The start of a new year and a new decade gives us a great opportunity to take a look ahead at some of the major technology trends that are currently playing out and examine how they will impact libraries. I think that it's quite important to pay close attention to the changes and transitions playing out in the library automation industry, and also in the broader realm of information technology. In this month's column, I'll explore some of the key topics with forward momentum that I think that readers should keep in mind as they shape technology strategies in their libraries.
Mobile delivery. We live in a world where the role that mobile devices play in the way that people access information is constantly increasing. It seems that more of us are switching from voice and text-oriented cell phones to smarter devices designed for accessing the Web. By my own informal observations, a year ago, those most likely to have a smart mobile device such as an iPhone or Blackberry were business professionals and some of the more tech savvy college students. Now these devices seem much more pervasive, finding use by individuals in all walks of life.
I've long advocated for libraries to create the best experience possible for their virtual users. In many libraries, the Web site touches more users than the physical facilities. The uptake of more mobile devices definitely implies that libraries need to extend their virtual presence accordingly. It's no longer sufficient to focus on a virtual library as seen through a Web browser launched through a desktop or notebook computer. We need to increase our offerings for those who want to access library resources through mobile devices. While we may see only an incremental increase in the demand for mobile access to library resources in the next year, I think that we're at the leading edge of a major transition with major implications for the ways that libraries deliver content and services to remote users.
eBook lending. I've been watching for many years as the promise of an eBook revolution has failed to come to fruition. Now it seems this format has finally gained traction. The Kindle, Sony E-Reader, and the Nook are engaged in vigorous competition as vehicles for delivering book content from the major publishers of books and magazines. Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes and Noble have each latched onto one of these devices as a major content distribution mechanism as part of their e-commerce strategy. As more of our users become engaged with these devices, libraries must find ways to incorporate them into their lending schemes. As devices designed for licensing content outside the legal framework surrounding printed materials, it may be quite a challenge for libraries to create a role for themselves in this realm. There are technical, legal, and business issues that need to be resolved. Now is the time for libraries to address these issues in preparation for the day when a critical mass of reading happens through these devices. The current generation of ILS products come hardwired for circulation workflows with physical materials. They are ill-prepared for lending electronic materials or interfacing with devices such eBook readers. Much work remains to be done on this front, which I see as being of major strategic importance to libraries of the future.
Open Technologies. One idea that has seen continual growth over the last few years is the trend toward open technologies. This trend shows no sign of abating, though it has expanded into new forms. Not only has open source software become increasingly popular, proprietary products have achieved unprecedented levels of openness through the availability of Web services and other application programming interfaces (APIs).
On one hand, the adoption of open source library software continues to rise gradually. Open source ILS products, usually paired with support plans from commercial firms, is now a routine option, though the numbers in the last year have not risen dramatically. I'm aware of a number of fairly large projects brewing that may mean higher numbers of open source ILS transitions in the near future, but for now, it seems that proprietary ILSs will continue to dominate the market. Much controversy has transpired in the Koha realm, which has inflicted some damage to the broader open source ILS movement.
The other approach for delivering openness involves the creation of application programming interfaces that can function as powerful tools for giving libraries access to their data and extending functionality. Open source applications benefit as much as proprietary systems from the availability of APIs. APIs allow library programmers to interact with the software without necessarily having to wrestle with the complexities of the source code of the core application. Developers of proprietary software have especially focused on API's in the last couple of years, possibly in reaction to the open source movement. Regardless of the motivation of vendors, these APIs stand to give libraries much more control of their software than they have had in the past.
Each library has its own specific automation needs. Many prefer a soup-to-nuts solution provided by a vendor. But those that seek increased levels of involvement and control of their automation environment can select from multiple approaches to openness. The road toward more open technologies will continue to widen, giving libraries increased opportunities to develop their technology infrastructure to better support their programs and services.
Resource discovery. The fastest moving segment of the library automation industry involves products designed for end-user access to library-provided content. I've covered this new genre of discovery interfaces extensively for Smart Libraries Newsletter. We've seen the development of products that drastically modernize the interface, introducing relevancy ranked results, faceted navigation, and improved visual design. In the last year, products emerged that drastically increase the reach of discovery interfaces through pre-built indexes that include hundreds of millions of journal articles. We can now envision addressing all library content, both print and electronic, through a single search.
A key trend that I see continuing to play out is the increasingly widespread adoption of new discovery interfaces at the expense of traditional online catalogs. Traditional online catalogs will see very few new implementations as libraries implement new discovery interfaces in great numbers. The online catalog module of the ILS will find its greatest strength as an advanced interface for the print collection of libraries, and will find less use as the initial search offered to library users. I think that it's really important for libraries to move as quickly as they can toward more modern discovery interfaces.
Software as a Service. The way that libraries deploy software is shifting from that installed on local servers to various types of external hosting arrangements. As libraries acquire new technology products, an increasing number will be implemented through a software-as-a-service arrangement. In the ILS arena, we're seeing vendors work hard to migrate customers from local installations of their products to SaaS implementations. This arrangement means higher profit margins for the companies, though it also means significant reductions in the technical resources and personnel required by the libraries to maintain these systems. Over time, the library-by-library model of locally installed automation products will pass in favor of large-scale consortial implementations or SaaS offerings from vendors. This trend applies more intensely within the open source ILS realm. The majority of the Koha and Evergreen implementations in North America have been vendor-hosted. Locally-installed software makes sense mostly for projects that demand a great deal of local control, customization, or other special circumstances.
Digital preservation. The concern for long-term digital preservation has found its way out of the background and into the foreground of awareness for many libraries, especially those responsible for large collections of unique digital content. It's vital to ensure that the digital content will be preserved responsibly for future generations, despite the continual cycles of equipment obsolesce, changes in format standards, and other circumstances that could render digital files produced today unusable in the future. Many libraries involved with digital collections have good procedures in place for routine backup of digital materials to protect against hardware and software failures or human error, but have not yet been able to take the next steps that establish an infrastructure for long-term digital preservation. One of the trends that I expect for the next few years involves the creation of new trusted digital repositoriesómostly shared among many institutionsóthat will guarantee that today's digital content will survive into the future. I see lots of opportunities for technology products and institutional initiatives that address the concern for long-term digital preservation.
In this inaugural edition of my new column in this newsletter, I've given a whirlwind tour of some of the trends and issues that I think will be important to libraries this year and beyond. It will be interesting to see how the technology companies and library initiatives that we track in SLN actually address these issues. I'm looking forward to a very interesting 2010.