Prompted by Andrew Pace's comments on the ILS a while ago, I noted that there was less discussion in the library community about the industry that supports it than one might expect. Given the various announcements since then, this is of even more interest (Coutts/Ingrams, Endeavor/Ex Libris, Blackwells/Wiley).

Anyway, in this context, I was very interested to hear the presentation that Marshall Breeding gave at OCLC a couple of weeks ago: Trends in Library Automation: Meeting the challenges of a new generation of library users [ppt]. His presentation was in two broad parts: the first looked at the structure of the ILS industry, the second at products, features and services. Because discussion of the latter is more common, I found the former more interesting. This is not to diminish the interest of the latter which provided a useful framing of several timely topics: web services in the library environment, multi-level services (local, regional, global), more compelling user experiences, the web search environment, and some others.

I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the importance for libraries of understanding the business context of the library automation environment. Especially when it comes to selecting what becomes potentially a very long-term partner:

Given the relative parity of library automation systems, choosing the right automation partner is more important than splitting hairs over functionality.
  • Understanding of library issues
  • Vision and forward-looking development
It’s important to choose a company that will survive


Comments: 3

Dec 19, 2006
Andrew Pace

Lately it seems that if you pick just one of the companies it will eventually be owned by the sole survivor!

I think that there is less discussion than one might expect because there is less public use of the traditional ILS. Our focus has been on all of those add-on products that have emerged from specialty (often cottage industry) companies in libraryland. I think we accept the ILS's use as an enterprise system because it is relatively cheap (compared to Peoplesoft or Banner, or CRM, etc.) and relatively functional (compared to...well...ok, it's relatively functional).

But I think the biggest reason is simply because libraries don't like talking about the business side of the profession. I often joke with Marshall that there are about 5 of us who so intimately track what is going on in this space. Would that librarians were more interested. To ignore what is going on financially is burying one's head in shifting sand. Not to put anyone on the spot, but I am most curious about OCLC's plans.

Lorcan is right about the products, features, and services discussion happening ad infinitum (I would say ad nauseam, but we seem not to tire from the discussion). But there should be more discussion, as I have argued (perhaps ad nauseam), for the last several years.

I was just looking back at
a column
I did a couple of years ago in which I thought I had declared "The RFP is dead." Either the editor or I softened this to a need for a serious makeover. Anyway, the point I was trying to make then, and which Lorcan makes more succinctly here, was to ignore the commodity features offered by ILS vendors and "inquire about new product-line offerings, determine if you fit in the company’s primary customer market, and take a serious look at a company’s executive management and its vision for not only the company but also the industry."

And take heart, at least there are fewer companies to keep track of now.

Dec 27, 2006
Bob Wolven

Hmmm ... I wonder if this discussion isn't taking place, or simply happens informally and doesn't make its way into the public arena often enough. True, the people in libraries who write about the business aspects of the ILS industry are few (and most have already been mentioned here.) But, when I get together (usually glass in hand) with the people making decisions about systems and products, these are exactly the things we talk about: who owns whom (and how likely that is to change), how they see their current and future markets, where they're channeling new product development (or acquisition). When our library is considering a major new product or system, our business library researches the company's financial situation. When we have a chance to talk one-on-one with CEO's, these are the questions we ask.

It's said often enough that librarians don't pay enough attention to the business aspects of the profession -- I've said it myself -- but as I reflect on my own experience, I wonder if that's true. Maybe the blog is the natural forum for such discussion.

Dec 29, 2006
George Duimovich

I’d agree with you Bob, since I have a similar experience. People may not be up on the details like some, but there’s a definite interest, albeit problematic IMHO because of the still widespread view that we’re just observers in all of this mess.

Re: Breeding’s recommendation that: "It’s important to choose a company that will survive...” This conventional view uncritically reinforces the existing uncompetitive, dysfunctional, marketplace. Of course they (‘the Big 3') will survive if you keep sticking with them!!

Yes, there are obvious benefits to a stable marketplace and healthy business partnerships, but in a certain sense I would argue who cares if my vendor goes under..? Think about it, this is only a concern in a tightly controlled, uncompetitive marketplace. If we worked with open systems, and could actually interact with our data and our applications more significantly, slotting in or replacing a system component wouldn't be such a big deal nor would it necessarily incur a major financial or other penalty (aka “The Big Pain” barrier to change). Even a complete system migration (when and if necessary) could be viewed as an exciting, cost-effective and desirable objective if we weren't so locked in (But that’s the point and The Reason for Change - LOL

Further, what is there “to understand [about] the business context” when our partnerships are based upon a no longer acceptable and now seriously bizarre all or nothing bet with our vendors (only marginally beginning to be eroded). Consider, for example, how many of our vendors’ products are fundamentally built upon “closed hooks” into our data?

The fact that not one of them yet supports a fully modular, open architecture is enough for me to suggest that more of us need to drop SirsiDynix, leave Endeavor/ExLibris, or get out of III as fast as we can. Yes, understanding “the business context of the library automation environment” is important, but I’d like see the industry observers more critically challenge the value of current partnerships when they remain built upon yesterday’s business model and dependent upon proprietary, closed systems architecture.

The Ford Motor Company is in talks with Toyota for technology transfer; the airline and utility companies are in constant regulatory scrutiny over business practices in a consolidated markeplace (and so on..), and here in ILS land, industry observers come out with tepid recommendations to “choose a company that will survive” or “understand the business context.”

Very disappointing to say the least...