Friday, May 8, 2009

Redefining innovation…

Librarians will begin receiving this week the May issue of American Libraries wherein they will see our newest advertisement:

Certainly the ad is a bit tongue-in-cheek with its depiction of a black-box ILS exploding into a rainbow of new and open-platform options that can be supplied by Ex Libris. However there is also a very important message contained in this ad for all libraries.

As a profession, we’ve spent over 30 years of effort and gone through several generations of technology in creating a core automation infrastructure that is in place today in nearly every library. The functionality contained in all those products is, on one hand, extremely rich. On the other hand, with each new version and new set of features comes some level of additional complexity. Where is the balance point? Right now, a lot of discussion in the profession is centering on what to do about that technology? Replace it? Or, can we leverage what we have?

It has been interesting to note that many of the discussions about next generation software for libraries mention the need for “less complexity” in systems. Maybe. I’m sure it’s true that if an audit could be done of what functions are used by librarians, out of the entire suite of functions available, we’d find it is only a subset used day-in-and-day-out. Yet, that additional functionality was deemed important enough to add and many librarians will tell you its still important to running their libraries efficiently. Is there other functionality that is no longer needed because of other changes? Sure. For instance, many academic environments now no longer have libraries collect payments, it is simply a charge passed directly to the pursers’ office for collection. As more information becomes digital, will we even need overdue policies? Serials are becoming digital, so do we need prediction patterns, receipt check-in, etc. Probably not. The real point for me is this: what are really changing behind the scenes are our workflows. The idea that bringing in a simplified solution to handle a few portions of a library’s operation is surely false economy if that means that the lack of functionality in that and other areas causes workloads to multiply by many factors to make up for those few simplified workflows. It seems to me that what we need are comprehensive, unified management solutions and until those are available, the ability to leverage the sizable intellectual and financial investment we’ve made in our existing technology.

I doubt we’ll find many that will argue that librarianship today needs to be agile, responsive to user needs and show creative thinking in dealing with new workflows and end-user needs. Another solution that exists in the market that has always seemed short-sighted and false economy is those that buy core infrastructure solutions that install easily and requires little management but are so totally locked down that the library can only be agile and responsive to their end-user needs if their vendor sees those needs the same way. This, if it happens, all too often comes with an expensive price tag. Is that agile? Is that innovative?

Another approach is the message we’re highlighting in our new ad. We all understand that we’re in a transition period. A time when new technology solutions are taking shape both as a result to change in the information environment, but also because of the economic environment. Until those new solutions are available, libraries will need to be extremely agile and responsive. They need to be able to focus on end user needs, deliver new discovery and information handling tools and preserve the value of librarianship. All this must happen while the day-to-day operation of the library runs smoothly.

Having sophisticated, functionally rich systems in place that are, to use our parlance “open-platform” means the best of all worlds during this transitional time. Solid and market proven solutions. Out of the box interfaces, but also the ability to have customized and/or open source interfaces, to users and other systems on top. This would allow all of us to be focused on meeting end-user needs and delivering all the functionality they’ve come to expect. That to me would be true innovation in librarianship.