I find that one of the most exciting aspects of the current library technology scene is the expanding diversity of available alternatives to libraries. Today we see vigorous competition among different models of software licensing and development, differing conceptual models of how best to frame library automation functionality, and a variety of technical alternatives to improve end-user discovery of library collections. It hasn't always been that way. In previous times, the main thrust of the library automation industry seemed to be a focus on competition among differing brands and models of integrated library systems that shared remarkably common models of functionality. The key business problem of libraries was the management of physical collections and each of the competing solutions offered basically the same set of integrated modules: cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, serials, and an online catalog. Sure, each product brought its own distinctive set of nuanced features, often optimized for particular types of libraries. But the points of differentiation were often subtle and were latched to assumptions about the work carried out by libraries that has since changed quite radically.
The expansion of library collections into ever increasing proportions of digital content and expectations to provide online full text access to articles has completely changed the basic expectations of library automation. The tasks that were addressed by the integrated library system of a decade ago now represent a shrinking proportion of needed functionality. A variety of different paths have been forged to fulfill this ever expanding and more complex suite of library technology requirements. Today we have some strategies where supplemental modules like electronic resource management complement the ILS to round out needed functionality. This approach allows libraries to build on the stable and mature ILS products that have evolved to deliver rich and nuanced functionality. It will be interesting to see the completion of projects like Ex Libris URM and Kuali OLE, which aim to offer a unified platform for managing diverse library collections. OCLC's WorldCat Management Service presents an alternative that divests libraries from the need to maintain local automation systems, relying instead on a globally shared technology platform. These examples show quite divergent visions of technology platforms to support library operations.
Another fascinating corner of activity in the library technology realm concerns the products designed to provide access to library collections and services. Components such as federated search utilities and OpenURL link resolvers layer have become fairly well established pieces of necessary infrastructure and have been popular add-ins for over a decade. Today the most active competition happens among the different alternatives for resource discovery. An initial wave of products—Aqua- Browser Library, Encore, Primo, VuFind, and Blackligh— made important progress in modernizing library interfaces up to the level of expectations set by other major Web destinations. A more recent round of products, including Summon, Primo Central, and EBSCO Discovery Service, takes resource discovery to a new level, broadening their reach into the massive universe of articles encompassed by a library's investments in subscriptions e-journal content. Until now, these products operated on the basis of massive indexes built in advance from content provided by the publishers and aggregators of this content. The newest entrant in this product category, Encore Synergy from Innovative Interfaces, provides discovery of a library's collection of articles without one of these prebuilt indexes. I'll present a more detailed look at Encore Synergy in this issue of SLN. Again, I see a broadly shared understanding of the problem of providing access to all the components of library collections, implemented through significantly different technology strategies.
I've covered each of these alternatives in some detail in previous issues of SLN; I'm just emphasizing the broader perspective that today, we don't just have competing products, but competing visions for how technology can help libraries fulfill their missions. Having more options is great for libraries, but presents more of a challenge to sort out which approach best aligns with any given library's strategic objectives, budget limitations, and service philosophy.