Library Systems


Lorcan Dempsey, in his blog in July 2007, provides a concise and still relevant analysis of the issues for the library systems environment: “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 focused on ‘bought’ materials, (2) the emerging systems framework around licensed collections, and (3) potentially several repository systems for ‘digital’ resources. He predicts that ‘more hosted and shared solutions” will emerge, which offer to reduce local cost of ownership. The theme of shared services continues: “The pace of current developments suggest that we may be ready for other ways of collaboratively sourcing shared operations. For example, does it make sense for there to be library by library solutions for preservation, social networking, disclosure to search and social networking engines, and so on”.

Just over two years later he noted two major challenges: “One is that on the management side libraries have to pull together a variety of systems and services whose legacy business and technical boundaries may no longer map very well onto user requirements. A second is that they have to project their resources into a variety of user environments and workflows over and above whatever integrated local library website environment they create”. In 2011 a number of these issues and trends formed part of OCLC’s strategic positioning in terms of its library systems: ‘Libraries at Webscale’

Marshall Breeding’s annual review of the automation marketplace, published by the Library Journal, provides an invaluable (if somewhat US-centric) resource on issues and the state of the market. For 2012 he summarised the market in the following way: “As development efforts near completion on a new slate of automation products, vendors are beginning to pull out all the stops to monetize them. A new round of competition is heating up to place these new products in libraries, replacing their own legacy products and aiming to displace those of other companies. Ex Libris’s Alma, OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services, Innovative Interfaces’ Sierra, and Serials Solutions’ Intota, as well as the open source Kuali OLE project, are positioned to move toward more dominant market share through a product cycle that will play out over the next decade. These new-generation products will compete with well-established proprietary and open source systems following an evolutionary path, such as Evergreen, Koha, Polaris ILS, The Library Corporation’s (TLC) Library.Solution, SirsiDynix’s Symphony, and Auto-Graphics’ AGent VERSO.”

It’s worth noting that the overall value of this industry (as we conventionally think of it) is relatively small;  In Breeding’s  annual review he reports that “In 2011, the library automation economy—the total revenues (including international) of all companies with a significant presence in the United States and Canada—was $750 million. This estimate does not necessarily compare directly to 2010’s $630 million, as this year’s estimate includes a higher proportion of revenues from OCLC, EBSCO, and other sources previously unidentified. (Using the same formula, 2010 industry revenues would be estimated at $715 million.)” Those figures compare with Google (the biggest ‘library’ company) revenues of $37.9 billion and Apple at $108 billion (2011). In 2009 the annual revenues that vendors derived from UK Higher Education in terms of library system services was estimated to be around £14 million.


Each year LITA (Library IT Association, a division of ALA) hosts a top tech trends session at the annual ALA conference. Breeding was on the panel in January 2012 and predicted: “The impending demise of the ILS.” He went on to say: “These systems aren’t as integrated or comprehensive anymore as it takes maybe eight or nine or ten different applications … to do the things that academic libraries do.” He also said that the ‘reintegration of discovery’ would be an ongoing trend: “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.” A more in-depth analysis of current and future trends by Breeding was published in 2011: “With the increasing dominance of electronic content and digital collections in academic libraries, the capabilities lacking in the current slate of automation systems has increasingly become an obstacle to progress. A new generation of digital services platforms for libraries is emerging, designed to provide a more comprehensive approach to the management and access to all formats of library materials: print, electronic and digital”.

Work on APIs within the domain, especially to enable the better interoperability between resource discovery services and the back end resource management side of library systems, has not progressed with much energy. A number of initiatives exist including the DLF ILS Discovery Interface Task Group (ILS-DI), Jangle and Document Availability Information API (Daia) but there is no evidence of widespread uptake. The failure of the library community to better contribute to the development of modern web-centric library interoperability standards has hampered the evolution of an open ‘loosely coupled’ library systems environment.

Many library technology themes can be tracked in the ALA Techsource ‘Library technology’ reports which have covered areas such as mobile technologies, open source library systems, etc (see listing in References).

SCONUL helps the UK community to keep track of library technology issues and trends through its support of the Higher Education Library Technology (HELibTech) wiki. This is a free community resource open to anyone to view and/or edit. It was initially based on a 2008 SCONUL and JISC commissioned library management systems study. It includes a list of all UK HE Institutions with the various library systems they employ. For 2012 the most viewed issues were:

  • Shared Services
  • Discovery
  • E-books

‘Next generation’ systems-Library Services Platforms

HELibTech defines the characteristic of the new generation of library systems as follows:

  • Search and discovery for end users is clearly ‘de-coupled’ ‘back-end’ resource management
  • The management of print and electronic (digital) resources is integrated (or ‘unified’)
  • The library system elements interoperate easily with other systems. This is facilitated by a (web-based) Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) model to allow easier, lower cost integration with ‘admin’ systems such as student registry and finance. This can be viewed as a move from a library system to what has been called a ‘library services platform’ approach where various components and sub systems are ‘loosely coupled’ (SOA) to provide an overall solution
  • Related to the above is more attention to improved workflows leading to saving in staff effort and consequently lower cost of ownership
  • Systems are typically ‘cloud’ based. This is a move away from more conventional ‘hosting’ to a system that is, in effect, a single entity that is shared by many separate and distinct libraries. Such ‘multi-tenant’ systems offer economies of scale and the opportunity to better share data (bibliographic, data on suppliers, licences etc) across the libraries
  • Related to the above is a move from ‘management information’ to ‘analytics’ or ‘business intelligence’. This is characterised by not simply providing statistics on transactions recorded by a single library system (number of loans, items catalogued, orders placed etc), to an approach where all activity (including clickstreams) is potentially recorded and might be analysed to deliver new business insights. A cloud environment offers opportunities to collect and analyse data and detect trends across, what is in effect, a global network of systems

The following can be characterised (at least by the vendors) as ‘next generation’ library resource management platforms. Listed alphabetically here, none are yet fully developed mature systems.

Carl Grant, a veteran of library system companies including Innovative and ExLibris recently summarised the state of play of this new generation of ‘Library Services Platforms’. He suggests that: ’When looking at the new library services platforms we’re seeing some radically different approaches being taken. He goes on to provide definitions of what cloud computing means in a Library Services Platform context and useful summaries/analysis of the various vendor offerings from OCLC, ExLibris, Innovative Interfaces, Kuali OLE, Serial Solutions and VTLS

The library and teaching and learning systems

Integration between library and leaning systems such as VLE has a long history. A major JISC programme of ‘Linking Digital Libraries with VLEs’ of 2002-03 focussed on this issue. Writing in 2010, Ken Chad noted: “Integrating library services more closely with the student’s learning environment has long been a goal. For more than a decade the library/learning system space has been contested by a variety approaches. It remains imperfectly resolved.” He goes on to say: “There remains […] a perceived need to deliver an institutionally coherent approach to students that also feeds into the library back-end processes to ensure appropriate resources have been purchased or licensed and are accessible’.

Reading Lists

One peculiarity of the UK academic library systems scene that attempts to address this issue is the ‘Reading list’ module or system. The aim is to provide a ‘course’ perspective on library resources and integrate the reading lists produced by academics with the library system and also potentially the VLE. Reading list systems differ subtly from the US ‘course reserve’ module by taking a title rather than an item based approach. Rather than putting specific items on ‘reserve’ (in the print paradigm often in a special section of the library), titles are associated with reading lists.

The reading list market has been reinvigorated in the last few years with several new offerings by TalisPTFS Europe, and systems developed by universities themselves.

Recommender systems

Reading lists are a kind of recommender systems that formalise suggested reading and complement the growing number of recommender systems that that integrate with library system OPACs and discovery solutions such as bX from ExLibris and BibTip from the University of Karlsruhe. A joint research project of OCLC Research and the Information School, University of Sheffield is underway to: ‘Establish user needs and expectations from library-based recommender systems; Perform an analysis of existing systems for library book and media recommendations’


‘The network reconfigures the library systems environment’. By Lorcan Dempsey Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog July 6, 2007

‘Untangling the library systems environment’. By Lorcan Dempsey. Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog 25 Oct 2009.

‘Libraries at Webscale, A discussion document’. OCLC. December 2011. ISBN 978-1-55653-438-6

‘Automation Marketplace 2012: Agents of Change’. By Marshall Breeding. Library Journal. 29 March 2012

‘ALA Midwinter 2012: From Consumer Electronics Through Post-ILS, Top Tech Trends Run the Gamut’. By David Rapp. Library Journal. 22 January 2012

‘Current and future trends in information technologies for information units’. By Breeding, Marshall. El profesional de la información, 2011, v. 21, n. 1, pp. 9-15.

API references

Library Technology Reports. ALA Techsource

Some of the more relevant Library Technology Reports are listed below:


  • Bridging the Digital Divide with Mobile Services


  • The No Shelf Required Guide to E-Book Purchasing
  • Analyzing the Next-Generation Catalog
  • Librarians’ Assessments of Automation Systems: Survey Results, 2007–2010
  • Libraries and the Mobile Web
  • Web Scale Discovery Services


  • The Concept of Electronic Resource Usage and Libraries
  • Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata


  • Opening up Library Systems through Web Services and SOA: Hype or Reality?


  • Open Source Integrated Library Systems
  • On the Move with the Mobile Web: Libraries and Mobile Technologies


  • Web 2.0 & Libraries, Part 2: Trends and Technologies
  • Next-Generation Library Catalogs

Higher Education Library Technology (HELibTech) Page on ‘Next Generation’ systems

‘The Future of Library Systems: Library Services Platforms’. By Carl Grant. NISO. Information Standards Quarterly. Fall 2012. Vol 24 Issue 4 ISSN 1041-0031

Linking Digital Libraries with VLEs. JISC programme (2002-2003)

‘A Perspective on Resource List Management’. By Ken Chad. Library & Information Update (p.39-41). CILIP June 2010

Reading_resource lists. Higher Education Library Technology (HELibTech)

User-Centered Design of a Recommender System for a “Universal” Library.  Joint research project of OCLC Research and the Information School, University of Sheffield