Looking toward the Future of Library Technology: Here Are My Predictions for What the Future May Hold for Library Technology

By Breeding, Marshall | Computers in Libraries, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Looking toward the Future of Library Technology: Here Are My Predictions for What the Future May Hold for Library Technology


Breeding, Marshall, Computers in Libraries


I'm often called on to give my opinions on the future of technology in libraries. While I don't claim to be an expert in all areas of technology, I do spend quite a bit of time watching the progress of software developed for libraries and tracking what systems libraries select. As I observed the current state of the art in library automation, trends occurring in five areas led me to make the following forecasts about what might play out in the next few years.

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1. The integrated library system (ILS) will be reintegrated. I find myself still bemoaning the lack of comprehensive library automation systems. Today's top-of-the-line systems offer great functionality for managing print materials, but they don't offer the same degree of sophistication for handling electronic content. Librarians must buy and implement whole suites of add-ons in order to provide the back-end management functions and front-end delivery systems for their electronic collections.

Library collections have evolved to include an increasing amount of electronic content. It hasn't been a secret, and it hasn't been all that recent. Yet the tools to help librarians manage that content are just emerging. And rather than being integrated within the automation systems we already have, these tools are packaged as separate applications that require significant time for installation, configuration, and ongoing operation.

I don't disagree that as the scope and complexity of the ILS expands, the costs should increase. But librarians should be able to choose whether to buy modules for Open-URL linking, electronic resource management (ERM), or federated search in the same way that they might choose to opt out of acquisitions or serials control.

My main complaint isn't that link resolvers, ERM systems, and metasearch interfaces are packaged as separate products; it's that they are not easily integrated with the other components of the library's automation environment. In many cases, even when the product has been developed by the same vendor as the ILS, it's based on an entirely different database architecture, or even a completely different database product. In an era where the general trend is to consolidate all of an organization's business systems into a single database environment, the tendency for library automation components to rely on different ones goes against the grain. In order to achieve better integration, components should share existing authentication and authorization services; follow the n-tier architecture so they can operate with whatever hardware platform, operating system, or database the library prefers; and rely on Web services to retrieve or reference data as needed from other applications rather than replicate entire data sets.

I would like to believe that both the companies that produce these systems and the librarians who buy them see them as an interim solution. As these products mature, I optimistically believe that we will see them reshaped into a coherent architecture.

2. The business landscape will change. A broad look at the slate of companies developing library software reveals a fragmented industry, consisting of a number of companies struggling to increase their slice of a fairly small economic pie. This fragmentation has both a positive and a negative effect. On the positive side, having multiple companies in vigorous competition motivates each to pursue aggressive development strategies. As a result, there are a number of systems available in each sector of the market--and librarians appreciate having those choices.

On the negative side, industry fragmentation results in each of the companies spending development energies creating very similar systems. The expected functionality of an automation system has been firmly established, and the ones that are available are much more alike than they are different. As I've said and written many times, I believe that the way that librarians use boilerplate requests for proposals has led to a homogenization of the ILS and has dampened developers' abilities to make innovative breakthroughs. …

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