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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Community Development

Smart Libraries Newsletter [September 2020]

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Almost all libraries rely on technology systems to manage their collection resources and provide access to their users. It is hard to imagine libraries carrying out their work without the assistance of some type of computer system. The level of involvement that a library will devote to its key technology products varies.

In the early phase of library automation history, some libraries developed their own systems in-house. This approach gave the library full control of the functionality of the software but came with a high cost, which ultimately proved to be unsustainable. Commercial products eventually replaced systems developed locally at the University of Texas, the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System, Claremont Colleges, Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Georgia, and many others. A few systems developed in-house were commercialized, such as NOTIS from Northwestern University Libraries, LIAS from Pennsylvania State University, and VTLS from the Virginia Tech University Libraries. Both Koha and Evergreen were developed as local library or consortium projects. They were released as open source and have seen widespread adoption.

Today's environment, however, is not favorable to the development of in-house library automation systems. The requirements are far too complex, and the costs of development are not sustainable unless spread out among large groups of libraries. While it is not practical for a library to gain full control of their technology environment through building it entirely internally, a wide range of options are available for gaining influence in the development of the systems they use.

Most libraries are not able to devote substantial resources toward the advancement of the technology products that they have implemented. They depend on the vendor to take responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the product. This approach does not mean that they are not sophisticated users of the product, but that they do not necessarily have the technical personnel or deep product expertise to advise or participate in the product's ongoing development. Even libraries with ambitious strategies for service and innovation may opt not to invest time in their core automation products, but rather to channel their time and attention to other areas of technology.

Other libraries, especially larger ones, opt to be more actively involved with their core technology products. These libraries have more complex requirements for their technology systems, which may not be entirely fulfilled. This group benefits from engaging with the product developers to help guide future enhancements to address unmet needs or changes in library services or operations. Library engagement with their technology systems and vendors can take a variety of forms.

User Groups and Conferences

User groups have formed around many of the major technology products to advocate the interests of the libraries that have implemented them. Many are governed independently from their respective vendors, ensuring that they represent the interests of the customers rather than the business interests of the company.

Customers of SirsiDynix Users Group, Inc. https://www. (Independent)

  • Innovative Users Group
  • Ex Libris Users of North America
  • International Group of Ex Libris Users
  • EBSCO User Group
  • koha-US
  • Evergreen Community

Each of the user group organizations depends on financial sponsorships and involvement with their respective vendors, though organizationally they are independent. These user groups convene annual conferences to conduct official business, such as coordinating enhancement requests, advisory panels, or other activities. They also facilitate sharing of information and experiences among users of the products. Vendors and customers facilitate educational sessions on product functionality or other topics of interest. These conferences also provide the vendors with a venue for presenting product roadmaps and to promote new products.

Product Development Partnerships

Many of the current products have emerged out of partnerships between libraries and vendors. It is a well-established practice for vendors to enlist a group of libraries as development partners or as beta test sites when launching a new product. These arrangements can be mutually beneficial in that they give libraries a voice in the early vision and design of a product. Vendors appreciate library input into product development to help ensure that their systems will be well received in the marketplace.

These partnerships require significant commitment of library personnel resources to help formulate functional requirements, validate product concepts, and test the software. Development partner libraries may also have opportunities to be early adopters of the products, often with significant price incentives. These arrangements usually tap individuals in the library with expertise in specific areas of functionality and do not necessarily require the library to perform technical software development.

Development Communities

Some libraries are interested in a deeper level of participation, including technical development. Larger libraries often use a variety of systems that need to exchange data and are interested in developing specialized services for their patrons or staff members. These libraries will often have programmers and other technologists on staff who are able to work with the APIs of multiple products and to develop scripts or applications beyond core product functions to meet the needs of their institution.

Many of the library technology products used by larger libraries offer APIs available to local programmers to establish interoperability with external systems and to create custom functionality. Vendors generally encourage this kind of technical work because it adds value to their products and facilitates the formation of developer communities. Prompted by pressures to facilitate open systems for programmatic access to the data and functionality of their systems, vendors work hard to create comprehensive APIs and to provide a collaborative environment for sharing customer-driven development. Many have created developer portals, which offer documentation for APIs, sandbox environments for testing code against the APIs, and code repositories for sharing contributions.

SirsiDynix was one of the earliest companies to offer an API to the libraries using its products. This command-line API has been available since the mid-1980s and provides read and write access to all data in the system and was made available to a customer site only after its system administrator completed a training course. The company has continued its emphasis on API access to its products via the Web Services layer, which offers modern RESTful API for its ILS products. SirsiDynix provides a Developer Community portal with access restricted to its customers.1

Ex Libris has a longstanding practice of encouraging technical development among its customer libraries. The company worked collaboratively with its customers to encourage local technical work with its Aleph ILS. This approach has accelerated with Alma, Primo, Leganto, and other recently launched products. Developers have convened annually for the Technical Seminar, usually in conjunction with the International Group of Ex Libris Users conference. A wide range of resources and a code repository in support of the technical development by customers is provided through the Ex Libris Developer Network portal.2

OCLC also works closely with its users in support of APIs and other technical work. It released the WorldCat Search API in 2008 and has since created APIs for its other products, including those based on the WorldShare platform. The OCLC Developer Network portal provides collaborative tools, documentation, and code repositories of interest to those working with its APIs and other technical components.3

Development communities have formed around each of the major open source products in the library technology arena. While the technical activity of proprietary products centers on the APIs, open source communities develop the application itself. Open source products may also produce APIs, which usually require a lower threshold of technical expertise to exploit compared to the internal code of the application. The open source Koha ILS has an extensive global community that takes responsibility for ongoing development, quality assurance, documentation, translation, and other activities. This community comprises developers representing dozens of support organizations as well as programmers in libraries using the product.4

Evergreen, implemented mostly by libraries in the United States and Canada, has a development community of similar scope, though of somewhat smaller scale than Koha.5

The FOLIO project has cultivated an extensive global development community that has been engaged for the past four years in the creation of this new open source library services platform. This newsletter has given extensive coverage of the FOLIO project, including recent implementation. The community maintains a wiki for resources supporting the FOLIO developers.6

As shown by this broad range of possibilities, libraries can choose the level of engagement with their core technology products and providers that best aligns with their priorities. Given the prevailing trend of fewer in-house technical personnel in libraries, these products need to work well without local technical intervention. Fortunately, technologists with many libraries have the expertise and interest in working with these strategic technology applications at a deeper level. Library-based developers have made a substantial number of contributions surrounding each of the major products, benefiting the broader library community.

The opportunities for library-based development continue to expand. The practice of developing applications and scripts based on APIs exposed by core library applications has become well established. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features a recent advancement in this space where library developers can create apps that run directly within the Ex Libris Alma platform, fully integrated within its native interface. An important innovation, this approach resonates with the concept of user-installable apps, the basis of mobile computing.


  1. SirsiDynix. “Developer Community.”
  2. ExLibris. “Developer Network.”
  3. OCLC. “Developer Network.”
  4. Koha.
  5. Evergreen.
  6. FOLIO Project. “FOLIO Wiki.”
  7. Blackboard. “Building Blocks in Learn SaaS.” _Blocks.
View Citation
Publication Year:2020
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 40 Number 09
Issue:September 2020
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:25485
Last Update:2024-04-15 20:49:52
Date Created:2020-09-08 13:55:14