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Forging Ahead Through Times of Major Transitions

Computers in Libraries [December 2011]

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Copyright (c) 2011 Information Today

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Abstract: Despite many factors that present libraries and librarians with challenges of enormous concern, I continue to be optimistic that the institution and the profession will prosper well into the distant future. The siege against library funding continues. How libraries manage the shifting legal and licensing scenarios of ebooks will be a key factor in our future success. As the prevailing paradigm of technology enters a new phase favoring cloud-based technologies, the dominance of the current client/server library automation products will inevitably wane as new products enter the market and existing products evolve. The era of cloud computing brings change to the ways that libraries deploy technology and how they engage in their own development. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that we're in a time of epic transitions. In this month's column, we'll explore a few of these trends and transitions and their implications for libraries.


Despite many factors that present libraries and librarians with challenges of enormous concern, I continue to be optimistic that the institution and the profession will prosper well into the distant future. The siege against library funding continues. How libraries manage the shifting legal and licensing scenarios of ebooks will be a key factor in our future success. As the prevailing paradigm of technology enters a new phase favoring cloud-based technologies, the dominance of the current client/server library automation products will inevitably wane as new products enter the market and existing products evolve. The era of cloud computing brings change to the ways that libraries deploy technology and how they engage in their own development. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that we're in a time of epic transitions. In this month's column, we'll explore a few of these trends and transitions and their implications for libraries.

Constrained Resources

It seems that libraries of all types have found themselves dealing with unpleasant budget realities over the last few years. I'm not necessarily optimistic that we'll ever fully recover and regain the levels of funding enjoyed in previous years. Libraries will face a continual imperative to accomplish more with fewer resources. This economic reality has direct implications for the ways that libraries approach the technologies they adopt in support of their operations.

Operational Efficiencies

Decreased staffing levels in public libraries will result in higher needs for any technology, product, or service that facilitates operational efficiencies. In the same way that economic pressures have decreased library budgets, they have also driven upward demand for library services. For example, circulation for many public libraries has increased. At the same time, involvement with electronic and digital collections continues to rise. Academic libraries see ever-greater emphasis on subscriptions to electronic scholarly resources. And both public and academic libraries see increased interest in ebooks.

In handling physical materials: Public libraries and others that circulate high volumes of physical materials find some relief through new technologies (generally based on radio frequency identification [RFID] tags) that provide opportunities to meet demands with fewer personnel. Investments in equipment and software - mostly through one-time upfront costs - can help libraries construct the automation infrastructure needed to compensate for reduced staffing realities. Almost any new or renovated library will take the opportunity to launch with RFID-enabled collections, and I expect to see increasing numbers of existing facilities phase in this technology. I think that demand for products that enable patron self-service for checkouts and returns will rise steadily. I should also mention that self-service and automated material handling products aren't synonymous with RFID. Also available are versions of these products that work with bar code identification or hybrid bar code and RFID environments.

The motivation for patron self-service should not be driven just by the need to deal with funding issues. More importantly, regardless of the resources available, libraries should direct their personnel to activities with the highest impact. Shifting personnel away from routine tasks such as checking out materials and channeling them toward more proactive services might be a strategy that some libraries choose regardless of budgetary circumstances.

In managing electronic content and digital collections: The other area of operational efficiency that will increasingly demand attention involves the need to align the allocation of effort in proportion to library strategies and collection strengths. Libraries that primarily depend on legacy library automation systems that specialize primarily in the management of inventories of physical collections while they expend most of their collection funds on electronic content may find themselves in a state of misalignment. Both the effort to maintain these systems and the personnel involved in operating them can easily exceed the relative priority of the materials being managed.

Personnel allocations should be reasonably consistent with library collection spending and strategic priorities. If a library finds itself in a state where a disproportionately small number of its personnel work in areas of managing electronic resources and digital collections, it may not be a simple matter to address.

A prerequisite might involve investing in the automation tools needed to better manage these collection components. These tools might take the form of electronic resource management systems or, even better, platforms designed to manage all the forms and formats of library collections. Many of the platforms recently announced or released embrace this ideal, including OCLC Web- scale Management Services, Serials Solutions' yet unnamed web-scale management solution, Ex Libris' Alma, and the Kuali OLE project. While the adoption cycle is in an early phase, it seems that these new products have the potential of helping libraries gain better operational efficiency in the way they manage their collections.

In parallel with the rollout of these new products, I also anticipate accelerated evolution of the traditional products, which will remain major contenders in the arena of library automation. There's plenty of room for both evolutionary adaptation of existing products and the revolutionary approach of launching new products from a clean slate.

Ebook Challenges

The rise of interest in ebooks in the general population translates into direct implications for libraries. Library involvement with ebooks isn't new at all. For many years, libraries have taken advantage of products and services such as OverDrive, NetLibrary, and ebrary. Other aggregated databases and other content resources contain increasing proportions of ebooks in addition to articles from ejournal s . Yet, now we are seeing dramatic changes in this arena. The proliferation of affordable tablets and e-readers as well as efficient sales channels for ebooks have begun to make significant inroads into at least some segments of the general population. New library-oriented services such as the 3M Cloud Library have entered the scene.

We can anticipate that ebooks will represent one of the major challenges that libraries will have to tackle in the next few years. While it's clear that increased interest ranks as an important trend, what's less clear are the ways that libraries will approach this issue. I see a need to better integrate all aspects of the management of ebooks into the general automation infrastructure, providing the same granularity of control for selecting, acquiring, and describing these materials from a variety of suppliers. There is also significant room for improvement in the ways that libraries loan ebooks to patrons, simplifying the procedure from a complex multistep process to something radically more user-friendly.

Device Agnosticism

The rising use of smartphones and tablets has enormous implications for how libraries shape their services. No longer can libraries be content to have websites oriented primarily toward machines with full-screen displays, such as desktop and laptop computers. Rather, it's essential to provide support for a full spectrum of devices.

The current effort seems mostly oriented toward providing mobile apps for specific components of the library's web-based services. We've seen the release of library -oriented mobile products that typically include some kind of catalog search and basic information about library services, as well as features such as the ability to submit reference questions.

While it's essential to begin to support mobile devices, over time, libraries might expect that each of the patron-facing services they offer comes with flexible device support built in. Addressing mobile as an entirely separate endeavor seems to be a cumbersome approach that will ultimately be difficult to maintain. As the library aims to have a more unified and coherent presence on the web, it should likewise aim that these qualities extend to how it is accessed by mid-sized devices such as tablets.

Cloud Computing

Last month's column was dedicated to this important trend and how it stands to bring big changes to the ways that libraries engage with technology. Libraries have to be strategic in the way that they deploy their resources, and they must focus the expertise and talents of their personnel on activities with the highest impact relative to their core services. Shifting portions of their technology infrastructure away from systems housed and managed on premises to external hosting arrangements such as through software as a service allows the library to rebalance the allocation of its personnel. Efforts formerly applied toward the maintenance of servers, their operating systems, and application software can be funneled into the development of services with more of a direct impact for users.

Increased Engagement With Technology Development

I think that libraries will become more engaged in the development of technology products and services. This involvement will take the form of participation in open source projects and through partnerships with vendors.

For many libraries, the path to deeper engagement with technology will take the form of partnerships with commercial organizations. No savvy software development firm would take on the creation of new products without significant involvement from potential users. Success for new products depends on input on the basic conceptual design and functional requirements as well as on testing new releases. Early adopters of new products and services take on a bit of additional risk relative to those who purchase them later on but often benefit from financial incentives and have a stronger voice in the development trajectory of the particular product or service.

Opportunities also abound on the open source front. Many libraries will adopt and participate in the development of open source automation products such as Koha, Evergreen, and Kuali OLE and in discovery products including VuFind, Blacklight, and the extensible Catalog. Open source options exist in other product categories such as web content management platforms (Drupal, Joomla!), institutional repository platforms (DSpace, Fedora, DuraSpace), and archives management (Archivist's Toolkit).

A wealth of tools and utilities can be found on the web to support library development projects, and many of them cost nothing to use. Tasks that formerly required a library programmer to create, such as constructing a web-based survey instrument, can be deployed readily through free services by library personnel with no technical training. Anyone comfortable navigating through web-based services can make use of an incredible array of services that might fulfill the various computing needs that arise in the daily life of libraries.

Platform Programming

Another strategic approach in which libraries will become further engaged with technology development will involve the creation of new services on top of relevant platforms. One of the most interesting and important characteristics of today's technology environment involves the ability to take advantage of application programming interfaces on any major product to extend its functionality or to create entirely new services.

Platform as a service, one of the key flavors of cloud computing, allows programmers to create new applications based on a highly abstracted model. Programmers need not deal with hardware or operating systems; instead they can write code that runs on top of a cloudbased platform such as the Google App Engine or Heroku. Such an approach might be used for the creation of general-purpose applications.

Much of what libraries might need to accomplish isn't so much to create something completely new and separate but to extend or enhance the functionality delivered by their existing software platforms, or even to create entirely new services but base those services on the underlying data and services. Library programmers will increasingly build on top of the APIs exposed by their strategic automation platforms. The assets of those automation platforms, including data related to collections and users as well as the tools to manipulate that data, represent the building blocks of new and innovative services that the library can create.

Examples of this kind of platform computing can already be seen in the development communities that have formed around specific library-oriented environments, such as the OCLC Developer Network (www.oclc.org/devel oper) and El Commons for the various products of Ex Libris (www.exlibris group.org/display/ElCommons).

Vendor Opportunities

At first glance, it might seem the general decline of library funding would not be good news for the organizations that provide technology products and services to libraries. On the contrary, I think that there will continue to be attractive opportunities for organizations that produce technology products in ways that recognize the changes currently in play.

We're at the beginning of a long cycle of transition to a new set of automation platforms. Anew set of flagship products will replace existing legacy systems over the next decade. The turnover of legacy systems has provided important fuel to the library automation industry in the past, and it will into the future. This round of migrations brings in not only a new slate of products with new visions of functionality but a new deployment model as well, as most are offered through software as a service.

Increased adoption of strategic automation products through software as a service will translate into a positive business proposition for providers, while enabling lower total cost of ownership for libraries. In decades past, the total revenues for many library automation vendors were higher than those seen today, but a considerable amount was for hardware. Today, most libraries purchase their own hardware. A library automation economy based increasingly on software as a service will translate into higher revenues for providers, since the subscriptions will include hosting as well as software functionality.

I'm optimistic that software as a service will prove mutually beneficial relative to libraries and vendors. To be of benefit to the library, the software-as-aservice subscription cost must fall below what would otherwise be paid for the cumulative cluster of expenses for software licenses and support, local servers and associated infrastructure, and personnel costs. For vendors, advantages lie in incremental fees for hosting services as well as the inherent efficiencies this model offers in development, in deploying upgrades, and in product support.

No Shortage of Challenges and Opportunities

Although I've had the same thoughts many times before, it seems like the current juncture represents one of the most interesting and important times in the realm of library technologies. The combined effect of declines in funding, increases in activity, changes in the publishing industry, and the shift toward web-based and cloud computing presents enormous challenges to libraries ... and hopefully opportunities to adapt in ways that will ultimately strengthen their impact on the communities they serve.

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Publication Year:2011
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 10
Issue:December 2011
Page(s):26-30
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:16440
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:2012-01-11 19:35:38