The end of 2015 and the start of 2016 seems to have delivered a number of interesting reports and presentations relevant to the library technology sphere. So Ken Chad’s latest paper ‘Rethinking the Library Services Platform‘ picks up on the lack of interoperability between library systems as does the new BiblioCommons report on the public library sector ‘Essential Digital Infrastructure for Public Libraries in England‘ commenting that “In retail, digital platforms with modular design have enabled quickly-evolving omnichannel user experiences. In libraries, however, the reliance on monolithic, locally-installed library IT has deadened innovation”.
As ‘Rethinking the Library Services Platform‘ notes, in many ways the term ‘platform’ doesn’t really match the reality of the current generation of library systems. They aren’t a platform in the same way as an operating system such as Windows or Android, they don’t operate in a way that third-parties can build applications to run on the platform. Yes, they offer integration to financial, student and reference management systems but essentially the systems are the traditional library management system reimagined for the cloud. Much of the changes are a consequence of what becomes possible with a cloud-based solution. So their features are shared knowledge bases, with multi-tenanted applications shared by many users as opposed to local databases and locally installed applications. The approach from the dwindling number of suppliers is to try to build as many products as possible to meet library needs. Sometimes that is by developing these products in-house (e.g. Leganto) and sometimes by the acquisition of companies with products that can be brought into the supplier’s eco-system. The acquisition model is exactly the same as that practised by both traditional and new technology companies as a way of building their reach. I’m starting to view the platform as much more in line with the approach that a company like Google will take with a broad range of products aiming to secure customer loyalty to their ecosystem rather than that of another company. So it may not be so surprising that technology innovation, which to my mind seems largely to be driven by vendors innovating to deliver to what they see as being library needs and shaped by what vendors think they see as an opportunity, isn’t delivering the sort of platform that is suggested. As Ken notes, Jisc’s LMS Change work discussed back in 2012 the sort of loosely-coupled, library systems component approach giving libraries to ability to integrate different elements to give the best fit to their needs from a range of options. But in my view options have very much narrowed since 2012/13.
The BiblioCommons report I find particularly interesting as it includes within it an assessment of how the format silos between print and electronic lead to a poor experience for users, in this case how ebook access simply doesn’t integrate into OPACs, with applications such as Overdrive being used that are separate to the OPAC, e.g. Buckinghamshire library services ebooks platform, and their library catalogue are typical. Few if any public libraries will have invested in the class of discovery systems now common in Higher Education (and essentially being proposed in this report), but even with discovery systems the integration of ebooks isn’t as seamless as we’d want, with users ending up in a variety of different platforms with their own interfaces and restrictions on what can be done with the ebook. In some ways though, the public library ebook offer, that does offer some integration with the consumer ebook world of Kindle ebooks, is better then the HE world of ebooks, even if the integration through discovery platforms in HE is better. What did intrigue me about the proposal from the BiblioCommons report is the plan to build some form of middleware system using ‘shared data standards and APIs’ and that leads to wondering whether that this can be part of the impetus for changing the way that library technology interoperates. The plan includes in section 10.3 the proposal to ‘deliver middleware, aggregation services and an initial complement of modular applications as a foundation for the ecosystem, to provide a viable pathway from the status quo towards open alternatives‘ so maybe this might start to make that sort of component-based platform and eco-system a reality.
Discovery is the challenge that Oxford’s ‘Resource Discovery @ The University of Oxford‘ report is tackling. The report by consultancy, Athenaeum 21, looks at discovery from the perspective of a world-leading research institution, with large collections of digital content and looks at connecting not just resources but researchers with visualisation tools of research networks, advanced search tools such as elastic search. The recommendations include activities described as ‘Mapping the landscape of things’, Mapping the landscape of people’, and ‘Supporting researchers established practices’. In some ways the problems being described echo the challenge faced in public libraries of finding better ways to connect users with content but on a different scale and includes other cultural sector institutions such as museums.
I also noticed a presentation from Keith Webster from Carnegie Mellon University ‘Leading the library of the future: W(h)ither technical services? This slidedeck takes you through a great summary of where academic libraries are now and the challenges they face with open access, pressure on library budgets and changes in scholarly practice. In a wide-ranging presention it covers the changes that led to the demise of chains like Borders and Tower records and sets the library into the context of changing models of media consumption. Of particular interest to me were the later slides about areas for development that, like the other reports, had improving discovery as part of the challenge. The slides clearly articulate the need for innovation as an essential element of work in libraries (measured for example as a % of time spent compared with routine activities) and also of the value of metrics around impact, something of particular interest in our current library data project.
Four different reports and across some different types of libraries and cultural institutions but all of which seem to me to be grappling with one issue – how do libraries reinvent themselves to maintain a role in the lives of their users when their traditional role is being erroded or when other challengers are out-competing with libraries – whether through improving discovery or by changing to stay relevant or by doing something different that will be valued by users.