Choosy Libraries Choose… What?
by Joseph Koivisto
As both a cost-saving technique and a means of promoting scholarly collaboration and sharing, academic libraries have begun to take a shared approach to ILS selection, development, and implementation. As can be seen in Vaughn and Costello’s 2011 article, shared systems approaches are common and take the form of shared software purchases, hardware upgrades, support, and ILS planning/development (64; 66; 67; 69). This is certainly a positive development within the academic environment and – considering the ever-reducing funding profile for scholarly libraries – highlights the benefit to all participants when a collaborative approach is taken.
That being said, there may be innate difficulties in this approach that do not readily come to light upon first review.
As is seen in the Wang and Dawes article (2012), most enterprise resource management systems (ERMs) – a potential commercial replacement for aging ILS platforms – are neither developed to fit current library acquisition models or to follow existing library workflows (79). While this may seem an acceptable hurdle for a single institution to overcome, the associated challenges of modifying a partial-fit system to two, three, or possibly a dozen differing institutions raises the stakes dramatically. For one institution to make organizational adjustments to meet the requirements of a new system is one thing, to foist this change on unsuspecting third parties is another thing all together. This sort of adoption could lead to several negative outcomes (i.e. unilateral imposition of an unfavorable system; nonparallel workflows or usage patterns; refusal to accept new shared systems, thereby defeating the purpose of shared system resources).
Another issue that comes in to play is that of a consolidated vendor landscape as is observed by Breeding in the Kinner and Rigda article (2009), a product of changing market forces that informed company acquisitions and available products through the 90s and beyond (404-5). While this may not seem like an issue at first, it may be an issue in particular regards to shared system situations. I hypothesize that with shared institutional system implementation and use, decisions on systems acquisition are made with an eye to a larger user base, a larger constituent collection, and (potentially) a larger funding pool from which to draw. Based on all these things, vendor solutions may be seen as a safer investment because 1) vendors have the knowledge, experience, and specialized skill set to accommodate a large distributed client base, something that may not be readily available in an open source system (OSS) implementation, 2) ongoing system support does not rest with any one part of the consortial body, and 3) institutional heebie-jeebies over trusting an in house developed system that will service a whole mess of users and objects. So, back to the original point. Considering the consolidated system vendor landscape that is presented by Kinner and Rigda, a shared system implementation may influence institutions to stick with vendor solutions. Now that there is a reduced number of available market options, it is feasible that the selected option may not be the best possible choice. While it is not a situation of entirely inelastic demand (i.e. we’ll take what we can get wherever we can get it), it does present some limiting factors. To try a metaphor, it’s like the difference between shopping for yourself and shopping for you and twelve of your college roommates. When you buy your own peanut butter, you can buy pretty much whatever brand you’d like, notwithstanding artisanal gold-leaf infused legume paste. But when you buy for a larger group of people, you’re less inclined to buy what you want, instead looking for options that offer volume and value. So, instead of buying the chunky Skippy you know and love, you may just decide on the three-gallon size of Costco brand peanut butter.
I don’t suggest that Vaughn and Costello are ignorant of these issues. Clearly, neither are their surveyed institutions: many of the institutions have memoranda of understanding which articulates many of the issues discussed here. Additionally, not all institutions stayed the course for every shared system decisions, such as contributing funding for unwanted system add-ons (66) or subscribing to enrichment services (67).
I don’t want to lament the prospects of shared ILS implementations. One need only look at the Washington Research Library Consortium for a positive example of what can happen when these initiatives go well.
But what can be done to really bring shared system implementations to a successful conclusion? A few thoughts:
- Do a proper institutional analysis of each participating organization before even thinking about undertaking this type of initiative. This way you can spot potential issues early on and make an informed go/no-go decision before too much time and money is expended.
- Consider the necessity of workflow alignments. Different institutions, no matter how similarly focused or structured, will do things differently. These variations will be thrown into stark contrast when a system implementation is embarked upon. For the good of the project and to capitalize on the shared resource approach, some – or probably all – institutions may have to fundamentally alter how it is that they perform their regular duties such as acquisition, cataloging, circulation, and more.
- Properly invest in OSS options. If, in the end, the agreed upon approach is to implement an open-source system, don’t do so in half measures. Appoint full-time employees to work on the system. Earnestly involve all IT representatives in the development process. Seriously think about whether or not a vendor or consultant influence would positively influence your open-source approach.
The shared resources model presents some very serious challenges to any participating institution. But it also can afford some great benefits such as cost consolidation, enriched resources, and easier institutional collaboration. Before these initiatives begin, however, very serious discussions need to occur. Minds will be racked, patience will be tried. But, at the end of it all, a better system will emerge.
Vaugh, J. & Costello, K. (2011). Management and support of shared integrated library systems. Information Technology and Libraries, 30(2). 62-70.
Kinner, L. & Rigda, C. (2009). The integrated library system: From daring to dinosaur? Journal of Library Administration, 49. 401-417.
Wang, Y. & Dawes, T. (2012). The Next Generation of Integrated Library System: A promise fulfilled? Information Technology and Libraries, 31(3). 76-84.