I find it hard to imagine operating a library today without the assistance of an integrated library system (ILS). That said, I also believe that they continue to have some troublesome deficiencies.
What's right with the ILS
The current generation of integrated library systems represents the culmination of more than three decades of evolution in library automation. Each new round of system brought forward the functionality of the previous one and added new capabilities.
While librarians may quibble about how any given piece of functionality works, one cannot deny the extensive capabilities of the major ILS products, especially for the treatment of traditional library materials. (We'll get to the electronic collections later.)
This functionality has been established, at least in part, through the procurement process followed by most libraries. So, whether one believes that the modern ILS is good or bad, it is the one that the library community as a whole has asked the vendors to build.
My vision of an ideal ILS
Ideally, I think an ILS should deliver comprehensive automation in an efficient manner. It must handle all the work that happens within the walls of the library and deliver services to users outside the library via the Web. An ILS must also be able to interact with other automation systems using appropriate standards and protocols.
As libraries evolve, it is essential that the ILS evolve in step. Ideally, a system's capabilities should run ahead of the curve. This happens only if the librarians themselves correctly anticipate their future needs and partner with the ILS vendors to build systems with the right capabilities for the time. It seems, unfortunately, that these capabilities lag behind the rapidly changing role of libraries.
What's wrong with the ILS
I believe that we now face a large challenge to re-establish an environment of comprehensive automation for libraries. The major ILS products have long done an excellent job of automating how libraries deal with traditional resources. Since the emergence of the Web, librarians have been adding electronic resources to their collections. It's my observation, however, that the tools to manage and deliver access to e-content have lagged behind library needs.
Automated solutions began to help librarians manage e-content beginning around 1999. The OpenURL specification emerged in that year. OpenURL-based link servers pioneered by SFX are now well-established as products that libraries need to purchase as part of their strategies to manage e-resources.
Likewise, a set of metasearch products emerged so that librarians could offer their users the means to search selected portions of their electronic collections simultaneously and through a unified interface. Again, this capability stands as a separate product outside the ILS and is purchased separately.
More recently, a product genre has emerged called the electronic resource management (ERM) system. These systems provide a specialized application for managing electronic subscriptions, which involve a number of additional complexities not applicable to print content.
The typical library automation environment today would require an ILS to manage traditional content and a suite of additional products to lend support for electronic content. It also seems that not all libraries find the interface offered by the standard Web-based OPAC entirely satisfactory. One of the most recent trends in the ILS product area is to provide an alternate interface instead of, or in addition to, the OPAC interface provided with the ILS.
I'm personally skeptical that this extended functionality should constitute a separately purchased module rather than an enhancement that would be considered part of the module's regular development cycle.
Path toward reintegration
I'm concerned that the current path of relatively nonintegrated products will not be sustainable in the longer term. I don't necessarily believe that a single piece of monolithic software can, or should, provide all aspects of the library's automation environment. I do, however, believe that the capabilities and scope of current ILS products have become too limited relative to the overall universe of library involvement.
I wonder if libraries would be interested in trading more aggressive pricing for an ILS that, instead of requiring users to purchase additional modules, offered a broader range of native capabilities. I'm not able to propose what this new business model might ultimately look like, but the current one that promotes product proliferation has serious consequences.
Let's not abandon the ILS
One might alternatively take the position that the very concept of the ILS is bankrupt. I agree that the ILS can't do everything and that many libraries have needs that require additional products and services. So while I do recognize the necessity of the dis-integrated library system to a certain degree, I continue to wish for an ILS that is well-integrated internally, that is relatively expansive in scope, and that lends itself well to integrating with external systems. In the end, I believe this will benefit libraries.