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Tucked away near the bottom of Hefce’s Shared Services announcement on Monday amongst the cloud computing, IT shared services and administrative systems was something that might well make a major impact on how academic libraries will operate in the next few years.

“a service to support electronic resource management. This will include:

  • shared systems and electronic resource management information
  • support for the management of licensing information for libraries and the resources they provide”

It’s interesting to me to see an initiative aimed at HE libraries being funded as part of a fairly high profile HE sector programme,  especially as it is looking at an aspect of HE library practice that is probably little understood outside of most academic libraries.  The funding announcement is the latest milestone in SCONUL’s Shared Services work (for the background look at the website here) and is a culmination (or at least a step on the way) of work by SCONUL, JISC and the group of consultants and academic libraries involved in the programme.

Monday’s Hefce announcement was timely as Wednesday saw the latest activity in SCONUL’s Shared Services work when I was with a group of academic library staff that got together with the SCONUL team in London to look at the latest work on Electronic Resources Management case studies. The case studies have been developed through a series of visits to some 16 universities who are helping to define a practical model for how ‘Shared Services’ might operate for ERM in HE libraries.  The case studies, available here, cover a range of ERM procurement workflows, from E-books, through budgeting, usage data and procurement of different types of electronic material.   The plan is to use the case studies and discussions to prepare a model of where ‘Above campus’ services might be feasible and look at what systems and services will be necessary to deliver the model.

With the likelihood that academic library budgets will be coming under increasing pressure over the next few years as HE adjusts to the new funding realities, Shared Services for libraries may allow libraries to reduce costs in the area of E-resource management.  It seems pretty clear that some difficult decisions are likely to be needed about what is core business, what has to be done locally, what can be shared, and what might have to be abandoned.    With Hefce now providing some money to move this project forward it seems a pretty clear indication that Shared Services is going to play some role in meeting the funding challenge.  It will be interesting to see how the project progresses.

“Every day I wake up and ask, ‘how can I flow data better, manage data better, analyse data better?”

Rollin Ford, the CIO of Wal-Mart

Quoted in A special report on managing information: Data, data everywhere
Economist, The (London, England) – February 27, 2010 Page: 71

Libraries and their attitude to user activity data.
In the commercial world there are countless examples of how the private sector uses the data about their customers, from Wal-Mart’s CIO (quoted above) through to supermarkets use of loyalty cards and to the recommendations that are commonplace in websites such as Amazon.  But examples of libraries use of this type of data are still quite rare and libraries have been very slow to take advantage of the vast pool of data they have about the behaviour of their users.  Libraries have long been used to using systems to count how many item have been borrowed or bought, but have been strangely reluctant to look in detail about what people are borrowing and use that data to help users make better informed choices.

Some work has been done through the TILE and MOSAIC projects, and the latter included anonymised circulation data made available by Huddersfield University and used to run a competition to encourage ideas around the use of that data.  JISC also ran an event earlier in the year about this area ‘Gaining Business Intelligence from User Activity Data’ which has been written up here and in the ALT newsletter.     Dave Pattern at Huddersfield is probably furthest along in working with this area and his blog is a good source for ideas about what can be achieved with user activity data.

Following on from the event in the Summer JISC have clearly been thinking about how to increase the pool of examples of how user activity data can be used so have included it as one of the strands in their recently announced Funding Call 15/10.   With £500k available for 7/10 six month projects to take place in the early part of 2011, there’s the opportunity for libraries to get involved in developing new ideas about how to use user activity data.

User Activity Data is a particularly interesting area for me as a good deal of the work that has been done so far has been around the use of loan data.  Working in a library where students don’t borrow books from us, or even visit the library, we’ve got to look at other areas of data.  Most of our users engage with us through using our e-resources and that’s an area that we are looking to see how we can collect, analyse, and use that data to improve services and offer recommendations to help users get more out of their e-resource usage.

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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