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Crossing the Threshold: Boston College Places Alma into Production

Smart Libraries Newsletter [August 2012]

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Copyright (c) 2012 ALA TechSource

Abstract: On July 2, 2012, the Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Library of Boston College became the first to place Alma, the library services platform created by Ex Libris, into production use. The library migrated from an Aleph system in place since 2000. Boston College had been working with Ex Libris since mid-2009 as a development partner, testing each incremental release of the software, and providing constructive feedback. The library is a member of the Association of Research Libraries, with a staff numbering around 120, and a collection of 3.5 million volumes.


On July 2, 2012, the Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Library of Boston College became the first to place Alma, the library services platform created by Ex Libris, into production use. The library migrated from an Aleph system in place since 2000. Boston College had been working with Ex Libris since mid-2009 as a development partner, testing each incremental release of the software, and providing constructive feedback. The library is a member of the Association of Research Libraries, with a staff numbering around 120, and a collection of 3.5 million volumes.

Christine Conroy, Associate University Librarian for Collection Services, reported, “The entire process has gone very smoothly. It has been a very long road in the development and implementation of Alma, but it was placed into production without major disruption. We received excellent support from Ex Libris throughout the process.”

The library has fully migrated away from Aleph, though the incumbent system will remain available to library staff to consult in read-only mode for a limited period. The fiscal year close was performed on Aleph at the end of May 2012. New acquisitions and all current operations are now being performed on Alma. This first production implementation of Alma marks a major milestone in the product's development cycle. In the library software arena, new products are generally regarded skeptically until they gain credibility proven through use in production. Other libraries interested in Alma will naturally keep a close eye on how it fares at Boston College in the coming months.

Continuing a History of Vendor Cooperation

Boston College has an established history of collaboration with Ex Libris. It also worked as an early adopter of Aleph in North America, beginning in 1999, and was the second major US library to place that ILS into production, following Notre Dame University. While Aleph had been implemented previously throughout Europe, significant adjustments were needed for the system to work well with the automation workflows prevalent in US libraries.

The development efforts toward this initial release of Alma took place over the course of three years, beginning with conceptual exploration. From the initial kick-off in June 2009 through the final migration in July 2012, involvement mostly involved department heads. More staff became involved, starting with the testing phase and continuing as the process approached implementation. Ex Libris provided the development partners five incremental releases of the software that included a growing set of functionality for testing and evaluation.

As development partners, Boston College personnel gained early access to the software for testing and evaluation. Conroy indicated that participation as a development partner enabled the library to have an impact on the functionality, resulting in a product better able to meet its operational needs. Other institutions serving as development partners with Ex Libris for Alma include Princeton University, Purdue University, and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Libraries in Belgium, which includes the LIBIS network of 30 independent libraries. A number of other academic and research libraries have committed to be early adopters, including more than a dozen academic libraries in the United States such as Fort Hays State University in Kansas, National University in San Diego, CA, nine universities in Europe, and members of the UNILINC consortium in Australia.

Some additional production implementations will be released among the development partners and early adopters later in 2012, with others scheduled for 2013. Time frames for specific institutions have not been stated publicly. We observe that Ex Libris has been cultivating a pipeline of libraries to implement Alma in this early adoption cycle, paving the way for larger numbers of libraries ready to move away from aging, legacy integrated library systems to a proven, new-generation product.

Impact on Patrons

The transition from Aleph to Alma at Boston College was largely transparent to library patrons because the library had been using Primo with Aleph since 2007. Only minor differences apply to the features of Primo when it is used as the enduser interface with Alma. The key difference lies in the absence of the Aleph online catalog that was offered as a secondary option prior to the transition to Alma. While not including collection browsing based on authority headings, which were a standard feature of traditional online catalogs, Primo offers advanced search options with operators including contains, exact, and starts with that, according to Conroy, satisfies much of the need for traditional searching capabilities.

Conroy reports that the new environment with Primo as the patron interface has been well accepted by faculty and students. The library offered demonstrations of the new system during the spring semester to faculty in preparation for the migration. Complete reliance on discovery services without the fallback of a traditional online catalog applies not only to Alma, but also to other new-generation products. The scope and functionality of these products differ significantly from integrated systems and the concept of a traditional online catalog. Structured search techniques addressing the print collection are no longer applicable. Although many libraries have implemented discovery services with broad scope, many continue to offer access to the online catalog of their integrated library system.

Shift from Local to Cloud-Based Infrastructure

In implementing Alma, Boston College has also shifted to cloud-based technologies for its basic automation services. The library's Aleph resided on servers housed within Boston College, while its new configuration relies entirely on software hosted by Ex Libris, including both Alma and Primo. The library also previously operated a local instance of SFX, which is no longer needed as this functionality is subsumed within Alma.

Ex Libris has established data centers to host its products, with two sites in the United States, one in The Netherlands, with others coming online in other global regions later this year. Boston College continues to use a local implementation of DigiTool, the digital collection management application purchased from Ex Libris, for its 19 locally curated collections of photographs, manuscripts, newspapers, journals, or other publications.

Fulfilling the Vision of Unified Resource Management

From its inception, Ex Libris has characterized Alma as providing “unified resource management,” referring to the product by that designation until the Alma brand was launched in January 2011. Rather than operating separate applications for managing print and electronic resources, Alma aims to provide a single platform supporting workflows for different formats of library materials. Prior to the transition to Alma, Boston College used a locally developed application for managing its electronic resources and Aleph for its print collection. The library shifted away from both, fulfilling the basic unification promised. All relevant data was migrated from both the local electronic resource management system and from Aleph into Alma.

The Boston College library has separate units for maintaining its electronic resources and for the acquisitions and cataloging of monographs. Both of these groups now operate on a common platform and work together closely, though the separate organizational structure persists. Conroy reports that the library is already seeing efficiencies in the way that Alma works relative to the systems it replaced.

Alma supports a hybrid data model where a Community Zone is available for metadata or content resources shared across the libraries using the product and the Local Zone for institution-specific data. At least initially, Boston College has chosen to manage its MARC-based bibliographic database in the Local Zone. The knowledge base describing e-resource holdings, however, resides in the Community Zone, supporting both link resolution and management of electronic subscriptions.

Competitive Context

Alma fits with a genre of products termed library service platforms, which have substantial differences from the category of integrated library systems. Some of the general characteristics of library service platforms include:

  • comprehensive management of library materials across print, electronic, and digital formats,
  • reliance on service-oriented architecture,
  • exposing APIs for extensibility and interoperability,
  • design for deployment through multi-tenant softwareas-a-service,
  • and data models that enable inter-institutional cooperative metadata management.

Other products that fit, at least to some extent, include OCLC WorldShare Management Services, Intota from Serials Solutions, Sierra from Innovative Interfaces, and the community source Kuali OLE project.

In general terms, we are now in the late development and early deployment of these new products, with each on a somewhat different timeline for roll-out. OCLC WorldShare Management Services saw its first production implementations in late 2010. Hillsdale College was the first to put Innovative's Sierra into production in April 2012. The Kuali OLE project expects to see its initial release completed towards the end of 2012, with investing partner libraries beginning migrations in 2013.

Business Strategy Based On Research and Development

Ex Libris has made significant investments in the development of Alma. The company devotes more resources to software development than any other in the industry, allocating 170 of its 512 personnel to this activity (Source “Automation Marketplace,” Library Journal. April 2012). Not all of the company's development capacity has gone toward Alma; it continues development of Primo and Primo Central discovery service, maintains the Aleph and Voyager integrated library systems, and a variety of other products. Research and development has played an important role in the company's business strategy, producing products that initiate new categories, such as its commercialization of SFX OpenURL link resolver in 1999, the Rosetta digital preservation platform in 2009, or the bX Scholarly Recommender Service in 2009. This development-oriented business strategy results in a mix of products that the company can market in future years. While Alma is now making the transition from development into very early production phase, we can anticipate a very long sales cycle where it competes to displace legacy products over the course of the next decade.

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Publication Year:2012
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 32 Number 8
Issue:August 2012
Page(s):3-5
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Company: Ex Libris
Products: Alma
Libraries: Boston College
ISSN:1541-8820
Record Number:17168
Last Update:2013-06-22 13:26:19
Date Created:2012-08-28 14:14:13