When I look at the academic and research library arena today, I observe a growing disconnect between the strategic priorities of academic libraries and the technology environments in place to support their work. Academic libraries struggle to find the most effective technologies that will help them to fulfill their missions within their larger institutions, to manage their internal operations as efficiently as possible, and to optimally deliver access to their collections and services to their users. One of the overarching concerns that I see today involves narrowing this chasm between the pressing realities of academic libraries and their supporting technologies.
I don't necessarily mean that most libraries don't do a great job in wielding technology to address their needs. Most are able to employ a variety of products to provide automation support for each area of their operations. The problem lies more in the complexity and cost resulting from the use of many disconnected systems and in the ongoing gaps where key aspects of library operations lack systematic automation support.
In this month's column, I'll explore some of the ways that library automation has grown apart from the current needs of libraries, mention some of the developments underway that may help to realign technology with library priorities, and identify some of the gaps that, in my opinion, still remain.
Pain Points Differ by Library Type
The tension between current automation models and transformed library missions hits academic libraries especially hard today. The continuum of change hits each library type at different times. For special libraries, especially those in large corporate or nonprofit organizations, the shift away from physical collections happened long ago, and they have moved away from traditional ILS products to enterprise knowledge management platforms. The pressures for public libraries aren't far behind what academic libraries feel already. Public libraries continue to see great demand for their print and media collections, though with an ever-growing presence of ebooks, article databases, and other nontraditional formats. Involvement in ebooks may be poised to spike upward in parallel to consumer adoption of ebook readers and publisher interest in shifting away from print. It will be critical for public libraries to have access to automation systems that provide equivalent functionality for the management and delivery of ebooks as they do for traditional materials. These differences in broad strategic issues point toward an increased divergence among the automation requirements of public, academic, and special libraries that has widened over time and will make it increasingly difficult for the same automation products to serve all library types.
The Monolith ILS Fractures
Until recent times, the basic model of library automation centered on an integrated library system, including an online catalog for search and patron services related to lending such as viewing checkouts and renewals, placing holds, or paying fines. Today the task of automating internal library operations and that of patron interfaces and discovery have split into two distinct product areas, and collection management has likewise bifurcated across print and electronic formats. As the emphasis of academic libraries made a dramatic shift toward access of subscribed electronic content and digital collections, the online catalog of the ILS functions more as an advanced search tool for the physical collection as discovery interfaces step in to take the role of broader discovery across all varied components of library collections. Many academic libraries also employ specialized products such as electronic resource management systems to automate the complex tasks associated with managing large collections of ejournals and ebooks. In contrast to early expectations that moving away from print collections would simplify collection management, the ever-changing pricing structures, content aggregations, license terms, authentication issues, and persistent and intelligent linking requirements result in a cumulative effect of great complexity and time intensive workflows. …