Panlibus Blog

Sticking my head above the parapet

I’m starting this post with some trepidation, with a little voice in the back of my head telling me that the first comment to it will be entitled “Methinks he doth protest too much“.

There has always been a traditional, and probably healthy, tension in the Library Systems market between libraries that need Library Systems to support their operations, and the vendors who build, sell, and support them.  This tension is no doubt fuelled by the cultural differences between the profit based commercial business environment that vendor staff operate within, and the institutionally funded public/academic community supporting ethos driven world of the librarians.

I know this is a very broad-brush picture of the world we operate in, but I believe that most vendor employees will recognise the caricature of the librarian who has no concept of the commercial realities of life; and most librarians will recognise the caricature of the evil vendor squeezing every possible cent from library budgets for the benefit of their shareholders. 

As I say, I believe that in that traditional interaction between libraries and vendors this tension is probably healthy, but it is unfortunate when the opinions it fosters colour the interaction between the communities in non-sales situations.

In a comment to Dan Chudnov’s brain dump posting about the excellent Code4lib 2007 conference, Dan Scott raises the issue of how do you avoid sales pitches in sessions.  He then goes on to escalate that worry in to a concern about how would we avoid code4lib being hosted by vendors.  Dan’s [Scott] implicit assumption being that because a vendor employee (yours truly) was showing some unique really cool stuff that was the result of innovative work from his company’s development team, he was selling it to him.

As I say in my reply to his comment:

The first thing I would like to share with you is a problem that is not just limited to code4lib. That problem is that I want to show off some really cool stuff that you can do with APIs that have been designed with the developers that will use them in mind, and to augment data streams with bibliographic & other related data. The only Platform that is currently openly delivering that functionality in that way is the Talis Platform. Therefore as all the examples are based upon Talis Platform capabilities this can unfortunately be easily interpreted as a sales pitch.

How do we get over the suspicion that any words from a vendor’s mouth that mention their products or developments is a full on sales pitch? –  We probably never totally will – but hopefully over time it will become apparent that when the folks from Talis say that they are not there to sell you something, they mean it.  Also if and when we say we are, you will most certainly notice the difference.

Anyone stood up presenting is always selling you something, be it their ideas and opinions, or a a way of doing something that their experience tells them you should listen to, or avoid.  The difference Dan is obviously worried about is that if that is also monetary ‘sell’ it will some how pollute the message.

I don’t see commercialism as basically evil, without it I am fairly certain that that the library world would not have advanced in the last half century anywhere near as far as it has.  I’m equally passionate in asserting that almost uniquely the library world has advanced as far as it has because of the cooperation and standardization efforts of the librarian community.

We are moving away from the ‘traditional’.  Anybody watching the consolidations and product upheavals in the ILS/LMS market, supplemented by the recent technology and Open Source advancements, can’t fail to see that change is happening.   One of the outcomes of that change will be that a library service will be delivered by components from a mixture, and a choice, of sources, some Open Source, some commercial, some home-grown.  Conversations between all parties in this mix is vital to its success.  To quote the Cluetrain Manifesto [again]”Markets are conversations … Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner ”  In other words the people with the interest and the ideas need to be talking directly to each other – something that code4lib facilitates very well – then things will start to happen organically.  If that then leads to a cooperation, or a beneficial commercial transaction that makes sense to both parties then so be it.

Something else is changing.  No doubt many that are reading this will conjure in to their minds, when I mention commercial transactions, the traditional sales process that leads eventually to the purchase of software, hardware, and services that will deliver a closed proprietary, locked-in solution with a price tag of several thousand Pounds/Dollars attached to it.

I the components world of web-scale distributed services delivered through the Internet cloud, you will be able to pick and choose which bits you use to build and deliver your service.  Some may be Open Source and/or free, some may be the results of your own local efforts, and some may make sense – because of the value they deliver – to purchase/subscribe to.  By taking advantage of the economies of scale and low-cost distributed hardware and infrastructures, the financial costs associated with those purchased/subscribed to services will almost certainly lay well outside the ball-park of traditional library world price tags.

Talis are at the forefront of driving forward the changes in our world that I hint at, and you are just starting to see their green shoots starting to emerge.  That is why we have said come play with the Talis Platform, at zero cost, to see what you can do with it and what value you may gain from it.  We will preserve the ownership of your data.  If you can see the value you could gain from it, lets have a conversation of how you could integrate it in to what you are doing.  If you don’t like what you hear, well move on.  – Oops I am in danger of dropping to sales mode here!

So getting back to the question that started this.  Dan is right, we must not let code4lib get taken over and hijacked by vendors and their traditional sales pitches.  It will stifle all that is good about it, but there again we must recognise that input from all sources be they commercial or not will most times be valuable.

(Photo taken by JBJon displayed in Flickr)


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4 Responses

  1. casey Says:

    The problem is that if you are the only company doing something, it’s vacuously true that you’re the evillest company doing it.

    Talis was the only vendor that gave a talk at Code4Lib so any discussions about how to keep things non-commercial is going to necessarily involve Talis, whether or not Talis is one of the “good ones”. And the fact that the conference was so much bigger than last year maybe got some people worried about it turning too commercial or losing its very open nature whether there’s really any grounds to that or not.

    Why do we keep polarizing things? Because we don’t know any other way. You all are really the only vendor that is trying to talk with rather than at library folks. That’s new and weird. It will take time to overcome 3 decades of (well-deserved) vendor mistrust and for people to get used to the concept of a vendor treating people who work in libraries as peers rather than potential revenue sources. It’s not fair, but having to break down stereotypes is one of the costs of being a pioneer. I’m glad you all are trying, though.

  2. Jonathan Rochkind Says:

    You know, I like Talis, and being in the US and having no previous experience with you, you don’t have any mistrust to overcome with me.

    But even a vendor that’s doing really good stuff with people who seem generally clever and likeable—still has different interests than the library customers. Some overlapping interests too, to be sure. But also some different interests.

    I wouldn’t ask you to act as if this weren’t true, and I’d hope you wouldn’t want me to pretend it’s not true—or worse, forget that it’s true. A vendor strenuously protesting its not true just makes me suspicious. I don’t think this is the result of a particular history in the library industry, I think it’s just being smart no matter what industry you are in.

    Doesn’t mean that customers and vendors can’t get along smashingly, and collaborate on innovation, and present to each other at conferences, and hang out at parties. They can and should.

    But it means we libraries have got to do that remembering that we have some different interests than the vendor(s), and it’s up to us to defend those interests, we can’t let the vendor do it for us!

    Peter Brantley of UC Berkeley has a blog post on how libraries forgot that with Google.

  3. panizzi Says:

    jrochkind: True, true

  4. Richard Wallis Says:

    Thanks both for your comments.

    It is good to have this kind of debate in the open.

    It’s also nice to know I’m welcome to hang out at parties.

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