Sourcing and scaling

One of the major issues facing libraries as the network reconfigures processes is how appropriately to source and scale activities. What does it make sense to do at institutional level, what does it make sense to source elsewhere (repository services in the cloud, for example, or insitutional email services from Google), and what should be left entirely to other providers?

I discussed 'scaling' from the supply side - what libraries do and how - a while ago when discussing a NISO report on resource management ..

Scalar emphasis has become an important question for libraries. At what scale should things be done as institution-scale is increasingly the wrong level for many activities? Oren [Beit-Arie] discusses the transitional effect of the network in broader collaborative settings, where the power of the network can be leveraged to improve services. Shared cataloging and resource sharing may be earlier instances of this. Consider now the potential for recommendations where circulation or other usage data is aggregated at a higher level. Consider incentives also in this context. Where are library users most likely to want to invest their effort? Kat Hagedorn [ppt] discusses a collaborative project of the HathiTrust, New York University, and the partners in the ReCAP shared print facility with the involvement of OCLC Research and CLIR. What policy and service apparatus needs to be in place to provide confidence of supply from HathiTrust and ReCAP sufficient to allow NYU relegate materials from its own collection? Such 'cloud library' provision will become more common as libraries seek to transfer resource away from 'infrastructure' and towards user engagement. Kyle Bannerjee describes [ppt] Orbis Cascade's work with OCLC on the integration of local, consortial and global discovery and delivery of resources. He suggests that such operations should move to the highest appropriate level in the network, and speculates about what other services should also move to the network level. Rachel Bruce [ppt] looks at library systems from the point of view of national-scale 'shared services'. What these and other presentations show is how decisions about level of operation - personal, local, consortial, national, global - are as important as particular discussions of functionality or sourcing. Libraries face interesting choices about sourcing - local, commercial, collaborative, public - as they look at how to achieve goals, and as shared approaches become more crucial as resources are stretched. [Untangling the library systems environment]

Such decisions are going to become more important, as externalization becomes more feasible and more attractive. There at least two dimensions which may be interesting to spell out.

Following from the note above, I label the first scalar emphasis: at what level is it appropriate to get things done. For simplicity here are three scales:

  1. Institution-scale. Activity is managed within an institution with a local target audience.
  2. Group-scale. Activity is managed within a supra-institutional domain whether this is a region, a consortium, or a state or a country. The audience is correspondingly grouped. In educational terms think of the activities of JISC in the UK or SurfNet in the Netherlands. In library terms think of the Hathi trust, or of Georgia Pines, or of OhioLink.
  3. Web-scale. Activity is managed at the network level where we are now used to services like Amazon, Flickr, Google and YouTube provide e-commerce, collection, discovery and other functions. Here, the audience is potentially all web users.

We have seen more activity in 2 and 3 in recent years. There has been stronger consortial activity and libraries have been looking at how to exploit webscale services more (think of knowledge-base data in Google Scholar, for example, or links to special collections materials added to Wikipedia).

This then raises a sourcing decision. Again, consider three possible ways in which a product or service might be sourced:

  1. Institutional. Activity is developed locally.
  2. Collaborative. Activity is developed in concert with partners (e.g. purchasing consortium, shared offsite storage, open source software, ..).
  3. Third party. Activity is secured from a third party service (e.g. e-journal access). A third party might be a commercial or not for profit supplier, or it might be a public provider, as a part of state or national provision. The latter is especially important in those jurisdictions where some library infrastructure may be provided as part of educational or cultural funding (see Rachel Bruce's presentation above, for example).

As the network reduces transaction costs, it is now simpler to externalize in this way. The reduced cost and effort of collaboration and of transacting with third parties for services has made these approaches more attractive and feasible. There are also scale advantages. Although it has become common to talk about moving services to the cloud it is important to remember that important choices still have to be made. And there may not always yet be good options as the environment continues to evolve. Decisions about scaling and sourcing will be interesting for several years to come.

Comments: 1

Mar 02, 2010
Jean Costello

Lorcan - this question is vitally important, and I've proposed creating a National Public Library Corporation along the lines of NPR or PBS to deal with 2 & 3.

My basic premise is that we can gain extraordinary efficiencies today that weren't possible even 20 years ago --- and that it takes a dedicated team of technology professionals to do it. My proposal addresses public libraries, although many of the solutions delivered could also be used in other types of libraries. I'd leave it to library & tech professionals to sort that out.

My concern about using 'free' services from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc is that these companies do not act in the public interest. I would support cloud computing as a utility - computing power purchased and managed from one of the large computer companies and managed by NPL staff ... with the proper legal and technical safeguards in place to protect patron data.

Would be intereted in your thoughts on this concept. Thx.

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