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.