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Kindle screenI’ve been wondering about ebooks and libraries for a while, in particular about where things are going in terms of library use of ebooks.  What caught my eye this week was a blog post on the Publishers’ Weekly blog here by Peter Brantley about Penguin pulling their ebooks out of the Overdrive system.   The bit that particularly caught my attention was this statement:

I am very sympathetic to the sobering prognosis that in the longer run there’s not much future for libraries in providing access to ebooks. If for no other reason, it is likely that ebooks will evolve into a great variety of objects, some of which are widely distributed on the net and not neatly packaged; many others will be enhanced into proprietary versions that will only work on a single platform.

The thing that particularly interested me in the quote was that there is the assumption that these are insurmountable ‘technical’ issues that would stop libraries from lending ebooks.  And I don’t know that any library would consider that to be the case.  I doubt that many people would suggest that the currrent format of ebooks is in any way a finished article, I’m sure that they will change and evolve over time.  But whatever the format, libraries will still see their role as trying to connect the user with the content.

The platform issue puzzles me slightly.  I think there are interesting parallels with the early days of video, where VHS won out over Betamax, and in more recent time when BluRay came through.  If you turn and look at computer games, then the different platforms still continue to co-exist, and many libraries lend selections of material in different formats.  I’m not sure that it is the platform that is the issue with ebooks.  Yes some of the formats and platforms may die, in the way that music cassettes largely disappeared as CD took over.  But the issue seems to me more to do with the publishers and platform providers positioning themselves for competitive advantage and not wanting to open their content up to a readership through libraries.

If you set aside the format issue for a moment and you look at the model that academic libraries have been able to take with providing access to ebooks.  Then we see them providing access to ebooks from different publisher collections with direct links to the ebooks on publishers websites, sometimes with ebook metadata added into the library catalogue or knowledge base to provide direct access.  Now I know that public libraries largely don’t have the infrastructure to provide remote access to collections of electronic material in this way so they have tended to go with a single aggregator.  But it seems to me that building and mantaining an infrastructure to let public libraries continue to provide access to ebooks, either as a collaborative shared service or as a commercial service (such as Overdrive) isn’t a particular issue.

Where format is an issue, is in terms of how the end-user uses the content.  While the ebook publication model is currently based mostly, it seems to me, on trying to lock users into a proprietary platform, it seems to me that we will see changes to that model over time.  Maybe the number of platforms will shrink, maybe the formats will start to move towards a standard, or one platform/format become dominant.  So if ebook publishers or aggregators want to make their material available through libraries, then there isn’t insurmountable ‘technical’ issues to stop that happening.

Which seems to leave the argument being about whether publishers and aggregators want their ebook content available through libraries.  And it seems to me that  the reasons why publishers might want their content to be lent through libraries are exactly the same reasons why printed books are lent through libraries, it encourages reading, it encourages literacy and surveys suggest that library readers are also heavy purchasers of books.  So if you want to get people into the habit of reading, using and buying ebooks, especially when you are building a new market, wouldn’t you want to use all means to encourage people to try out ebooks?

Ohio university library catalogue

The catalogue
Sitting in a meeting the other day, with library staff from across the library, and talking about ‘the catalogue’ it quickly became obvious that there simply wasn’t a single view anymore of what the catalogue was.  What should be contained within it, how it should be organised, what role it should play in our library systems, what skills we needed to maintain it, or what it might look like in the future.  We all had different views, in part as a consequence of our different roles, with some seeing it from the perspective of users finding access to resources and others seeing it in terms of being a single place to list everything we had purchased, owned or licensed.   Despite these different perspectives the one thing we seemed to have in common was a feeling that somehow the catalogue no longer met all our needs in its current shape.

That discussion also brought to mind the ‘Squeezed Middle’ workshop, where it also became clear that the definition of what a library management system was has also become unclear.  And that makes me wonder, how and why, the definition of the fundamental technical infrastructure behind our day to day operations became so unclear.  How did an everyday tool like the catalogue, previously the undisputed gateway to library resources, start to lose that position?

The LMS, then and now
Library Management System, then and now
Thinking it through, it seemed easier to sketch out the landscape and the way it has changed as it makes it much easier to see quite how crowded the library systems environment has become.  And there are certainly a few other systems, such as PC Booking systems, wifi networking and RFID self-service that could be added into the diagram on the right-hand side to make it even more complicated. 

Whereas in the past we would put everything into the LMS, maybe that was because there wasn’t any other system that you could use.  Now a range of other systems are available, and many of them also have their own ‘catalogue-type’ service.  I’d probably contend that the reason that these other systems are available is because of failings in the LMS in that it hasn’t adapted quickly enough or is flexible enough, or is just positioned in the wrong space to be the comprehensive system that it once was.  From my perspective one of the things that the diagram brings home is that we are trying to do a lot more different types of things in libraries that we simply weren’t doing before.

So what has changed?
Lorcan Dempsey uses the phrases ‘Inside-out’ and ‘Outside-in’ to characterise roles around publishing content from inside the organisation to the outside world and making content from the outside world findable for your internal audience.   For print and archival collections the role of libraries used to be about publishing the contents of their collections (‘inside-out’), but now where electronic resources are a large part of the academic library offer, a great deal of effort goes into the ‘outside-in’ role through discovery systems, federated search and OpenURL/Knowledge Base systems.

In the past simple descriptive cataloguing, which largely describes the container rather than the content, was adequate to describe a book.  But now as the amount of content we have access to increases exponentially, describing the container rather than content isn’t sufficient.  As libraries create more content in digital libraries, make more use of video and audio material and start to work on expressing bibliographic data as linked data, it starts to become apparent that describing the ideas inside the container is of more value to users trying to find related (or even contrary) ideas.  As format becomes less relevant in a digital age where material can be accessed directly online, the descriptive element of cataloguing  becomes a statement of archival interest rather than an aid to finding the material.

Direction of travel
LMS suppliers in some cases seem to be trying to re-establish the comprehensive all-in-one solution (e.g. Alma from ExLibris) although the way these systems are being offered, either partly or wholly in the cloud, or as collaborative or shared systems, recognises some new realities around resources and costs.  Webscale platform services seems to be the new buzzword (buzzphrase maybe?), e.g. OCLC WorldShare™ Platform that combine typical LMS services with discovery services in a shared cloud.

Certainly collaborative systems, whether the community elements of Alma, or the Knowledge Base Plus e-resource systems that are planned, seem currently to be the likely direction of development for many systems. 

Lorcan Dempsey’s slides and video from the ‘Squeezed Middle’ have now been made available.  The slides are on the OCLC website here and the video of the presentation is on YouTube here and embedded below.

The video was used during the ‘Squeezed Middle’ workshop to introduce the initial piece of work to look at trends in terms of Collections, Space, Systems and Expertise/Services. 

Reflections on the presentation
The contrast between between libraries that grew up at an institutional scale and now face challenges from organisations that are the product of the network webscale environment was interesting to hear articulated in this way.  Drawing lessons from how other industries have had to adapt, Lorcan referenced John Hagel’s ‘Unbundling the corporation’ paper from Harvard Business Review from 1999 and talked about the trend towards greater specialisation.  Talking about three elements of customer engagement, innovation and infrastructure, and offering up a number of interesting examples from the University of Michigan and elsewere, Lorcan offered the view that priorities for libraries should be around engagement and innovation, with reducing effort going into infrastructure. 

I was quite interested to hear the Discovery solutions characterised as ‘data wells’ with an intriguing question about what other content aggregators such as Thomson and Elsevier might do.  Picking up on the point about a key factor being ‘disclosure’ of your content to the network-scale services such as Google Books and Google Scholar (with a comment about 75% of Minnesota’s SFX requests coming from outside the institution), it does make me wonder what the longer-term role might be of the current generation of ‘Discovery’ services.

Following on from the JISC/SCONUL ‘Squeezed Middle’ workshop that I blogged about earlier.  Paul Stainthorp has blogged about his experience and included the paper he presented on his blog here.  Ben Showers, from JISC, has also blogged about the event here on the JISC Digital Infrastructure Team blog.   Links to Ken Chad’s [update to the update: now available here] and David Kay’s provocations/presentations and Lorcan Dempsey’s video are also promised.  There’s also a useful list of the priorities that came out of the workshop, put together by David Kay, here.  This list sets out the priorities in five different areas: ebooks, non-traditional assets, end-user applications, library roles and above campus services.

New JISC call
One of the motivations behind the workshop was to help to inform (both JISC and the HE community) about a new JISC call (12/01) that includes a couple of LMS strands.  One covers a project to create “a new vision for the future of library systems and a ‘roadmap’ for the delivery of that vision”.  There certainly seems to be a lot more activity in the LMS systems area at the moment with new products, open source solutions and shared systems.    The second strand covers a set of “pathfinder projects to investigate a broad range of potential new models and approaches to library systems and services”.  The themes within this area cover Shared library systems, emerging tools and technologies and emerging library systems opportunities.  There are quite a wide range of different aspects touched on in the call paper, ranging through reference management to data.  A lot of potential for some interesting ideas to emerge.

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February 2012

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