My colleague Rob Styles and I are just back from our trip to North America. Whilst there, we dropped in to the ALA conference in Washington DC for a few days, and Rob participated in a panel session convened for ALA by NCSU’s Andrew Pace [blog] and Vanderbilt’s Marshall Breeding.
The panel, “Speaking Technically: a conversation about cutting-edge library automation and technology with Andrew Pace and Marshall Breeding”, took place on the main exhibition floor at the Washington Convention Center and was over-attended with people spilling out of the allotted space into the surrounding exhibition proper.
As well as Rob, panelists comprised Oren Beit-Arie of Ex Libris, Jabe Bloom of TLC, Taco Ekkel of Medialab, Betsy Graham of III, Robin Murray of OCLC and Berit Nelson of Sirsi Dynix, and our two moderators had made a point of keeping panellists in the dark as to the questions in the hope of eliciting fresh, honest, and personal rather than corporate responses. In checking my spelling of names and affiliations for that last sentence, I found it interesting that throwing the search “’name’ blog” into Google only produced an authored blog in one instance; Rob’s. I’m not sure whether that says anything or not…
The first question, to all of the panellists, was (and I’m paraphrasing, as I’m out of practice at writing quickly and a founder member of the (large) population of individuals who struggle to read my handwriting…) “In the business of library automation, how do you balance business and technical considerations in reaching a decision?”
Jabe took the first stab, stressing the importance of the total cost of ownership (rather than the up-front cost of purchase) in purchasing decisions. He highlighted the need to apply the most appropriate technology in order to manage costs over the lifetime of an application, before talking about the value of user-centred design in ensuring that the tool fits the job rather than the other way around.
Robin Murray said that everything comes down to balancing considerations of cost, value, and time.
Taco said that Medialab “likes to do what libraries like to see”.
Berit talked about the need to continually respond to change, arguing that we cannot assume our legacy technologies and approaches to be the best solution moving forward. Berit went on to make an important point, asking where library systems fit within the ‘overall public interface’, and how well they succeed in opening up backend systems or integrating with alternative providers such as Medialab with Aquabrowser. Partnership, Berit stressed, can cost more than building it yourself, and the need to ship and locally configure every software update has a serious impact upon the speed with which any one vendor – or libraries in general – can benefit from innovation.
Rob talked about the need to change the technologies used in order to meet business objectives, or to shift the business in which you are working in order to take advantage of new opportunities.
Betsy talked about the need to watch Google, Yahoo! and other successful internet innovators.
Oren picked up on Rob’s points, and went on to sum up nicely by saying “A technology decision is a business decision.”
To my mind only Berit, Rob and Oren actually answered the question. Maybe the others said something profound which I missed. Or maybe I failed to accurately record the question, and they all answered the one that was actually asked…
Andrew and Marshall then changed tack, asking each of the panellists a question in turn.
First, to Jabe, “TLC focusses on public libraries, with separate systems for smaller and larger libraries. Why?”
Jabe’s answer suggested that the richer capabilities within their top-end products were too complex for use in smaller libraries that lacked the staff and budget to make best use of them.
Next, to Betsy, “III has stayed above current mergers and acquisitions in the sector. Their systems have, however, been accused of not being sufficiently open.”
Betsy agreed that III can be perceived to not be open, but argued that this was untrue. “We are completely standards based.” “III can run on Oracle, and the libraries can do what they like with that data.” “We hope to provide an api into the database with Encore.”
From where I was sitting, the muttering would suggest that many members of the audience shared in the ‘misconception’ to which Betsy referred.
Rob was up next, but I was concentrating too hard to remember to write the question down! Essentially, he was asked to explain what the Platform was about, which he proceeded to do. I know that ‘superficial’ was a word used in the question, but Rob’s answer put paid to that particular association, and illustrated the ways in which third parties such as Aquabrowser are already enhancing their own products on top of the Platform.
Next, to Taco, “Aquabrowser is used because OPACs suck. How can Aquabrowser keep innovating enough to justify their additional cost as the ILS vendors themselves begin to develop their own OPACs along similar lines?”
With apologies to Taco (my note-taking was clearly a bit erratic at this stage…), I didn’t manage to write down what he said. I imagine that it was something along the lines of Medialab being small enough to remain nimble, and a stressing of the importance of listening to – and engaging with – customers and their customers in continuing to enhance products? Taco – feel free to correct me in the comments!
Next, to Robin, “OCLC is acquiring a lot of companies right now. How do you put the pieces together?”
Robin talked about fragmentation in terms of brand, supply and technology in the library sector, and argued the need for web-scale solutions which (he contended) only OCLC can provide. It wasn’t clear whether the web-scale brand should be ‘library’ or ‘OCLC’. I do also continue to wonder, as Robin has made similar arguments before, where we go with web-scale? Web-scale surely doesn’t have to mean what Robin seems to; a hulking great monolith of a system, competing head to head with the highly recognisable destination sites on the web. Web-scale can mean technologically robust and scalable, almost invisible, and designed in such a way as to integrate with local, niche, horizontal and vertical applications inside and outside the domain; enabling and facilitating the use of libraries, rather than creating a destination site, sucking data into it, and fighting to attract consumer eyeballs to The One Library.
Next, to Oren, “You’re maintaining both Aleph and Voyager, plus a load of standalone products. Where do you go now?”
Oren talked about the different roles played by Aleph and Voyager moving forward, and stressed the importance of finding the best products for the job.
To Berit, “Sirsi Dynix has a reputation – and a high profile – for talking about innovation. How does what Stephen Abrams says fit with what you do, day to day?”
Stephen is looking 18-36 months ahead. Whilst we sell products to librarians, they are used by your users who are also immersed in the communities that Stephen talks about. He helps us to bridge the gap and create products to reach out to those users.
Finally, to the whole panel once more, “Open Source has captured our attention, with implementations in Georgia and British Columbia and more on the way. Does this interest change anything?”
Oren argued that local implementation of open source and the buying of a commercial solution from a vendor was not actually a strict binary situation. Both, he argued, were viable solutions and it was down to individual libraries to select the best ‘product’ for their needs. Ex Libris “embraces open source”, but everyone needs to remember that costs include more than simply the lack of a license fee. Which solution will have the highest Total Cost of Ownership in each local situation, and which will best meet your needs? The answer will not always be the same…
Betsy noted that III make use of open source software such as Lucene.
Rob talked about the importance of making use of open source software to lower costs and benefit from innovation within a community, and stressed Talis’ ongoing activity within several open source projects where we continue to contribute to their codelines moving forward. We have also released some of our own products under open source licenses, and this will continue.
Taco made a great point, suggesting that Open Source was a distraction. We should be thinking far more broadly about openness across our data and systems.
All in all a great session, despite disappointing performances by some members of the panel. I hope Andrew and Marshall get approval to do this again, and welcome the avoidance of the usual corporate hype machine. Rob picked Robin Murray up on one of his points towards the end (Robin agreed that he perhaps hadn’t meant what he said), but it would be an interesting challenge to facilitate far more of that back-and-forth whilst preventing the session from degenerating into a slanging match.
Various organisations represented on the stage have fundamentally different views of the world, and of the ways in which they and libraries can, do and should fit within it. The vigourous agreeing with one another would make those who don’t know think otherwise.
Well done, Andrew and Marshall, and kudos to all who turned up on stage, despite the explicit removal of those traditional vendor comfort blankets; the pre-prepared answer and the ‘bought’ questioner.
And for any audience member who picked up something I missed, or any panellist who feels their point isn’t adequately represented above, feel free to comment below…
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