Two things this week made me think about how the HE library landscape might be changing in the next few years.  One, was the SCONUL Shared Services event, the other was Lorcan Dempsey’s keynote presentation from the emtacl conference in Norway that is now on the web (http://www.ntnu.no/ub/emtacl/?programme).

The connection between the two was that both saw a potential future for libraries in the networked environment where shared services had a part to play.  One of the comments that is sometimes made in relation to shared services in HE is that things are different in HE because HE institutions are competing with each other.  I’d question how much of the institution’s competitive edge the library represents and I’d argue that the distinctive elements are more likely to be in their customer service, expertise or collection quality rather than their systems.

Amongst his remarks on the network effect and how much that will lead to changes Lorcan pointed to examples from the commercial world where companies like Netflix buy-in services from Amazon who are a competitor, because of Amazon’s expertise, which represent the best available.  In the library world Lorcan saw much duplication of activities around libraries with “redundant, complex systems apparatus will have to be simplified” with “a move to shared infrastructure in the cloud”

The SCONUL Shared Services event covered a model for how Shared Services might work for HE libraries.  The day was spent talking about the Shared Services study Business Case that was submitted to Hefce towards the end of 2009 requesting pathfinder funding. (http://helibtech.com/file/view/091204%20SCONUL%20Shared%20Service%20-%20for%20distribution.pdf)

SCONUL Shared Services domain model

In brief the report proposed a three phase set of developments:

1.  the creation of a national-level managed ERM system that would manage national level subscriptions to resources and a national ERM licensing service – rather than each HE library having their own ERM processes

2. the creation of a Discovery to Delivery service that would combine the national ERM entitlement data with authentication and search services at a national level

3. removing duplication with library management systems, using the national-level authentication infrastructure and inter-operating with institutional systems

The expectation is that savings would be made by reducing duplication in licensing and rights management, by saving on the cost of e-licence deals by negotiating national subscriptions (going beyond the opt-in model) – so individual HE libraries would do less rights/licensing work, there would be savings in the cost of local ERM systems, licensing staff and Search/LMS costs/LMS support staff.

Unfortunately Hefce have not approved the request for pathfinder money so SCONUL are looking at what options there are to move this forward.  There was the feeling at the meeting that the ERM element could be an achievable step, although a lot of detail still needs to be sorted out.  The suggestion was made that progress could be made if enough HEIs were prepared to contribute a small amount to getting it off the ground.    The general view was that we should be doing this, but probably more realistically not as a single large project but as a step by step process.  JISC and SCONUL are keen to move it on but it isn’t all that clear how it might be funded.

Thinking about the proposals there are a few things that strike me about it:

  • I wonder about the realism of the timetable – mainly in relation to whether this can happen quickly enough given the likely scenario of major cuts in funding for the sector.
  • I must admit to a slight sense of déjà-vu – having sat through a lot of the MLA Stock Services review in public libraries – and seen that go from proposals for shared services to something that just ran into the ground – then I’m interested to see how the HE library sector tackles something like this and whether it has any more success with instituting such a major network-scale change.
  • Others are a lot more qualified to comment on the technical practicality of some of the developments but I find it strange that while there are several examples of shared library management systems (LLC, SELMS for example), there are few in HE these days.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months and what opportunities there are to get involved.

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