Trends, Pressures, and Realities in the Library Systems Marketplace

By Evans, Peter | American Libraries, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Trends, Pressures, and Realities in the Library Systems Marketplace


Evans, Peter, American Libraries


COMPETITION AMONG VENDORS IS INTENSE, AND LIBRARIANS AND PATRONS STAND TO WIN

Globalization is affecting more and more types of human activity. People routinely vacation on the other side of the world. Infectious diseases, once rare outside their native habitats, now travel quickly to all corners of the globe. Not that globalization is new: Traders have been moving goods globally since ancient times--the Phoenicians probably traded tin between Cornwall and the eastern Mediterranean around 1,000 B.C.; and the first great library of Alexandria collected from all over the known world (AL, Apr., p. 74). What makes globalization now so remarkable is the number of processes that have become global--and effective. Even librarians and their vendors must think and act globally if they are to compete and succeed--or even survive.

The globalization of library systems has two aspects: the commercial process whereby fewer and fewer global players provide libraries' system tools; and the process whereby all systems interact.

The first aspect of globalization rides to a certain extent on the technology at the heart of a system. This article could also have been entitled "Americanization of the Library Systems Marketplace." The U.S. computer industry dominates the globe, and apart from some exceptions in Europe and Japan, library system server technology--both hardware and software--is predominantly American. Globalization of the information technology (IT) industry is happening faster and going further than other industries because it's so important that systems be able to talk to one another. Enormous benefits of efficiency are realized as soon as this begins to happen--sharing data and processes, as in the case of the first MARC-based cooperatives like OCLC. With the explosion of computer sales after the advent of the personal computer, technical coalescence around common ways of doing things was inevitable. Hence the rise of Microsoft: Communicating and sharing are easier if everyone uses the same software. Thus, the two aspec ts of globalization actually reinforce one another.

As companies become more global and their technologies are disseminated, it becomes easier for libraries to think and act globally. The obvious example of this is the use of virtual union catalogs enabled by the Z39.50 international communication standard that allow libraries with a common research purpose to create groups of collections for their users despite physical separation (see p. 54-56). Another example is the use of Lotus Notes database replication technology to synchronize library catalogs in global corporations with disparate technical libraries spread around the world. Peer-to-peer interlibrary loan (ILL) makes the process of global trading much easier. It should be noted that, as in these examples, globalization does not necessarily mean centralization. In the case of ILL trading, for example, centralized operations like OCLC will be under pressure. If you doubt the power of direct trading, take a look at the Napster phenomenon.

Think locally, act globally

The technology used in library systems has coalesced around a few specific products. In the last two or three years, for instance, Innovative Interfaces and Sirsi, which for a long time promoted their own database technologies, have moved to Oracle, the dominant relational database-management system. Whether it is the most appropriate technology for libraries is debatable, but that it is the most global is not.

At the desktop, the scene is less clear. In some respects, the dominance of the Intel-based PC architecture and Windows operating environment looks complete, but there is healthy competition among PC manufacturers; and the emergence of Linux, Citrix, and Java technologies combined with the Web means that there is more choice and variety at the front end than there was a system generation ago, when a handful of terminal manufacturers dominated. …

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