Libraries have gone through incredible changes over the past few years, and it seems like the cycles of change will turn even faster in the future. Of course, the kinds of change depend on the type of library. The transformation of collections from print to electronic media, increasing involvement with digitization of local library materials and the development of new services to accommodate new generations of library users represent some of the many classes of change that impact libraries today.
I'm keenly interested in the how technology supports the missions of libraries, and how librarians can find the best match for their library's requirements among the products and services available. Today, libraries need a very different type of automation support for their operations than they did in the past.
It seems to me that many libraries struggle to find ways to apply technology products that they might have acquired some years ago because their operations have changed so much since those products were originally created. It seems like the automation products available for libraries have consistently lagged behind the curve when it comes to the technological changes that have played out in larger society. As a small niche of the information technology industry, it's not surprising that library technology isn't out on the cutting edge. But the conservative nature of libraries seems to hold us back in making bold moves in technology that might help us carry out our work more effectively. The library technology arena constantly battles to catch up with changes that have already been accepted and adopted in other IT sectors.
Discovery systems are an excellent example of how libraries struggle to keep up. Traditional library catalogs persisted as the primary end-user search interface long after new approaches developed on the broader Web. The approches that emerged on the web were far more powerful and easier to use. Since around 2006, a number of products have been developed that offer libraries a much more modern approach to providing access to their collections and services on the Web. While hundreds of libraries have implemented one of these new discovery-layer products, the vast majority of libraries continue to rely on older generation online catalogs. There seem to be many barriers that stand in the way of libraries keeping up with the times in the way that they use technology. For many, the costs of new technology exceed the funds available or lack the technical expertise on hand to move forward quickly. Others may not see the advantages offered by new technology products and are waiting for other approaches to develop that are more in line with their expectations, and some are waiting for the current products to mature.
Also factoring into this issue is the fact that different vendors offer competing approaches to the development of library technology products. As think about the history of library automation -- especially in the realm of integrated library systems -- the evolutionary approach has prevailed as the norm. In broad strokes, I see that most library technology products that have evolved over long periods of time. Only a few that have taken a more revolutionary approach, attempting to solve library automation issues in substantially new ways. Most of the ILS products in use today have seen steady evolution, some for many decades. The July 2008 issue of SLN, for example, outlined the longest evolutionary path, that of Urica in the 1970's to the ILS known as Spydus today.
Similar histories lie behind the path from INNOVAQ to INNOPAC to Millennium and Encore from Innovative Interfaces and in the progression of SirsiDynix Unicorn to Symphony. Against this apparent preference for evolved systems, it's relatively rare for new systems to emerge that depart from the established path. It's been a far safer business approach to attempt to reshape a system gradually than to launch an entirely new product without the constraints of existing features and code, arguably based on outdated concepts and architectures.
Today, we're finally seeing the emergence of some systems that attempt to break out of the mold cast by this longstanding evolutionary trend in integrated library systems. Among the systems that I would place into this category are Unified Resource Management, being developed by Ex Libris and Kuali OLE, an open source project led by Indiana University, under the umbrella of the Kuali Foundation, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In their respective proprietary and open source approaches, these two projects both aim to provide a new technology platform based on the current realities libraries face, especially the fundamental shift toward the dominance of electronic content instead of print. Likewise, OCLC's Web-scale Management Services makes a fairly drastic departure in the way that automation support takes place in the library, obviating the need for a local ILS.
In this issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we take a look at the progress of Ex Libris in the development of its Unified Resource Management framework. As a major research and development effort coming out of the largest company in the industry focused on research and academic libraries, this product, will be of major interest to the library community. We have recently covered the progress of OCLC's Web-scale Management Services; in an upcoming issue, we'll turn to the Kuali OLE project. In an industry where evolutionary systems dominate, such revolutionary systems face an uphill climb. It's this dynamic that makes the current era of library automation interesting. Libraries have more choices than ever beforeónot only among different vendor choices for an ILS, but for open source alternatives, and now for emerging technology platforms based on new conceptual models.