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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2022

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Vol. 42 No. 2 — March 2022

Looking Toward the Next Phase of Library Systems
by Marshall Breeding

The emerging landscape of transformative agreements, OA mandates, and related initiatives will ultimately impact how libraries manage electronic resources and how technology systems support those new workflows.
Libraries have benefited from technology systems for more than half a century. Computerized systems were developed to automate circulation, cataloging, serials, and other library activities in the mid-to-late 1970s, with some earlier precursors. Since that time, library systems have continuously evolved, driven by the advances in technology architectures, changes in the operational priorities of libraries, and the business environment. These factors will continue to shape future generations of library systems.

Shaping Today’s Systems

Library systems have moved through multiple technology cycles, generally corresponding to the changes in computing technology that were prevalent during each era. Early mainframe-based systems gave way to minicomputers and then to those based on a client-server architecture that’s able to take advantage of personal computers. In the last decade, web-based and cloud-based systems have been increasingly prevalent. 

Today, libraries generally prefer web-based interfaces and hosted solutions. These alleviate the burden of maintaining local servers and the need to install software clients on computers used by library workers or at service desks. Fewer libraries want to dedicate their technical personnel to maintaining servers or local infrastructure rather than to services or applications with more immediate impact. The deployment models of library systems have partially been shaped by trends in IT and personnel allocation and the cost-effectiveness of taking advantage of vendor-supplied hosting and infrastructure support.

Libraries increasingly need their systems to interact with other applications within the library’s own environment, those of its parent institution, and content providers or other business partners. The rising emphasis on interconnected systems has been well-incorporated into library systems. Libraries depend on APIs and other mechanisms for working with self-service equipment, integrating with ebook services, loading student records, interfacing with institutional business systems, and myriad other routine scenarios. Libraries also rely on APIs for access to the underlying data in support of advanced reporting, analytics, or other activities to inform their business decisions and strategies. Given that library systems have generally become mature in the completeness of their functionality, the availability of APIs has become an important factor of differentiation when acquiring new technology products.

The progression of computing models has had a major impact on the development of library systems. The current slate of systems includes those that have been re-engineered from existing products into current technology architectures along with new products based on present-day architectures and programming practices. Some ILSs have evolved through multiple generations of technology. The core of some of the long-standing systems has remained mostly intact, as new layers of programming transformed them into client/server applications, which eventually became web-based systems. New products are naturally created using the technology architectures or programming styles of the era. Systems created in the last decade or so have been developed on cloud platforms and web interfaces. The complexity of the functionality needed for library systems has driven many vendors into an evolutionary approach rather than developing new applications from scratch based on current technologies. Today’s library systems include a mix of platforms recently created anew as well as those that evolved through earlier generations.

A larger portion of libraries use systems that are deployed through hosted services or cloud technologies. This trend has been underway for more than a decade. Although there are—and will continue to be—enduring circumstances that warrant maintaining on-premises computing infrastructure, the age of hosted systems and cloud computing prevails. Very few new implementations are based on computer infrastructure housed by the library or by its parent institution or consortium. Library services platforms such as Ex Libris Alma and OCLC’s WorldShare Management Service are exclusively deployed through their vendor’s cloud infrastructure. As libraries decide to migrate to new systems or renew existing contracts, most opt for vendor-provided hosting services. Those libraries that originally implemented their ILS on their own equipment usually shift to vendor-provided hosting services when their hardware reaches its end of life. The cycle of change from on-premises hardware to cloud or hosted infrastructure has been long, and it is nearing completion.

Library systems also evolve to shape themselves around changing models of library services and collections. Many aspects of library operations have remained stable, such as circulation. Areas such as cataloging have had to evolve according to new standards and conventions, such as RDA, BIBFRAME, and AACR2. The nature of collections in academic libraries changed dramatically as scholarly publishing transitioned from print to electronic formats. Public libraries now deal extensively with downloadable ebooks. These changes have led to the continuous evolution of ILSs and to the development of library services platforms as a new type of system, which are currently used mostly by academic libraries. 

The consolidating business environment has made a difference both in which library systems survive in the market and their specialization of functionality. It’s important to note that industry consolidation does not necessarily mean rapid reduction of products available to libraries. A review of the system implementations among Association of Research Libraries member libraries over the last few decades shows a wider variety of products available in the last few years compared to a decade ago, despite a reduced number of vendors. Continuation of the development and support of acquired products has proven to be a good business strategy for vendors. Products may be reshaped according to business interests as they travel through mergers and acquisitions. Products originally created to serve many types of libraries may later be optimized for a specific type of library. 

Possible Directions for Future Systems

The systems available today have been shaped through these factors as previously noted, including technology, operational trends in libraries, and changes in the business landscape. We can expect that these same factors will continue to influence the next phase of library systems.

Accommodating Changes in Publishing Models

We can anticipate further developments of systems designed for academic libraries to accommodate the rapidly changing business models of scholarly communications. Current products have been based mostly on managing subscriptions to packages of restricted journals. The emerging landscape of transformative agreements, OA mandates, and related initiatives will ultimately impact how libraries manage electronic resources and how technology systems support those new workflows. Increased proportions of OA content likewise disrupt discovery services. It will be essential to ensure that discovery services not only include the material covered by library subscriptions but also enable discovery and access to the fully body of OA materials. 

Changing Library Priorities

The functionality to support the internal work of the library is quite mature and is embodied within most of the major products. Although some fine-tuning may be needed as library workflows evolve, future development priorities will favor capabilities that improve different areas of patron services. In recent years, public libraries have shown strong interest in technologies that aim to strengthen patron engagement. Many of these applications involve automated marketing services that help libraries communicate more effectively with their patrons through targeting messaging. In response to growing lending of ebooks, seamless integration of ebook discovery, lending, and reading are essential capabilities. Public libraries expect a better user experience delivered through their catalogs and websites. Looking forward, we can expect system selections to give much more weight to front-end patron services than functionality for internal operations.

Deeper Into the Cloud

The technology trend of cloud computing will continue to prevail in the next phase of library systems. We can also expect library systems not only to rely on cloud infrastructure, but to increasingly incorporate Big Data and analytics. This trend comes with some caveats. It will be important for libraries to be diligent in ensuring that the data ecosystem surrounding their systems remains consistent with their privacy policies and requirements to protect the confidentiality of all patron transactions.

Impact of Industry Consolidation

Changes in the library technology business environment also bring implications for the library systems arena. Businesses are increasingly diversified and are involved in many kinds of products and services. In earlier stages of the industry, mergers and acquisitions resulted in larger companies that were still centered on library systems and related products. Recent business acquisitions bring library technologies into large businesses with diverse product portfolios spanning content, technology, and analytics. It will be interesting to see how the development of library systems will be influenced by this emerging business milieu. One set of possibilities relates to deeper integrations between workflows and content within the platforms used by libraries as well as synergies with the scholarly publishing ecosystem.

It will be interesting to see how library systems continue to evolve in the future. There will naturally be many different directions of development. Consistent with recent trends, I anticipate that library systems will be less centered on automating the mechanics of internal operations and will place more emphasis on strengthening the interconnections among libraries, their communities, and their collections.

Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker. He is the founder of Library Technology Guides ( His email address is