THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
10 Core Principles for Assessing Library Technologies
by Marshall Breeding
Libraries, similar to most organizations today, rely on technology to sustain almost every aspect of their work. The quality and cohesion of the technology selected and implemented by a library can have a major impact on the success of the organization. Technology has great potential to propel the work of a library, but it can also be a point of frustration and impede progress. It is important to take a strategic approach that considers principles aligned with library values. Libraries benefit from such a strategic approach to build a robust and stable technical infrastructure to support their work rather than being driven by fleeting technology trends that may ultimately detract from organizational priorities.
|No simple formula can ensure the creation of an effective technology framework, although consideration of a set of core principles can help guide the process.
A complex assortment of technology components is necessary to support library workers and library patrons with their complex array of tasks, activities, and services. Libraries are diverse and complex. The technologies they employ vary widely according to the size, type, and complexity of the organization. Smaller libraries may need only a few basics. Large libraries will require an extensive portfolio of technology to support a more sophisticated set of business processes and patron services.
The technical infrastructure for any given library must continually evolve in step with changes in the organization and with the changing cycles of technology. New technology components address emerging needs, while other components must be replaced as their technology underpinnings become obsolete or to accommodate changing requirements and workflows. Libraries should not be reluctant to phase out technologies that are no longer needed. The overall technical infrastructure of the library benefits from this churn, as modern and interoperable components displace legacy components that are less able to adapt to current expectations. With each change, the library should work toward a systematic infrastructure that’s able to function more as an organic whole than as an assortment of standalone components.
A library’s technology portfolio requires periodic assessment. Do all of the components work together to form a well-organized system, or are they an assembly of separate, self-sufficient, and independent islands? Tools selected to support a new project or departmental activity often take on a life of their own and may not necessarily work well with the technology infrastructure established for the broader organizations. Is the library taking advantage of all possible integration opportunities to provide efficient workflows and eliminate redundant tasks? Are the interfaces presented to library users optimized to deliver the best user experience and streamlined pathways?
No simple formula can ensure the creation of an effective technology framework, although consideration of a set of core principles can help guide the process. Incorporating the following 10 principles into the process of acquiring or developing new technologies can help ensure a robust and reliable technical infrastructure that’s able to effectively support the library’s internal work and patron services.
Any technology component must support the strategic mission of the library, directly or indirectly. Strategy and operational needs should drive the selection of technical components and never the other way around. It is important for any new applications to embody the conceptual framework of current library trends and the vision of the particular library. Broad trends that play out within each library sector and in related fields (such as higher education, scholarly publishing, or public policy) must be addressed by the technology platforms adopted by libraries. It is essential, for example, to deploy technologies that are able to manage the complex transitions in flux among print, e-resources, and digital media, as well as the complex interplay of business models for acquiring content—including permanent purchases, periodic subscriptions, and OA. This strategic approach to technology spans both industry trends and individual library requirements. But it also provides the foundation for additional layers of consideration that must also be addressed.
Library requirements for user privacy generally contradict what has become thoroughly entrenched into the technology infrastructure supporting the consumer, business, and social media sectors. Libraries that value safeguarding the privacy of their users and the technologies they employ must operate consistently with that principle. Encryption and related technical methods must be implemented to prevent exposure of any activities that reflect patron use of library-provided services. Technology products developed for other sectors may operate contrary to privacy protection, aggressively harvesting personal data and distributing it for commercial interests. Some may offer configuration options that improve their behavior related to collecting and sharing personal data. Library-specific applications must offer options that enable libraries to employ them in a way that’s consistent with their privacy policies. Likewise, libraries must carefully configure general business and administrative applications to meet their privacy requirements. The administration of technical infrastructure to achieve expected levels of privacy can be especially complex, as libraries make use of the business applications adopted by their parent organizations and as they deploy content products from external vendors.
Technologies must be impervious to unauthorized or malicious use. Any technical component must adhere to current authentication and encryption protocols and follow industry best practices in each layer of the technology stack. Current protocols and security best practices continually evolve, and the providers of each component must continually develop and deploy security-related enhancements. Any new procurement process must specify requirements for strong security, and existing technology products should be reviewed periodically for vulnerabilities.
Technologies must be available to all users and through their preferred devices. Libraries should require that any technology product offering an interface for library workers or patrons follows current specifications for accessibility by people with disabilities. Some applications with complex functionality that are used by library workers may not be usable on small screens. All patron interfaces should follow a responsive design that works well across all sizes of screens, including mobile phones, desktops, or laptops with large monitors.
Libraries work with data and metadata from many external providers in addition to what they create locally. All applications must avoid redundancies and manage data without duplication of effort. Libraries can see substantial savings of manual effort by using products that include knowledgebases or other content components that displace or minimize the local creation of data existing elsewhere. Technical interfaces that are able to acquire data from external sources that can be normalized and integrated into library operations are essential components for the broader infrastructure. Applications should provide user interfaces that are able to deliver streamlined workflows for tasks performed by library workers or to simplify how patrons can make use of library resources and services.
Technology systems must be designed and deployed in ways that ensure the lowest possible rates of failure or downtime. Each application or platform must be implemented to employ all reasonable redundancies, to avoid any single points of failure, and to take advantage of processes that can maintain availability even when individual components fail. Libraries or their vendors should proactively detect failures before they impact operations and make needed replacements outside of normal operating times. While no product or platform can be expected to achieve perfect availability, reasonable efforts should be in place to mitigate failures that impact operations. Component redundancies come at a cost, so libraries may need to make some compromises. In addition to standard disaster-planning and recovery consideration, each component and the overall technical environment as a whole should be designed to minimize risks of downtime and disruption to the organization.
Technology investments must respect the limitations of library budgets. It is important to keep in mind that the point is not necessarily to buy the cheapest components, but to focus on the cost savings that can be accomplished through the design of a technical environment that delivers optimal value to the organization. Applications that address a wider scope involve larger investments, but may ultimately produce savings as they replace multiple incumbent components. Savings can also come through the trade-offs between housing and administering local equipment versus the fees related to external hosting or cloud-based services. Value must be measured in the overall budget impact and the scope of the overall ecosystem, not through the cost of individual components. A cheaper system with limited capabilities will naturally cost less, but may deliver less value compared to alternatives that cost more but also provide capabilities that strengthen the impact of the organization.
Libraries should give preference to technology components and services that are able to evolve through changing cycles of technology as well as in their features and functionality. Older legacy products may have fixed technology and functionality with limited adaptability. Modular web-based platforms are better-positioned to evolve incrementally. The replacement of major systems is one of the most expensive and disruptive activities for a library. A more ideal scenario is one in which the major applications or platforms evolve to adapt to new technology standards and user experience expectations and can reshape their functionality around changing patterns in content formats and their corresponding business models.
The acquisition of new technology components should be accomplished through more open processes that benefit from the experiences of organizations with similar requirements. Libraries should be able to rely on a body of shared experience as they consider new technology investments. They should be able to evaluate pricing offered relative to that of similar institutions. In an ideal world, procurement documents and vendor responses would be publicly available as points of reference. Non-disclosure terms—which are common in contracts for larger-scale technology products—have impeded transparency. While it is reasonable for vendors to scale fees for products and services according to the size and complexity of the library organization, the proprietary nature of pricing terms puts libraries at a disadvantage in assessing the value of a product for their institution.
Innovation comes toward the end of the consideration hierarchy and rarely happens through technology. Rather, it has more to do with the vision and creativity of the organization. Newer technologies are often positioned as the most innovative, although they may not be well-proven in the library context. New products and services that are successful elsewhere often enjoy a surge of interest as innovations for possible application in libraries. However, innovation arises more often through the vision of library workers and leadership in discovering new ways for the organization to extend its reach in the community or to devise services or programs that strengthen its mission. Innovation rarely resides in the technology itself. Technology merely plays a supporting role as the library crafts innovative ways to serve its communities. When innovation is centered on the technology itself, it becomes indistinguishable from the hype and enthusiasm in new forms of technology because they are new or have yet to be employed in the library context. Innovation centered on specific technologies is less likely to have enduring value to the library compared to creative processes that can become part of the fabric of the organization.
These 10 concepts at best provide some basic practical guidance as libraries consider new technologies to support their organization or for new initiatives or projects. Many other considerations will naturally come into play depending on the scenario at hand. These concepts reflect a pragmatic approach in which technology supports the organization but does not itself set the agenda. Although it is important for libraries to be aware of technology and product trends, broad library trends and local community needs take precedence. Ideally, technology and organizational domains evolve in tandem, with improving technical infrastructure that enables libraries to strengthen their strategic impact.