Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Library Software Solutions - We need a higher level of discourse..

It seems to me, after a week or so of watching comments fly around on Twitter, Facebook, and on various blogs and press sites, that we need to raise the level of discourse between the vendors of proprietary software, those who produce open source software and the users of both, that is -- libraries. Why do I say that? As I'm sure many of you know the OLE group issued its draft final project report recently, along with a request to comment.

I took that opportunity to write a blog post conveying my concerns about where OLE was headed and how it was getting there. I posed a set of questions, based on my professional experiences, which includes proprietary only software companies, software companies with products based on both proprietary and open source and prior to Ex Libris, my own company that was focused almost exclusively on open source software. That blog post drew a pointed comment from Brad Wheeler, a participant in the OLE project.

Which caused me to stop and wonder; did the OLE group really want comments? Or just not comments from vendors of proprietary software?

If that is the case it is truly unfortunate for all of us. It reminds me of a book review in the Economist that I read this weekend. A statement in that review jumped out at me:
“They are so blinded by partisanship that they are incapable of seeing any vices in their own side or any virtues in their opponents….”
I thought about that for a moment and how broadly it applies to our lives today, from politics (conservative vs. liberal) through the media (FOX vs. CNN) and to computers (Windows vs. Mac). It seems we're increasingly turning into people who can only see black and white and little in between. Is that where we want the discourse between open source software and proprietary software solutions to reside? I sincerely hope not.

Surely we can agree on some things:
  • Proprietary software can co-exist with open source. For instance, I'm extremely proud of what Ex Libris has done in supporting open source software. While I understand those of the “pure open source” camp will still find things to criticize in what I'm about to say, the facts are that Ex Libris has:
    • Opened its software platforms to support open source extensions
    • Participated in standards meetings to support the DLF API initiatives.
    • Sent speakers and attendees to open source conferences around the world to both learn and present.
    • Encouraged community-based software development.
    • Strongly supported standards and standards organizations.
    • Provided financial support to the open source community via direct financial contributions to the OSS4LIB conferences.
    • Organized meetings for open source developers where Ex Libris developers participate to learn and share how our open platform can be utilized to further support open source development.
  • “For-profit” is not bad. This is a cornerstone of our economy and our society. While I note a trend in many open source and even general library conversations that equate the words “for-profit” with “greed” and “bad”, the reality is that this is a diversionary tactic and serves no real purpose.

    Many universities and educators benefit directly from “for-profit” companies via their endowments and pension funds, both of which invest in, and hope for a good return via, these kinds of investments. (It reminds me of those that say they don't want government health care, but don't you dare touch my Medicare!)

    e reality is that good and successful companies listen to their customers, supply products/services that those customers need and will buy or else -– pure and simple -- they go out of business.

    Pricing of those products is always a discussion point and likely will continue to be. I remember what one company president I worked for said when asked how he arrived at a product price? His answer was “somewhere between what it costs to produce and what the market will bear”. If anyone thinks that libraries could previously, or can now, bear high profit margins; please tell me how to transport to your world. It's not one I've lived in for the last several decades.

    I've noted studies that said the cost of open source products and proprietary products usually turn out to be equal when all aspects of their production and implementation are factored into the equation. I've heard vendors of open source solutions say the same thing.
    When it comes to cost, it's just a difference of where the money will be spent.
  • Competition is good. Let me be clear. We welcome OLE in the marketplace. As I said in my original post, we see much merit in this project. The OLE work will make for better solutions, across the board. Yes, it's a different model of producing software than ours, but it doesn't make our model wrong and it doesn't make the open source software model right. The two methods are just different, each has has advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed by customers to find the one that best suits their specific needs. I agree, it's a big market. There will be alternatives. We'll each represent what we see as the advantages of our solution. Let's agree to let the customers decide.
  • Responsibility belongs to all of us. The current situation of libraries is no more the fault of proprietary software vendors than it is of librarians or any other single player. It's a complex world with many factors at play.

    Open source software organizations understand, as do proprietary firms, that ultimately libraries will determine their own fate. Their willingness to define a compelling vision of their role in the future is the key to their survival. (See my post about
    The future of research libraries and/or Libraries; A silence that is deafening. As software developers we offer a variety of tools and solutions to meet that vision.

    I think we'd be best served by allowing libraries to focus on the larger issues at hand. We can all do that through intelligent exchanges with clear statements of advantages and benefits.
  • Discourse is important. We at Ex Libris have learned a lot from the open source software movement. There is much we admire in this movement and have moved to incorporate into our products and initiatives in order to benefit our customers. If it benefits our customers, we understand that it benefit us as well.

    I wrote my OLE post because I thought it was an important topic and I wanted to share my experience, my view, and what input I could give the group to use in the project and those that wish to use the resulting product. It was never meant as a set of statements meant to foster fear, uncertainty or doubt. If we are wrong in our approach, then I would encourage discourse that helps us to understand why. If we're right (and let's recognize that companies like ours have been producing software for decades for this marketplace so surely we know a few things that would benefit the OSS developers) then perhaps our thoughts can be accepted as constructive input.
Given the quality, quantity and intelligence of the people involved in these discussions, I think it is time to raise this dialogue to a higher level.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Future of Research Libraries

This weekend I read a book-in-progress about the future of research libraries, called "The Great Library In The Sky". The fact that it is a book-in-progress is an interesting idea all by itself that the author discusses in the introduction. Of course, the most interesting part is the book itself. The title of the first chapter is "Time to Say Goodbye" and it open with the statement that "Academic Libraries are confronting a death spiral." The work is an in-depth look at the challenges and problems posed to academic libraries by information competitors and disruptive technologies. It challenges the thinking of today's academic librarians while offering possibilities for remaining relevant into the future. Let's just say that it will not be by doing what has always been done.

As noted, it is a work-in-progress. The version I read is Version 0.6 and admittedly some chapters are a bit choppy yet. However, even in this form, it should be made mandatory reading in every graduate library science program. Also, any academic librarian wanting to see a pathway forward that isn't centered on cutting services and collections would be well served to read this book right now.

The author,
Adam Corson-Finnerty is the Director of Special Initiatives for the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. That institution is indeed fortunate to have someone like this on their team. Libraries need more people like this. He also writes a blog where clearly many of the ideas in this book started out. Excellent reading, both the blog and the book. Check them out.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Importance of content and vendor neutrality in software solutions--what will libraries choose?

Today, our technology tool sets include Web-services, cloud computing, SaaS, grid computing, mobile devices, etc.—all of which have made possible a whole new way of thinking about library systems/services. As an aggregate, they also raise some new issues that will cause libraries to rethink topics like data privacy, conflicts of interest, and market dynamics, in a way that has never been of previous concern.

There are several efforts underway including, Ex Libris URM, OLE, and OCLC WorldCAT that have outlined plans for next generation systems/services that utilize at least some, if not all, of these technologies. With these new technologies come all kinds of new questions and interesting topics for consideration, many that highlight some of the complex decisions that libraries will be making in the next few years. Coming hard on the heels of some record usage policy debates, the inevitable questions arise regarding what might happen to an even bigger body of data resident, in for instance, a new OCLC-hosted ILS system? Will these force librarians to again think long and hard about data privacy and record ownership issues? Will putting the entire patron, usage and budget data resident in today’s library ILS, in the hands of a vendor that also licenses and prices content and has third party relationships with publishers and content providers, raise some concerns? Not just among librarians, but the libraries and larger institutions/organizations that they serve?

A similar tangle arises when a single vendor controls all of the pieces of a solution such as the discovery interface, database(s) and their access; and electronic resource management. Companies like these offer services that allow a library to license, record, discover, and access intellectual content all on a single vendor-hosted platform. The convenience and cost factors are highly touted; as all services are provided courtesy of new technologies unknown just a few years ago. It all sounds too easy and it is-–especially if libraries don’t stop to consider the implications. For example, should a library be concerned about the privacy and exclusive usage of all of its data? If a vendor produces original content, offers access to a database via a hosted service, provides discovery of its own databases, houses usage and cost data and license terms of both its own content, and other vendors’ content, have we crossed a line that should be of concern not only to libraries, but also to other content publishers? It would seem to me that we should all be very concerned. When one solution provider suddenly has control over all facets of the solution you’re using, and significant parts of the competitor’s solutions, you, as the end customer, have lost substantial negotiation power. Firms that compete with these suppliers are also handicapped in that they’ve handed key critical usage information on their products to their very competitors. This information could be used by the solution vendor to modify pricing and packaging choices in ways that won’t be favorable to the library.

The OLE and Ex Libris URM projects continue to sustain the vendor and content neutrality that has been a hallmark of traditional library software, updated to use newer technology. It will be fascinating to see what values libraries choose to prioritize. Will it be perceived low cost and convenience or will it be content and vendor neutrality, i.e. the ability to negotiate low prices coupled with the traditional need to protect privileged data that will continue to weigh heavily into their future decisions? It's an important decision.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

He's back!

Nicholson Baker has a long track record when it comes to libraries, books and technology. Among those of us who make our living in the technology sector of the library world, Mr. Baker isn’t always considered very forward thinking. Back in 1994 he did an article in the New Yorker magazine talking about how various libraries, including the New York Public Library, Harvard, and others, had discarded their index card files and replaced them with “inferior” on-line systems. In 2001, he wrote a book called “Double Fold” that was very critical of libraries and their handling of original works and their replacement with newer types of surrogates. Now, in the latest issue of New Yorker, he takes on the Amazon Kindle 2 in an article entitled: “A new page”. It’s an entertaining article, certainly. Not surprisingly, it is also a pretty skeptical look at the Kindle as he relates what he views as good and bad about the technology behind e-books and e-book readers. If one checks the web, various sites are already dealing with his article and those sites are building an impressive array of comments. Again, the comments are entertaining and informative and they represent all sides of this very passionate discussion.

As informative and entertaining as these discussions are, as a user of e-books and an e-book reader, many times I find some points of view glaringly missing. These include: Given the quantum leaps each generation of this technology makes, where might it go? What might we do with it? What will it mean for librarianship?

As a starting point, consider the technological leaps made by the iPod, which launched in October 2001. We’ve seen new versions and models virtually every year since, each offering major new features and technology. As a result these devices have become prolific. According to
Wikipedia, over 200M iPods of one variety or another have been sold since their introduction. The number keeps growing.

Now, consider the most popular e-book reader, the Kindle. The first one was introduced in November 2007 and today, almost two years later, we’ve seen two additional new versions – each offering substantial new feature sets. It is estimated that 500,000 have been sold thus far and by 2010 it is projected that over 3M will have been sold. I have no doubt, many of the issues/concerns we hear today, from people like Baker, will be taken as input by the various manufacturers and will be used to rapidly improve their products.

When talking to librarians about these devices, I frequently encounter the point of view that “It’ll never replace books” or “The book is a perfect technology – widely usable, no power needs, it feels and smells good,” etc., etc. However, I think this is a black and white view. It is also a denial of the inevitable. I read somewhere that paper is a technology and like all technologies it too will have an end-of-life. Until that day is fully realized, as librarians we should look at these devices and ask ourselves the following questions:
  1. If I can have a book/magazine/newspaper delivered wirelessly to the device in my hand in less than 60 seconds and for a reasonable charge, why should we expect users to go to the library or use inter-library loan?
  2. If I check out a book at the library, can I plug a headset into it and have the book automatically read to me?
  3. If I’m reading a book from the library, can I instantly change the font size of that book to one more comfortable for my tired eyes?
  4. Can I keyword search the book in my hand, and every other e-book I own, all at the same time, with one simple search?
  5. Can I carry 1,500 books in the same space as one printed book normally takes?
I don’t intend to start a long point-by-point comparison of libraries and library books to e-book readers and e-books. Each has its attributes and it would be taking up the black-and-white view of the world to go down that path. Instead we should realize this new technology offers some very interesting new value-add capabilities that libraries and library books don’t. What are others seeing as the impact? (highlighting below is my own):

“New e-readers are leading the way to a future in which your local library is the solid-state drive in your hand” (
Candice Chan, Wired Magazine, May 2009).

Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal of April 20, 2009, in an article entitled, "
How the e-book will change the way we read and write", made some very interesting observations. If you haven’t read this article, I highly recommend it. It does offer you a view of the future of this technology:
  • “It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time, make it easier to stop reading them.”
  • “Print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading.”
  • “2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the books since Gutenberg …”
  • “Think about it. Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read – as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a topic, and comes up with the most cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.”
  • “Reading books will become … a community event, with every paragraph a launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.”
  • “The unity of the book will disperse..”
All of this should cause one to stop and think. The worlds of publishing and research will see transformation as a result of e-books. Librarianship will be able to move in new directions and address new opportunities. New software will be needed on these platforms that will replicate the some of the value add skills of libraries and librarianship but in this different environment. (Note in these articles, they say the library will be in your e-reader, not the value-add of librarianship. We should make sure it is is also on the e-reader.) At the same time, this new technology raises countless concerns for the profession if we fail to embrace it.

Nicholson Baker will be back again and again, every time he sees a new threat to traditional librarianship and new forms of information consumption that he feels threaten traditional printed books. Obviously, as a librarian I think we need to embrace this new e-book technology and to ensure that we develop and put into place ways to work with and offer librarian services within it. This evolution in technology presages new dimensions in information consumption and utilization. As a result, librarians will have some new tools in their toolbox and others we need to develop. If you want to see how some of your peers are working with this new technology, check out this blog
entry. If you haven’t started, maybe it’s time? While Nicholson Baker will be back, I'd like to make sure librarianship never goes away.

(As an intersting follow up, read this post title: "
Ebook growth explosive; serious disruptions around the corner" which talks about the growth rates in ebook sales, putting some numbers on it and also talks specifically about library sales of ebooks.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

OLE; The unanswered questions

After returning from a vacation following ALA, I read the summary of the recently issued draft Final OLE Project Report. While there is much to be admired in what the OLE project has achieved, it is also important to note that OLE is neither the first organization to define these goals nor does OLE represent major unique or innovative technology. Furthermore, it leaves some important questions unanswered that anyone thinking about investing in this project should demand answers for first.

Robert McDonald, Associate Dean for Library Technologies at Indiana University, said in an email about the project:
"The goal is to produce a design document to inform open source library system development efforts, to guide future library system implementations, and to influence current Integrated Library System vendor products."
If you read the Project goals outlined in the document, you'll find it states similar goals:
“to design a next-generation library system that breaks away from print-based workflows, reflects the changing nature of library materials and new approaches to scholarly work, integrates well with other enterprise systems and can be easily modified to suit the needs of different institutions.”
These are all important and readily agreed upon goals. In fact, nearly two years ago, Ex Libris started to define a very similar set of goals, although much broader, more comprehensive and technologically more advanced. This process was the beginning of what was to become known as Unified Resource Management (URM).

The next steps, according to the OLE document are to start
“talking with senior administrators, both internal and external to OLE, to identify those institutions that wish to develop a proposal to carry the project forward into the next phase of building the software. OLE participants also have begun discussions with selected software vendors to explore how they might participate either in software development or software hosting and support as the project continues.”
This statement seems to be a bit at odds with the goals outlined and discussed above. If the goals are to influence and guide current ILS development and/or inform OSS development efforts, then developing the appropriate software is indeed a very large step in a different direction, and it skips an equally important step. So what’s missing? Creating the business model that surrounds this development effort. This is no small task, but it is a critically important one. If the OLE project were a new startup investment opportunity, investors would want assurances that the money being invested would result in a product/service that will provide a measurable return, year after year for a reasonable amount of time.

To do that, the business model would need to answer some very tough questions:
  1. What is the target market for this product? In reading the document as currently drafted, one finds a high-level description (framework) that will appeal to most librarians conceptually. It is clear from the document that the goal is to have a very wide adoption rate for the resulting product. However, it is missing the functional details needed for any specific library to be able to clearly say this product will work for them. Now if the point of the effort is to guide and inform, the document as it exists is fine. But if it is meant to result in a final product, it needs to be considerably more specific. This is where involving vendors that have developed products for the library market will be very important. Vendors that have developed automation products for this market will undoubtedly point out that the devil is in the details. Research libraries are different from academic libraries are different from public libraries, are different from… you know what I’m saying. Each of those segments requires different functionality and workflows. It is stated in the OLE Plan that the ability to accommodate flexible and more modern workflows will be met with the ensuing product. What is not clearly stated is that putting those pieces in place will be left to the institutions that adopt the product. For those institutions, factoring the time, money and resources to add that specific functionality will need to be factored into their cost considerations for adopting this as a development project/product.
  2. Who are the competitors? Clearly there are already competitive products emerging. Ex Libris is developing URM (as mentioned above) its next generation automation product. OCLC is discussing and developing extensions to WorldCAT. Others are also working towards similar goals as outlined in the draft Final OLE Project Report. A comprehensive list should, to the degree possible, be identified and listed so that potential partners understand the competitive landscape being faced by this product.
  3. How much of the market do the organizations above have or are they going to take? How much is OLE hoping to take? Once the competitive solutions are identified, some projections of market share should be developed for all the identified products. Why? Because it needs to be understood that if you have a potential market of “x” libraries (just for discussion sake, let’s say 120 ARL institutions) and OLE is going to hope to obtain a market share of 20%, then the total potential pool of possible participating institutions is 24. So when final costs are developed to fully develop this product, place it into production and maintain it are calculated, the 24 institutions must bear those costs. (For example, if the projection is that it will take 5.2M to build the product, and let’s say it takes another 5M to complete the development needed to put the project in production status by build partners, plus an annual recurring cost of minimally two programmers per institution, at a total of 150K, we’re looking at an annualized cost of nearly $500K per institution before deducting any grant funding the project might obtain). These are big and important numbers that need to be known by any institution that might wish to participate in either the development or adoption of this product.
  4. How many institutions are actually going to put OLE into production status? (Remember, we’re talking an “enterprise” level application here, so institutions have to be willing to bet the future of their organizations on the final result). There are many open source projects in libraries today. Some run in test/development modes for years with no clear date identified as to when it will be a “production” product. While it is equally true there are many OSS products that are in production status, without knowing when a product will be "done" and for how long money must be poured into the development, developing a business case that shows a useful time frame for a return on investment is extremely difficult.
  5. How much money are those institutions going to have to put behind that adoption in order to make it an enterprise, production ready, level product? While these will be projections at best, it is important to factor the answers to these questions into the business model, normally at several different levels of adoption, for the institutions considering the solution to have a comprehensive understanding of how costs might change depending on what happens.
  6. How will that product sustain itself for some defined amount of time (usually 5-10 years)? The current draft Final Report begins to outline the plan for achieving this, but again, a range of numbers need to be applied for a realistic assessment to be performed (i.e if only 50 adopt it’ll cost “x”, if 1000 adopt it’ll cost “y”).
  7. What are the risks? Risk identification is an important part of making any investment. Some of the risks that surround OLE include:
  • Given the scope of what is being proposed and the competitive environment in which the product will exist, can this product develop a large enough following of developers to sustain it in each market segment in which it aspires to compete? The reality is that the library market is one of relatively finite size and given the current economic conditions, the number of institutions that can afford to sustain a staff of developers is shrinking. Given all the other OSS efforts underway, is there a large enough community that will be willing to devote time, energy and resources to this product?
  • The investment represented both by those institutions that will be build partners and those that will end up tailoring the product to meet their needs is very large. A lot of the money to be applied here might come from the Mellon Foundation, a terrific organization that has done more for libraries than can be measured. Yet, someone needs to ask: Is this the best use of that money? Especially when there are clearly competitive products emerging, many of which come from organizations with proven track records in developing this kind of technology. What is the probability of success for this startup effort? What if it fails?
  • The real point here is that risks need to be identified, measured and factored into the investment analysis.
Once gathered, all these answers will need to be loaded into some complex business modeling spreadsheets in order to make projections about what the actual cost will be, per institution, to create and sustain the development of OLE. Given the current economic crisis in both education and libraries, these costs will need to be carefully documented, scrutinized, and compared to other offerings in order to make informed, fiscally sound decisions.

This is tedious stuff. The answers to these questions will probably not be given by the same people who wrote the draft Final Report document. However, these answers will most probably determine the overall direction and success of Project OLE, either as a guiding, influencing, or development force in library automation.

The final question I think anyone responsible for making an investment decision in terms of building OLE should ask themselves is this: If I were investing my own money in a company that said they were going to build OLE, would I do it? If not, I think you know what you should do when it comes to your organization’s money and OLE.