THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
Library Automation in a Difficult Economy
Director for Innovative Technologies and Research
Vanderbilt University Libraries
The downturn in the economy has taken its toll on libraries. Even in the best of times, most libraries have to work with budgets that are barely adequate to support their essential activities. In these recent months, the recession has subtracted significant funds from the parent organizations of many libraries: city, county, and state governments; public and private colleges and universities; schools; and corporations. In the sphere of libraries with which I’ve interacted, some have faced drastic budget cuts, including givebacks in their current fiscal cycle; others have been more lightly touched, facing only a year or so of zero-growth budgets. I’ve not heard from any libraries that expect increases in funding on the order of what they had a year ago.
I expect that this harsh economic climate will make an impact on the library automation industry and will likely force many libraries to reconsider the technology projects planned for the next year or so.
Most libraries that I’ve encountered routinely find ways to execute any given project with the lowest cost and the greatest impact possible. We’re frugal organizations used to making every dollar count. Today’s environment requires responses that go beyond even the strictest frugality, prompting a strategic reassessment of how a library allocates its resources. In this context, technology and automation may well be wise investments that help maintain the library’s mission in times of diminishing resources.
In times like these with budgets constrained more than ever, it’s necessary to take a step back to consider technology and automation issues. I don’t think that tight budgets necessarily have to mean that all new technology projects should be set aside until brighter times. It’s possible that innovative use of technology might provide the most effective way for a library to carry out its objectives with fewer overall resources. Nevertheless, routine technology projects will inevitably suffer.
Impact on the Library Automation Industry
I expect that the library automation industry will face a difficult year or two like other sectors of the economy. Many libraries must defer replacements or upgrades of their automation systems, regardless of how desperate the need. I’ve heard from a number of libraries running legacy systems that originally planned migrations for the near-term that have been forced to postpone their plans.
Economic pressure will also cause some libraries to take less-expensive automation options over alternatives that they might prefer with higher price tags. Automation vendors tend to offer steep discounts to libraries using their legacy products for their current offerings. When strapped for funding, libraries will be more likely to accept the deal from their incumbent vendor rather than solicit bids from competing companies and pay full price. I’ve received several comments from libraries indicating that they must go with the cheaper upgrade even though they are not all that satisfied with the company’s performance. In many cases, the best long-term option isn’t necessarily the cheapest in the short term. I do hope that libraries will be able to make persuasive arguments for the systems that will support their longer-term goals.
Using Technology to Offset Reductions in Other Service Areas
The economy may drive a shift in the dynamics between the library’s physical and virtual presence. Unfortunately, many libraries have been forced to close facilities and reduce hours open to the public. The decrease in the physical accessibility of the library should spark interest to improve the quality of the library’s website and to ensure that it delivers more content and services. In an environment where the library must make large savings in operations and personnel resulting in less availability of the physical facilities, a modest investment in electronic content and the technology to deliver it efficiently can help offset the loss.
We’ve witnessed the same kind of shifts in the commercial sector. Many businesses maintain both brick-and-mortar establishments as well as websites for ecommerce. The survival of the overall business often means increased reliance on ecommerce at the expense of the number of physical retail facilities. Libraries likewise can help sustain their strategic role in their communities to the extent that they can increase the impact of their services delivered through their websites. Expanding collections of electronic journals, databases, and ebooks as well as home delivery options for physical materials come to mind as options in this area.
Seeking Lower-Cost Automation Strategies
Economic pressure may also accelerate other trends that favor reduced costs for automation. Some of these trends include software as a service, consolidated automation environments, and increased use of open source software.
For each of these options, it’s important to understand the total cost of ownership over the long-term as well as any needed short-term savings. Technology projects can involve a whole cluster of direct and indirect costs that, thoroughly analyzed, can paint quite a different picture than the initial assessment.
The traditional software model involves paying an upfront fee for the software license and a maintenance fee of about 15% of that initial cost. Other major costs involved with this model include the price of the server hardware, the service plan for the hardware, as well as salary, benefits, and facilities associated with the technical personnel that administer the system. Local hosting of servers also contributes to higher utility bills for the power and cooling needed by each server.
Software as a service: Software as a service (SaaS), which we used to call application service provider (ASP), involves relying on software remotely hosted by the company that developed the application. This arrangement involves a fixed, annual subscription fee, but it saves the library the costs of purchasing software licenses, server hardware, and technical staff that would have otherwise been needed to maintain a local installation.
Vendors like SaaS since it allows them to set up large-scale implementations of their software and provide instances of it to individual customer sites at fairly low unit costs. Libraries appreciate having a predictable annual cost that encompasses the entire project. For libraries that have technical personnel available, going with SaaS for some applications can help reduce their workload and allow them to attend to higher strategic priorities. For smaller libraries that may not already have staff members with technical skills on board, SaaS may be the only way to move forward with automation projects since the cost of hiring technology personnel may be prohibitive.
SaaS blurs some of the factors that otherwise characterize open source and proprietary systems. Since all technical tasks, such as installation, configuration, customization, and upgrades, are performed by the vendor, the library is not obligated to devote its own technical staff to these tasks.
Large-scale shared automation implementations: The highest-cost approach to library automation involves that of a single stand-alone system in a library. In this scenario, a single library bears the entire cost of the software, hardware, facilities, and personnel involved. It stands to reason that sharing an automation system among multiple libraries results in lower costs for each participant.
One of the trends that I’ve noticed over the years involves ever-larger groups of libraries sharing an automation system. I addressed this topic in my column in the January issue of CIL. From the earliest days of library automation, it’s been routine for all the branches of a given library organization to share a system. Sharing systems across libraries through a consortium, however, introduces complications, mostly of the political variety. There’s constant tension between the benefits of sharing and issues involving the independence of the participating libraries, yet consortia continue to be vital organizations for helping libraries share resources and reduce automation costs. Many regional and statewide automation efforts have been established, and many new ones are under consideration.
Beyond the cost savings offered through large-scale shared automation systems, I especially appreciate the increased body of resources made available to library users. An individual library cannot hope to acquire the pool of material that can be made available to its users through consortial, regional, or statewide collaborative efforts. Libraries that are considering implementing or upgrading a stand-alone automation system may find that joining in with a shared system is particularly attractive in times of lean budgets.
Open source library automation software: As financial pressures mount, libraries will explore every possible option for reducing their costs while maintaining adequate levels of service. Even before the economy fell, many libraries had been attracted to open source as an alternative to the traditional software licensing model. Products such as Evergreen, Koha, and OPALS have found increasing adoption and have seen rapid growth in features. The absence of license fees provides some opportunity for libraries to enjoy some savings in overall costs. However, it’s important to calculate all the other direct and indirect expenses to ensure that the overall long-term costs represent a good value relative to the quality of the software. While open source eliminates the fees associated with software licenses, most libraries that have gone this direction have done so with paid support to a commercial company offering support services. It’s possible to implement an open source library automation environment without the use of paid support services if the library already has personnel on staff with the prerequisite technical skills.
Depending on the implementation scenario, the use of open source software does not necessarily imply the need for more in-library technical personnel than that needed for proprietary products. Especially in the case of SaaS or large-scale shared systems, the technical support burden lies more on the organization hosting the application than on the individual libraries that make use of the system.
It’s stating the obvious that in times of limited budgets, libraries have to consider all the technology initiatives, set priorities, and make tough decisions about what can and cannot be accomplished. This is a time when only the best-of-the-best technology projects find a good chance of winning approval and funding. Technology initiatives that demonstrate that they can result in overall savings to the library, that produce offsetting income, or that deliver compelling services are worth championing, especially for libraries looking to reduce the impact of budget cutbacks.
Hard times can fuel innovation. With flush budgets, many technology projects go forward that help the library keep its infrastructure up-to-date and stay on par with its peers. While I think that it’s important for libraries to maintain current hardware and software infrastructure, acquiring and installing off-the-shelf software applications doesn’t extend the state of the art or posit new methodologies that might be of use to other libraries. Faced with diminishing financial resources, an organization may find itself more able to look beyond the standard tried-and-true technology tools and practices to produce creative solutions that it otherwise would not have considered.
It seems inevitable that the downturn in the broad economy will have a negative impact on the library automation industry and will cause setbacks in the progress of automation in many libraries. We can only hope that it sparks some pockets of innovation and helps us break out of some of the traditional approaches to library automation that belong more to the libraries of the past than of the future.