Throughout my 25-year career, I've constantly found it frustrating that the cycles of change driven by the larger information technology turn so much faster than have been adapted into the products of the library automation industry and adopted by libraries. Libraries continually struggle to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to technology advancements.
I’'m especially concerned about the ways that libraries deliver their content and services on the Web. As I work to maintain my lib-web-cats directory of libraries, I regularly see the websites of thousands of libraries. Only a small minority seem based on fairly up-to-date technologies and perform on a par with the popular destinations that might be encountered on the broader Web. The vast majority of library websites——unfortunately——cast the shadow of an earlier period of the Web with more awkward interfaces and disconnected silos of content and functionality. I observe, for example, that despite the fact that new-generation discovery products have been available for several years, most libraries continue to rely on online catalogue modules of their LMS whose interfaces may not have been updated since it was originally implemented. Just last week I came across a library that continued to present a telnet-based online catalogue as its primary search option.
While it's rare to see examples of 20-year-old technology, it's common to see libraries offering catalogues based on products mostly unchanged for the last decade. While I don’’t really expect libraries to lead the forefront of innovation, it would be great if our community could work toward strategies for staying reasonably up-to-date in its technologies.
In my view, both the organisations that create technology products for libraries and libraries themselves share the blame for this problem. It will take a concerted effort from both sides to create a business environment where library users benefit from new technologies earlier in the trend cycles.
Library vendors tend to take a conservative course in their development strategies. They need to be quite sure that any given trend will endure and that it offers true benefits before making large investments needed to build products around it. It’’s more of a risk to create products earlier in the trend cycle. Given that the organizations that produce software and services for libraries fall several notches below those in the broader e-commerce sector in terms of research and development capacity, library-specific products often arrive when a trend has become old news.
Though the time-to-market for new library products may be sluggish, the time in which new technology products find use in libraries approaches glacial. A small number of libraries may engage as development partners or early adopters; most take a ‘‘wait-and-see’’ approach, expecting to avoid some of the uncertainties involved with new technologies.
Budget and procurement issues constrain adoption of new products and technologies more than any other factor. Libraries simply lack the funds to acquire everything that comes along. Once a library decides it's interested in a given product or service, the timeframe for gaining administrative or budget approval and the subsequent formalities of procurement can be lengthy.
Many new technology trends have come into play recently, including new approaches to resource discovery, mobile computing, RFID, and Linked Data as well as new conceptual models such as RDA and FRBR. Although all of these have been brewing for quite a while, none have achieved broad adoption in the library arena. Each of these topics attracts lots of conversation, but we’’re pretty far from the point of anything approaching universal adoption.
Is there anything that can be done to move technology from emergence of trends into the trenches of library use more quickly? The realities of the forces that constrain the movement of technology seem unlikely to change in the short term——especially at a time when libraries face intense financial challenges. Yet I do think that there are some practical steps that can help.
- Engage in a more experimental approach to technology. We need to resist the tendency to avoid implementation until any given product or technology achieves maturity or perfection. In most cases, even early versions of new products can deliver benefits of the obsolete (but familiar) tools that we hold on to so tenaciously.
- Keep a watchful eye on developments outside the library sector, building awareness of technology trends likely to impact library users and offer new efficiencies or opportunities.
- Create deeper partnerships with companies and other organizations that develop library products. Libraries might work harder to actively market their ideas to vendors rather than wait for vendors to market their products to them. We often focus too much on creating lists of enhancements of detailed functionality for existing products; let’’s not forget to have higher level conversations that advance the state-of-the-art technologies that support our strategic needs.
- Seek more lightweight procurement processes. While libraries must adhere to all applicable legal requirements, we need to make meaningful selections of technology in ways that allow libraries to more rapidly replace obsolete products.
- Develop budget models that adequately support technology costs. Libraries need to have realistic expectations of the resources that need to be allocated to technology as part of the strategic infrastructure to support their operations. The traditional licensing and maintenance structures make it expensive to use current versions of products and cheap to use outdated hardware and software. Suppliers need to offer pricing models with incentives for staying current and penalties for obsolescence. Software-as-a-service subscription pricing and open source licensing work toward this approach to a certain extent, but we also need more progressive pricing structures for locally-installed technology components.
None of these actions are especially revolutionary and there are probably many other obvious strategies that I've missed. I hope that that the community, vendors and libraries alike can work together to find sustainable ways to push through technology cycles more quickly.