The battle of the library ecosystem: An introductory perspective – Ken Chad for LMS Change, April 2013
Looking at the top ten strategic technology trends for 2013, Gartner noted: “The market is undergoing a shift to more integrated systems and ecosystems and away from loosely coupled heterogeneous approaches”. The report goes on to say: “Driving this trend is the user desire for lower cost, simplicity, and more assured security. Driving the trend for vendors the ability to have more control of the solution stack and obtain greater margin in the sale as well as offer a complete solution stack in a controlled environment”. This is not to say the vendor develops and provides all the elements in the ecosystem. Apple is the obvious example here, providing a platform for the ‘community’ to develop content and apps, which are nonetheless delivered as part of an ‘ecosystem’ over which Apple exerts considerable control.
If this is a trend for technology in general, perhaps it is no surprise to see it beginning to be reflected in the library system environment. For example, we are seeing a new generation of library systems integrating ‘discovery services’, which had previously been ‘decoupled’. Marshall Breeding remarked on this trend at the LITA Top Tech Trends session at the 2012 annual American Library Association (ALA) conference: “As the back-end modernizes and becomes more comprehensive itself, and has more hooks into the remote resources […] it reintroduces the opportunity to integrate discovery and back-end automation.” As well as the re-integration of discovery services, these new platforms integrate back-end Electronic Resource Management (ERM) systems, which had been separate applications. For example, the ExLibris Alma Library Services Platform replaces both the Aleph library management system and the Verde ERM.
So what is, or might be, encompassed by a library technology ecosystem? In the last century we spoke of ‘stand alone’ library management systems and by the late 90s these systems had become functionally rich with many ‘modules’ to manage different aspects of library management. With the advent of more digital resources, especially electronic journals and the web, things became more complex. Lorcan Dempsey summed it up in 2007: “One of the main issues facing libraries as they work to create richer user services is the complexity of their systems environment. Reductively, we can think of three classes of systems – (1) the classic ILS [Integrated Library System] focused on ‘bought’ materials, (2) the emerging systems framework around licensed collections, and (3) potentially several repository systems for ‘digital’ resources”.
The number of elements or functions covered in such a systems environment – or ‘ecosystem’ – has grown over the years. In addition to the familiar modules of the library management system, the library may be responsible for, and have separate systems to manage, electronic journals and ebooks, reading lists, archives and special collections, local digital collections and the institutional repository for research outputs.
The range of library interest and responsibility has also extended into other areas of Teaching Learning and Research, which involve library-like skills (classification, curation) as well as links to library-managed resources. In some cases the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is also the responsibility of the library. And, as research data gets more attention, some libraries are developing a role in, and acquiring systems for, Research Data Management (RDM).
For the most part the landscape remains, however, one of silos rather than an interconnected, interoperable ‘ecosystem’. This is most obviously seen as users try to discover resources; navigating a number of systems with different search interfaces and methods of description and classification. Even such a basic element as a ‘name’ may appear differently in the library catalogue and institutional repository.
Some libraries have managed to bring a number of these silos together under a unified discovery service umbrella but with only partial success. Harmonising metadata to provide a single central index across such diverse systems and, from a vendor’s point of view, across many institutions is not a trivial task. Jisc recently described the problem in the following way: “Over the years various metadata schemas and models have emerged, but clarity on the best metadata strategy to adopt or how to achieve interoperability between scholarly systems has been a hard nut to crack.”
It is not yet clear whether ‘more integrated systems and ecosystems’ or ‘loosely coupled heterogeneous approaches’ will win out; as we have seen, Gartner suggests the former.
So as earlier generations of library management systems gradually encompassed more and more ‘modules’ (circulation, cataloguing, acquisitions, serials, OPAC, etc), will a coherent ecosystem develop to knit together the now extended landscape of system silos? The trend seems to be that way but it is at a very early stage.
As noted above, library resource management and discovery is becoming ‘unified’ across both print and electronic (primarily e-journal articles) resources in next generation ‘library services platforms’. Vendors clearly have ambitions to extend the ecosystem to digital repositories and digital archives – for example, ExLibris positions their ‘Rosetta’ preservation product in this way.
However, progress remains slow and each ‘silo’ still retains distinct approaches to metadata and, perhaps inevitably, to workflows. The cross-domain Europeana project has mandated ‘semantic elements’ (Dublin Core based) to bring some order to the field. The problem is recognised outside libraries, with Google and other search services cooperating on a common metadata ‘schema’ that is gaining attention in the library domain. These do represent progress but in Jisc’s view: “The use of schemas and also vocabularies associated with particular fields (restricted set of keywords/classifications) has been patchy at best”.
As institutions work together and share library systems, the need for harmonisation of data and workflows increases. As technology moves to ‘the cloud’ and as libraries begin to share common cloud -based ‘multi-tenant’ library services platforms, the opportunity for a more integrated library ecosystem may grow. Higher Education is naturally wary of giving vendors ‘control of the solution stack’ so may continue to value a ‘loosely coupled’ approach, perhaps containing strong elements of open source software and ‘above-campus’ community services. But in hard economic times, if a vendor-controlled integrated ecosystem can deliver “lower cost, simplicity, and more assured security”, as suggested by Gartner above, it may prove very attractive.