The Squeezed Middle: Exploring the Future of Library Systems
Last week saw a two-day workshop, held at Warwick University, exploring the future of library systems. I wanted to briefly highlight the format of the two days, and reflect on some of the outcomes from the event. In particular, how the workshop has helped inform a new funding call that will be published in early February.
Not so long ago the library management system was the neglected sibling of the library world; but the landscape is changing and it is starting to become centre-stage once again. Yet this is a very different world to even just a few years ago. While it regains its moment in the lime-light, it is constrained on either side by the emerging importance of resource discovery and e-resource management.
Entitled: ‘The Squeezed Middle’ the JISC and SCONUL sponsored event was a chance for directors and senior library managers to review the evolving role and requirements of the institutional Library Management System (LMS).
Specifically the workshop focused on the key developments impacting the shape of library systems, given the current work that is taking place in both Resource Discovery (discovery.ac.uk) and developments in the management of subscription and e- resources (Knowledge Base+).
Since 2008 and the publication of the JISC LMS landscape report and the jiscLMS programme things have changed significantly in the library systems environment. A number of open source systems are emerging, including Evergreen, Koha and Kuali OLE. More importantly, UK higher education has seen the first implementation of open source LMS at Staffordshire University – open source library systems have become a viable option.
The workshop aimed to explore this complex landscape, and end the two days with a clear direction of travel for what the future of library systems might look like (and some concrete ways to get there).
The role and functions of the LMS are, to say the least, fairly well embedded in the workflows and everyday business of the academic library. It’s a cliche to invoke the paradigm word, but it could be argued that much of the discussion within this space is caught up in a historic paradigm that has, for a long time, prevented the evolution (let alone revolution) of this business critical system.
The format of the workshop aimed to disrupt this paradigm.
The workshop began with some contextual information on the current library systems landscape. The first day of workshop was divided into two group discussion sessions focused around four themes: Space, Collections, Systems and Expertise.
The workshop watched a short video presentation by Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC that provided some business modelling context to the discussions. Lorcan’s full video is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzxA4vdJYok&context=C3b48ce9ADOEgsToPDskJJB-K_kohdSvm4fK0yprv9
Each of the break out discussions sessions were interrupted by four ‘provocations’ from within and beyond the library world. These short, provocative presentations were designed to help extend the discussions around library systems, and prevent the groups from falling back on long held assumptions and arguments. These future visions (they were meant to be a vision of the library world in 2020), were both very creative, and helped provide talking points for the groups.
An example of the presentations can be found on Paul Walk’s blog and Paul Stainthorp’s blog. The other two were by Ken Chad (Ken’s provocation can be found here) and David Kay, and all their presentations will be made available shortly.
The day ended with some ‘homework’ where delegates were asked to prioritise and comment upon some 60 ‘objectives’ on the future role and functionality of the LMS.
The second day was focused on cementing the discussions and explorations of the first day – groups prioritised some of the identified objectives from the homework exercise and slowly a number of critical themes emerged.
Emerging Themes and Priorities
A number of core themes emerged during the two day workshop. Below I have very subjectively chosen a couple to highlight. A full list of the prioritised list of library systems ‘objectives’ that was the main outcome from the workshop can be found here. This was very kindly collated by David Kay who helped facilitate the second day of the workshop.
Data Data everywhere, and not a drop to…
I agree with Richard Nurse from the Open University who attended the workshop and blogged about the event here, who said:
It also struck me that a lot of the issues, concerns and priorities were about data rather than systems or processes… I do find it particularly interesting that despite the effort that goes into the data that libraries consume, there are some really big tasks to address to flow data around our systems without duplication or unnecessary activity.
I think this is an interesting point. In the conversations I joined it was clear that a lot of discussion was taking place around the data across the library (and the campus) and how a library system might bring this together. Someone mentioned the LMS as a dashboard that aggregated disparate data sets from across the library and campus. The system becomes secondary to the data.
This also came out in the discussions around ‘non-traditional assets’ and how libraries are able to integrate services such as reading lists with resource discovery, VLEs and repositories.
Skills and roles
This was a theme that seemed to run throughout the two days. In particular there was significant discussion around the future and transformation of library systems and its impact on current and future staff roles and the skills required.
This issue runs through the library from the practitioner librarians and the new skills and roles that are developing, to managers and senior managers and how they adjust to managing and obtaining these new roles. these new roles may also be frequently outside the physical library, or roles that are not traditionally recognised as part of the library skill-set, and so new ways of working and adaptation to those roles will be required.
Furthermore, there may be a tension between another of the themes, sharing services and systems, and the ability to develop, maintain and justify the relevant skills locally. There was a lot of discussion around whether the outsourcing or sharing of infrastructure (systems in this case), actually affects the local skills the library has. Infrastructure and skills are often thought of as separate, yet the two are more intimately connected than might be expected.
The reality, however, is I suspect more complex than this. Institutions may have already outsourced or shared services and systems; the question is then whether they are able to still develop skills and new roles. Furthermore, there might be some potential for shared services to become central ‘pools’ for developing and deploying these new roles and developing skills. Deployed locally when necessary: enabling institutions to continue to innovative and collaborate.
Unsurprisingly this was a big topic of discussion – both in terms of skills as discussed above, and in terms of defining those services and functions that are maintained locally and those that can benefit from above-campus infrastructure.
There was also some interesting suggestions around a UK research reserve for monographs (something that has been discussed at JISC as well), and considerations around national union catalogues and similar initiatives. Resurrecting the notion of a national union catalogue did somewhat divide the delegates; it was clear that discussions around such infrastructure should be driven by requirements, rather than the assumption that a union catalogue is the answer.
While I don’t think it was ever articulated openly, there seemed to be a sense that the large, one size fits all shared LMS (whether local or shared) was no longer viable, or particularly attractive. Instead new models are needed – I don’t know what these are necessarily, but they seem to demand a new vision of shared infrastructure around library systems (and services).
It was clear that any future library system (whether local, shared, above campus etc) would provide the user with the ability to personalise, and to a greater extent, control their library experience. This relates back to the considerations of data earlier, but more significantly the user is able to take that data with them as they both progress within the institution and move beyond it (warning: I may be straying slightly into Paul Walk’s future vision of the library!).
JISC has done significant amounts of work around personalisation, in particular the activity data work could be very instrumental in understanding this area further. Iportant work still needs to be done on simple issue around ownership of the data and legal issues, before the more technical issues can start to be addressed more fundamentally.
The discussion was far richer than my abve comments might lead one to believe, but I just wanted to outline some of the highlights.
One of the critical things I took away with me was the need to constantly place these kinds of discussions within wider institutional strategic contexts (research etc). It is easy to deal with these types of issues as if they are hermetically sealed, whereas the reality is much more complex, with various different drivers and barriers.
As I mentioned above, the workshop had a very clear purpose: To help shape a new vision for library systems. This aim was made concrete in a recent funding call I have written and that will be published in very early February: see here for details. This workshop therefore provides a baseline that I can look back on in 12 months time and see what the landscape looked like in early 2012!
[All the presentations and provocations will be made available online as part of the forthcoming Library Systems Programme on the JISC webpages].