they receive. If consortia cannot deliver higher-quality services for lower costs relative to independent implementations, their members will not be motivated to remain within the fold. But in balance, I expect to see a net expansion and consolidation among library consortia and decreased fragmentation.
Libraries are primed for increased collaboration, both organizationally and in technology. If the pioneering projects currently underway (such as the shared infrastructure for the 37 colleges and universities of the Orbis Cascade Alliance and the 2CUL initiative between Cornell University Library and Columbia University Libraries for collaborative technical services and collection management, as well as the regional and national shared automation implementations) are deemed successful, I would anticipate a surge of collaborative projects to follow for years to come.
Library Services Platforms and Discovery Services
Following intense development over the last 4 or 5 years, a number of new-generation library services platforms (including Ex Libris Alma, Sierra from Innovative Interfaces, and OCLC WorldShare Management Services) are in full marketing mode, with Intota from ProQuest and the open source Kuali OLE project in final development phase. Especially in the academic library sector, the next few years will see large numbers making the transition from legacy products to one of these new library services platforms. In most cases, the implementation of the library services platform will be packaged with a discovery component from the same provider, and in most cases, these implementations will also displace existing link resolvers, electronic resource management systems, and other automation components. For better or worse, the next phase of automation will tend to favor strategic partnership with technology providers for a more comprehensive product suite rather than libraries working with multiple vendors. This trend will not be absolute; some libraries will opt for a mix-and-match approach, made possible through the robust APIs inherent in these new products.
Ebook lending continues to be a critical concern, especially for public libraries. As ebooks see increasing use in society, it becomes vital for libraries to incorporate them into their reference and lending collections. But many obstacles complicate library involvement in ebooks, including uncertainties in the business arena. Many publishers are not willing to offer all their titles to libraries, often imposing restrictions on lending, such as a limited duration of access or the number of times a title can be lent. The technical mechanisms involved in lending ebooks have also been cumbersome.
While those with more insight into the publishing industry may be able to predict whether libraries will benefit from more liberal access to ebooks in the future, I see incredible progress on the technical front, resulting in dramatically easier ways for library patrons to borrow ebooks from their libraries. Several early partnerships have resulted in development work to fully integrate ebook lending into the online catalog and discovery products, including Polaris Library Systems working with 3M Cloud Library; BiblioCommons’ work with Boston Public Library, The New York Public Library, and The Seattle Public Library to integrate OverDrive’s ebook lending services; and SirsiDynix’s work to create eResource Central, which is designed to manage ebook and other electronic content from multiple providers. These technology integration projects aim to provide all aspects of ebook discovery and lending through the same interface library patrons use for other materials. Specific features include listing ebooks among other materials in search results, with services available for patrons to select an item to borrow; to download it into their e-reading devices; to request a hold on titles currently charged to other users; and to see ebook checkouts within their library accounts. Such an integrated approach also allows the library to acquire materials from multiple ebook lending services or providers. Libraries have articulated their expectations that ebooks be fully integrated into their patron services through the ReadersFirst initiative (readersfirst.org).
In the next year, I anticipate significant progress in online catalog and discovery products. Ebook integration has advanced into the must-have category of features for any online catalog or discovery product oriented to public libraries. The ability to implement this feature depends on the availability of APIs exposed by the ebook lending services. OverDrive, the dominant provider in the library ebook arena, has been gradually rolling out these APIs, with the critical set that enables external interfaces to complete a loan transaction released in recent months. More recently launched ebook lending services included APIs in their initial design. Going forward, any ebook lending service will be expected to expose a robust set of APIs, and any patron-facing interface employed by public libraries will be expected to make use of those APIs.
The current situation in this environment has proven to be complicated. Each of the ebook lending providers follows a different approach in the way they construct their APIs. I think that one of the next crucial steps in this arena would involve a coalescence of ebook discovery and lending APIs into more consistent and unified implementations, reducing the complexity currently involved among the increasing matrix of partners, each striving toward a common goal of improved ebook integration into library services.
Models of Development and Innovation
Libraries will continue to explore a diverse array of technology strategies, including those based on software created under open source and commercial licenses. Some libraries feel open source software is more consistent with library values, and they will actively avoid commercially licensed products. But the majority of libraries select technology products according to their relative merits of conceptual design, functional capabilities, quality of support, and many other factors. Many open source products have become quite competitive on their own merits. The top tier of organizations offering commercially licensed software (including OCLC, Ex Libris Group, Innovative Interfaces, Polaris, and Follett Corp.) have development resources that significantly exceed those of the open source projects. Unless the scales of development capacity tip the other way in the future, I anticipate that commercially licensed library automation products will continue to dominate in the short term and that those based on open source will represent a growing minority of deployed systems in the developed world. In Latin America and other developing regions, open source is positioned to become the dominant model for library automation.
It is important for libraries to keep a close eye on the technology trends in the broader consumer arena. We in libraries need to be tuned into the technology habits of each slice of the demographics that use our services and do as much as possible to anticipate the next wave. To remain relevant, libraries must shape the way they deliver their services to accommodate each new wave of technology that captures the imagination of society. Early exploration of these trends is important lest developments come into the library sphere so late that important opportunities are missed.
In recent years, for example, libraries have been working to incorporate elements of social networking into their services and to better support mobile devices. In these areas, it seems as if libraries have been a bit slow on the uptake. Many library products now include some social features, and many patron-oriented products now have versions for mobile devices. However, they were developed more in a catch-up mode than delivering these capabilities at the time of rising and peak interest. Overall, it seems to me that libraries are not fully prepared for the reality that—as of this year—the majority of many key internet destinations originates from mobile devices rather than laptops or desktop computers. While the same device demographics may not apply to libraries as they do for the commercial sphere, I hope to see a redoubled effort for library services to more fully embrace mobile and social technologies.
New technologies emerge continually, challenging libraries to anticipate which merit strategic attention. A healthy amount of experimentation can usually help libraries sort out those technologies that might help strengthen their services and which may be prove to be gimmicky diversions. 3D printing has gathered considerable attention in the library arena, with many including these devices within their services for promoting patron creativity and collaboration. I see the trend toward libraries offering “makerspaces” as an excellent proving ground to help libraries gain experience with new technologies early on so that they can incorporate the right ones into their strategic infrastructure more proactively.
Libraries have a tremendous stake in what happens among the organizations that develop and support their strategic technology products and services. Given the operational reliance and financial investments that libraries make in these products, I consider it important to cultivate a good understanding of these organizations and to try to anticipate changes ahead.
In the big picture, the library technology industry has been quite stable in recent years. All of the major orga nizations remain economically healthy with ongoing investments in research and development toward enhancing their current or next-generation products and services. Below the top tier of large corporations, many smaller compan ies, many of which have been in business for multiple decades, likewise remain in a very steady position.
Almost every year, however, at least some changes take place in the global library technology industry. Most of the business transactions in recent years have involved private equity companies investing, gaining ownership either from their original founders (such as the case with Innovative Interfaces) or from other private equity investors (as seen in Golden Gate Capital’s acquisition of Ex Libris Group from Leeds Equity Partners). The business transitions beginning in the 1990s have resulted in an industry significantly more consolidated than its previous state of fragmentation where a large number of companies with overlapping products competed within a relatively limited economic niche.
The possibility for additional changes in corporate ownership, including additional rounds of consolidation, contin ues. 2012 saw only a bit of consolidation, primarily on the European front, with OCLC acquiring the Dutch ILS vendor Huijsmans en Kuijpers Automatisering BV (HKA) and Axiell Group purchasing Adlib Information Systems, a global provider of archival management systems. T he current vendor landscape seems quite consolidated relative to the 1990s, but I can still see the possibility that some of the larger corporations may make additional acquisitions or that some midtier companies might make strategic alliances. Given the relatively constant levels of activity over the last decade, it would be surprising not to see one or more business transitions in the next year or two.
I remain optimistic that the cumulative impact of these trends will contribute to the overall success of libraries. While the pace of development never seems to move quickly enough to keep up with technology, the toolkit available to today’s libraries offers more powerful capabilities than at any time in the past. Given the rapid pace of today’s technologically driven society, libraries will do well to move quickly to implement their best choic es of these tech tools to help advance their strategic missions.