As part of the “Shock of the New” strand at the UK Umbrella conference this year, Lucy Tedd from Aberystwyth University led a session entitled “Integrated library management systems: what we need”. Attendance of this session turned out to be very supplier-heavy, and I’m not sure that’s what she anticipated. I was moderately surprised too, but thinking about it afterwards, I felt that the lack of interest from practitioners was reflective of the growing irrelevance of the traditional library management system (or ILS if you’re North American) to the needs of the modern library, particularly in academia.
It’s not that the library technology landscape has stood still, of course. Lucy was able to list quite a few innovative products– from the now-established Aquabrowser to Talis’ own Aspire resource list tool – a great product that we’re all very proud of here. But taking one step back and looking at what the library has to deliver in 2009, the library technology marketplace as a whole is failing to keep up with the pace of change.
Lucy Tedd highlighted some of the key developments of this decade. Some of them, though – such as the consolidation of the library technology marketplace with mergers, acquisitions and the increasing intervention of venture capitalists in the businesses of existing suppliers – may be symptomatic of underlying trends rather than drivers.
I felt that to get a firmer grip on the fundamental shifts in our world, I had to refer back to a session I saw last month at the annual SCONUL conference, given by Marshall Breeding (a member of Talis’Library 2.0 Gang). For the uninitiated, Marshall Breeding is an American library technology guru, author of an ongoing series of library technology guides. Where he wins out over other commentators such as Lucy Tedd is his ability to look behind headline trends, take them apart, examine the implications and project them forward. So although both Tedd and Breeding identify industry consolidation as a key trend, Breeding will go on to alert us to the disruptive impact that this has on product development, and the adverse effect this has on the lead time that libraries have to plan for a product enhancement.
Marshall Breeding hears a lot of frustration with LMS products and vendors, and is adamant that systems are not keeping up with the pace of change in libraries. Innovation, then, is falling below expectations, and Marshall reports that many US libraries are unhappy with the current state of affairs. He admitted that he wasn’t so sure about UK libraries, but following the group activity at the end of Lucy Tedd’s session, I’m quite clear that the mood here is similar to that of the US. In my group there was one librarian from Open University and one from University of Hertfordshire. Each group was asked to identify its most pressing requirement of the LMS. Both librarians agreed that the inadequacy of the LMS in managing e-resources was the biggest problem in an era in which the issuing of books is no longer the primary activity.
Marshall Breeding described the conventional LMS as untenable, now that a whole series of products required to manage fundamental library processes – such as ERM systems and knowledgebases – are located outside the LMS. In the electronic era, circulation becomes fulfilment, cataloguing is no longer MARC-centred, for example. So as the traditional modules of the LMS become less important, we need to think more in terms of SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) – dividing functionality into small chunks that can be fitted together for multifarious purposes (a shift that my colleague Richard Wallis identified back in 2007 on this blog). This is very much the thinking of the OLE (Open Library Environment) Project, of which Marshall Breeding is a proponent.
But it’s not just a back-office problem, of course. The library OPAC, traditionally another module LMS, also suffers from the same problem, in failing to reflect the eJournals and digital objects that libraries spend so much money on. Breeding did identify further issues with library OPACs, highlighting their clunky interfaces, poor eCommerce facilities, and more worryingly, relatively weak search engines and poor relevancy ranking.
Open Source has, in the context of these difficulties, generated a lot of interest, though more in the US at present. However Breeding pointed out that Open Source offerings currently rank middle to low in terms of customer satisfaction, and the only libraries that are interested are the ones that are already doing it. There is no groundswell of interest, despite the pockets of evangelistic fervour.
Marshall Breeding also turned his attention to Web 2.0 tools, and argued persuasively against the tendency to adopt disparate tools without a broader strategy in place, which has the effect of “jettisoning library users away from our websites”. Instead, he says, Web 2.0 capabilities need to be built into the guts of our systems. I’m assuming here that he doesn’t mean library vendors reinventing social networking tools in a creepy treehouse kind of way, and that instead he’s advocating seamless integration with applications such as the VLE and Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter. Incidentally, Richard Wallis has recently been demonstrating a Juice extension enabling integration between Twitter and the OPAC.
Breeding looks forward to a future in which the library can offer a single point of access to the inside of all the eJournals that the library subscribes to. Scale is not the issue, he argues, and cites OCLC’s Lorcan Dempsey as pointing out that the whole of WorldCat will now fit on an iPod. Instead we should be looking at what the world outside the library is doing – searching the deep content directly, and identifying and examining the tools that people are using to do this. In this way, it becomes clear that the likes of Google Scholar, Amazon, Waterstones and ask.com are the competitors of the library in the 21st century, and it is incumbent upon the vendor community to help libraries with that gargantuan challenge if they are to survive.