Midwinter Friday: The View from the Top

January 24, 2009

Add-on product demand has increased because ILS vendors have not kept up with what libraries want, asserted Rob McGee of RMG Consultants, at the 19th annual “View from the Top” seminar this afternoon, kicking off ALA’s January 23-28 Midwinter Meeting here in Denver. This situation is “similar to the early days when libraries came up with their own solutions,” said McGee, emceeing a panel of presidents and CEOs from top library vendors. Libraries “want functionality and solutions at a lower price than we see from some of the proprietary vendors,” McGee said, and “libraries are reacting in a number of ways to the shortcomings of the vendors.” Open source is replacing ILS instead of taking vendor’s next proprietary offering, he added, challenging the 11 panelists to address the program theme, “Starting Over: Reinventing the Integrated Library System and the Library Automation Industry.” To further the challenge, McGee employed a subpanel of librarians to talk about their recent experiences. Helene Blowers, Columbus Metropolitan Library, talked about her homegrown 20-year-old ILS. Wes Trager, Queens Library in New York, talked making business enterprises a part of the library’s operation. John Blyberg, of the Darien Library in Connecticut, explained how he led development of a "social OPAC," first in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the now in Connecticut, and Marshall Breeding of Vanderbilt University talked about the community-based OLE project funded by the Mellon Foundation. Blowers said Columbus was one of the few libraries in the country with a “homegrown” ILS, which was staff-developed over 20 years. They have new customer-service components, and the system has never in 20 years gone down. The staff is happy with the system, she said, because,“we control over own destiny, develop around our processes.” The drawback is that “you don’t always look to improve. We are maximizing our investment and in this economy that’s not a bad thing.” What Blowers said reminded me of what I was doing 20 years ago, namely leaving my public library job to move to Chicago and work for ALA. When I left the Detroit Public Library, we had no computers at work (except for a few in cataloging), but I knew even then that computers were going to change everything, so I bought one for myself and learned the basics from a programmer friend, who also happened to be a reader and library lover. I can’t imagine how challenging it must have been 20 years ago for librarians in Columbus to invent their own integrated library system. Blyberg, who is on the technology beat for American Libraries at this conference, told the panel about the SOPAC, or social online public access catalogs, he had worked on. “Instead of trying to design a catalog from the ground up, we designed a web strategy,” Blyberg said, where users can create an account, comment when they wish, and essentially “build an online identity.” He noted that  the “personal identity of our users online was valuable to them.” For a content management system, Blyberg chose Drupal because “it seemed up and coming with a lot of community development. Its data architecture was conducive to development, so we merged our online catalog with Drupal…merging the catalog experience with the website experience.” Library users can tag, rate, etc., making the ILS specific to the community. Blyberg’s local emphasis resonated with the panel and the audience (can you say “local history”?). He speculated that some might call it “reckless” for a library staff of 30 FTEs to proceed “to create a repository of social data,” but he concluded, “What comes first the data or the incentive?” The SOPAC went live in September, he said, and is “an overwhelming hit with users.” The panelists seemed a little behind the curve compared to Blyberg's project, and while several praised it, they seemed a little intimidated by it as well. Why? Probably because it's hard to see where there’s much money to be made in this kind of social networking. Isn't this really the same issue facing newspapers and other publishers? The phrase "business model" comes to mind. Marshall Breeding talked about the OLE (Open Library Environment) Project funded by Mellon Foundation. What would a library automation system for today look like if it were being invented from scratch? he asked. The Mellon Foundation is interested in seeing what they can do for libraries to help them create their own infrastructure, from libraries that deal with physical materials only to ones dealing with live content as well, a community-owned process for this kind of system. Rising to McGee’s bait, Carl Grant of Ex Libris, a seasoned vendor who has played an important role with various companies over many years, asserted that he saw “a great deal of innovation” displayed by the librarians on the subpanel, but “on the flip side,” he said that in general “we are setting our sites too low” and the profession lacks leadership and strategy. “What’s the theme for this show?” he asked. “We’re in an economic crisis and we’ll have to revamp from top to bottom.” Librarians have not learned how to “monetize their skill sets.” Asked by me what the strategy should be, Grant cited “the three A’s: authority, appropriateness, and authentication.” This is the “value added” proposition that libraries should represent across the Web. At the rate things are going, he added, “I can see that library service could be delivered from offshore to your desktop.” Josh Ferraro of LibLime chimed in: “People in libraries need to be more up on technology.” More library jobs ought to be going to IT professionals, he said. Ann Melaerts of Infor Library solutions added that the library must “be a platform for community.” VTLS’s Vinod Chachra, who has been on all 19 “View from the Top” panels, shared his list of the top five ways libraries can reinvent the ILS. 1) Make it format independent, 2) Make it more mobile, 3) Linked records, not flat records, 4) on-demand open deliver, 5) Deep linking into unknown systems. Gary Rautenstrauch of SirsiDynix added that one solution for all cases doesn’t work; they have to be flexible enough for uniqueness. Marshall Breeding reasserted that, essentially, vendors are not keeping up. Grant was quick with a rebuttal: “We end up writing what you told us to write!” He noted that libraries are finally going directly to users to develop an ILS, a luxury vendors have never had, he said. Grant talked about the need for librarians to be at the table when it comes to NISO standards, or at least “hire database schema designers to be on standards committees."  John Blyberg observed that “while we’re waiting for the perfect standard, we’re not delivering what the end user wants.” Josh Ferraro echoed the sentiment: “Hire competent technology staff!” The discussion never veered into the large issue of library education, which really needs to move from library and information science (LIS) to library and information science and technology (LIST) if it is to remain vital. As the three-hour program rolled on, I grew itchier to ask a question about what I think was the real elephant in the room, namely the economic debacle this nation is enduring. So I finally did. “What specific actions are you taking to address the financial crisis?” I asked. The responses were illuminating, because I kept thinking of how they could translate to our library settings and to ALA. Bill Schickling of Polaris made an interesting point. This is the time, he said, to do a review with each customer, to see how they are spending their money and how they could do it better. Robin Murray of OCLC said that his organization was “looking at costs” and at how services could be “bundled” for greater economies. Vinod Chachra said revenue from exports was keeping VTLS healthy, so much so that “we’re hiring—14 people in the last 12 weeks.” Carl Grant said cost controls were being implemented at Ex Libris but no layoffs were being planned; in fact staff is being added. Grant emphasized what ALA has been emphasizing, that a slow economy means more patrons for libraries. “This is the time to get a new front door,” he said, meaning that marketing plans are vital. He also urged librarians to “reevaluate what you can afford to keep doing. Don’t try to maintain the past." I’ve long felt that the “View from the Top” seminars—and I’ve attended a good many—were underestimated and underattended. It's fascinating to watch this group of top library vendors come together to reveal their strategies and directions without revealing anything about their strategies and directions. This year's event was no exception.