Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Gladiators" to perform sleight-of-hand at Charleston Conference

If you’ve read the most recent Library Journal, Infotech report, you’ll know that there is going to be a faceoff between two "gladiators", i.e. publishers/aggregators Proquest/Serials Solutions with their Summon offering and Ebsco with the Ebsco Discovery Service (EDS) offering at the upcoming Charleston Conference. This contest resulted from a series of letters to the Charleston Advisor. These two publisher/aggregators claim the intent is to show librarians which of their solutions are best.

Since we also wrote a letter to the Charleston Advisor that was published/mentioned and since we are a global leader of discovery solutions you may wonder why we weren't invited? The answer is likely because we’re a “library discovery and scholarly aggregate index solution provider” not a “publisher/aggregator” and for other reasons you'll understand after reading this post.

So, while this whole tactic will be mildly entertaining, it is exceedingly silly.

Does anyone really doubt that this technique will result in anything other than these two publishers showing features that are perceived as unique to their offering that the other publisher can’t do? Isn’t this always true with every product/service offering when compared to another? So we’ll end up with two publishers scoring points and smiling smugly while watching the other writhe in the agony of defeat for a few moments – or at least until it’s their turn to score a few points and smile smugly in return. What will this really prove?

Does anyone really think this will change how you are going to select your Content and Discovery products? Do these publisher/aggregators really think that by doing this you’ll suddenly decide that instead of thorough deliberation, thoughtful analysis and asking dozens of questions of each supplier, you’ll just buy on the basis of a face-off? Apparently so.

I suspect the more likely case will be as our Corporate VP, Nancy Dushkin, said in her letter to the Charleston Advisor:
“As history has shown, multiple solutions arise to address real needs, and each solution has its own characteristics. In terms of discovery solutions, I'm confident that each library, after conducting a thorough evaluation of facts and features, will be able to determine which of the available products best fits the library's mission, needs, policies, and environment.”
But, maybe in a political season of exceeding silliness in North America, we all just need the parody and a light moment and then we can all go back to more serious work.

However, this exercise will prove one thing. It will show that these publishers/content aggregators are attempting to pull some of the fastest sleight-of-hand possible in order to hide the much larger, and far more important, issues about what really matters when selecting a discovery solution today. These two particular firms are, as Library Journal says, in the “greatest competition” because they are, first and foremost, publishers/aggregators fighting head-to-head for their first line of business, which is content and content aggregation services. The discovery solution is secondary to them and it is shown in numerous ways by their actions. You can discover this for yourself by asking these questions:

1. Have you offered your discovery layer for free as part of a packaged content/discovery solution deal?

No matter what the answer is publicly, as competitors we can tell you that we’ve seen instances where customers have been offered the discovery solution for free from a publisher/content aggregator owned firm, as part of a larger content subscription package.

Now, we all know there is no such thing as “free” lunch. If this happens to you, ask why are they willing to do this? Where are they making their money on that product? It may not be in the first year. It might be in later years as you see price hikes on your content and content aggregation services. A good defensive tactic would be for you to use would be to ask for a line item price quote with prices applied to all the content, as well as the ‘no-cost” discovery layer so that in subsequent years, when you ask for the same, you can see where those price hikes are being applied. Want more details? See the section below on “content neutrality”.

2. Which proprietary software vendor produced a discovery solution first and why?

Our Corporate VP, Nancy Dushkin, in her letter to the Charleston Advisor pointed out that our discovery solution, Primo, has been in libraries since 2007 and is installed in hundreds of libraries around the world. We started by building the discovery product first, and getting the functionality right to deal with a broad variety of content types and sources. That was a deliberate choice. Data, on the other hand, is becoming more and more of a commodity and is becoming available from numerous sources. This is also why we’re seeing these “gladiators” fight so publicly and viciously. They want to continue to force people into their discovery interfaces where they can make sure their content and content aggregation is highlighted and used first and foremost because, as we noted above, this is their primary business and where they make their money.

3. What is “content-neutrality”, who offers it and why is it important?

Content neutrality means that the library, not the publisher/content aggregator or vendor, can minimally control the following:
  • What content is included in their discovery tool.
  • The relevance ranking on that content. Can you force the content that is unique to your library to the top of the result sets? Can you control the relevancy ranking of all the content being offered through your discovery layer?
  • Control of the facets offered by the system. Facets are a very quick way for users to quickly sort through a lot of content, but in order for you to meet the specific needs of your users, these must be under your control. If they’re not under your control, careful analysis of those offered and why they’re being offered is needed on the library’s part before proceeding.
Don’t just accept simple answers to these questions. Have these “gladiators” show you exactly how you would perform each and every one of these steps.

Also remember that when you sign with a publisher/aggregator for their discovery tool and you use their aggregate index that it has their competitors data loaded into it. That means they can now see the usage of not only their own content, but also that of their competitors. They can see what titles are used; they can see how often they’re used. It's certainly possible, if you don't control the relevancy ranking as described above, that they might force their content to rank higher than their competitors and therefore encourage greater use. I may be naïve, but no one is ever going to convince me that this information isn’t going to be mighty handy to have when it comes time for these publisher/aggregators to define the content packages for next year, what titles are in them and how they’re going to position and price them against their competitors.

More importantly, those who I see on the losing end of this specific scenario are libraries. After all, if they gave you that discovery interface or charged you very little for it, somewhere, someplace and somebody has to pay for it and you’ll have handed them the possibility to do that to your library .

Remember when you buy a discovery product (Primo) and an aggregate index (Primo Central Index) from a vendor like Ex Libris, you get an assurance that the supplier is content-neutral and that we have no vested interest in the content except to make sure that you, representing the library using the content, are getting the best possible solution at the best possible cost in order to meet the specific needs of your users without outside influence or interference.

4. Do you comply with the the International Coalition of Library Consortium (ICOLC) Statement, Principle 3?

This statement was added in June 2010 and says:
“We encourage publishers to allow their content to be made available through numerous vendors appropriate for their subject matter. We also encourage online providers and aggregators to allow their metadata to be included in emerging discovery layer services on a non-exclusive basis.”
It doesn’t say make “some” of your metadata available and it very specifically says don’t make it available on an exclusive basis (i.e. through the discovery tool offered by another division of the same company). This statement very clearly says that libraries are functioning in a challenging economic situation and they want their vendors to offer their metadata to all discovery products on an open basis. Be sure to ask the “gladiators” what their plans are for complying with that statement. While you're at it, ask them why they think it acceptable for either of these gladiators to ask their competitors to load their metadata in one of these vendors indexes, but it is NOT acceptable for them to be asked to provide their metadata for indexing in other aggregate indexes?

Now you might ask: "Didn't you just say above, that if they have their competitor's metadata in their index, I'm at a disadvantage? Am I not facilitating this by asking for compliance with this statement?" Yes, I did and yes, you are, but remember what I also said above -- buy your discovery solution and associated aggregate index from a content-neutral party, like Ex Libris. By so doing you'll keep a clear division that will avoid any conflict-of-interest and provide you with the statistics and tools to negotiate content and aggregation deals on a fair and open basis.

So if you’re going to the Charleston Conference and you intend to be at the face-off, enjoy the show. If you get the chance, ask some of the questions above. While the show may be entertaining, the questions above deserve real answers when you’re selecting a discovery solution and aggregate index for your library. At Ex Libris, Primo and the Primo Central Index provide you with answers we believe these two “gladiators” do not want you to hear. Now you understand why there will only be two "gladiators" on the stage.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

“The Value of Academic Libraries” and the incomplete chapter

It’s fall here in Chicago. The darkness comes earlier in the day and the temperatures cool, creating an environment where deeper contemplation is more easily achieved as all of the normal distractions of spring and summer fade away.

So it was when I sat down with the newly issued report; “The value of academic libraries; a comprehensive research review and report”. It’s a meaty tome (the full version is 172 pages, an Executive Summary at 16 pages is also available) that requires focus, contemplation and endurance to work your way through it. However, you’ll be rewarded for that effort because the work is packed with great information and ideas.

As noted in the Executive Summary:

“This report is intended to describe the current state of the research on community college, college and university library value and suggest focus areas for future research”
It does this extremely well, resulting in a set of twenty-two recommendations for librarians who want to establish the value of library services on their campuses. However, virtually every recommendation requires substantive, coordinated and collaborative efforts across organizations and numerous departments, and with technology experts from both within and outside of the academic organizations. However, after reading all that, the report begins to leave the reader unfulfilled. I turned to the “What to do next” section and hoped to find a plan for making all these ideas and plans come to fruition. I suspected we were in trouble when I read the following (emphasis is mine):
If each library identifies some part of the Research Agenda in this document, collects data, and communicates it through publication or presentation, the profession will develop a body of evidence that demonstrates library impact in convincing ways.”

“Major professional associations can play a crucial organizing role in the effort to demonstrate library value.”
This is followed by what I consider to be some low level suggestions on how all this might happen.

Surely we can muster a more focused effort than this in order to achieve these goals? What hits you hard as you read this is that ALA/ACRL showed good vision in writing this report, but unfortunately, they’re not showing the leadership to realize its goals. They are instead, relying on wishful thinking and the loose coordination of others.

Now, like many of you, I’ve been a long-time member of ALA (27 years) and I know that it is a huge organization representing many interests, people and organizations. Furthermore, I want to be clear, the fact that this chapter is missing is not the fault of the author, or the many people who worked on this report. It is, as I said before, a wonderful piece of work. It’s just that the final chapter is incomplete. It should describe how we’re going to drive this plan through to completion. Furthermore, I understand that it’s because of the way ALA is organized and governed, that this chapter was written in this manner. The ALA website admits to the problem we’re all facing here (again, emphasis is mine):

“The American Library Association carries out its work through a complex structure of committees and subcommittees, divisions, round tables, and several other types of groups.“
I personally consider that a bit of an understatement. The focus of ALA is so large and so diffuse that I frequently feel that by serving so many competing interests, it really serves none of them as well as it should. As it stands, this report serves as yet another example.

Of course, it’s easy to criticize; the harder task is always to answer the question: what should be done? Here’s what I consider missing in the chapter: Take the 22 recommendations and do the following:

  1. First prioritize the list (P1 through P3). We all know we can’t do 22 things at once, no matter how many organizations enlist. Some items build on other steps, some will require more resources than might be initially redirected, etc. Sure, many can and should be worked concurrently and thus my suggested use of three priorities instead of a pure ranked listing. ACRL staff should work with membership to do this prioritization.

  2. Next, have the Board or Council look at these recommendations and endorse them along with a directive across the organization that these represent goals and tasks to be achieved ASAP. ALA Headquarters staff should assign the elements that need to be accomplished to specific divisions, committees and round tables of ALA, along with completion dates. In other words, this effort needs to have the endorsement of leadership by the highest levels of ALA.

  3. Then the divisions, committees and round tables should take their assigned tasks and the job of enlisting the membership, as appropriate, to achieve their tasks to support of this plan. The ALA and division conferences could be used for progress reports and next-step coordination meetings between all the arms working on the goals and tasks to be achieved.

  4. The plan needs to be treated as a full project, with project implementation and management oversight, to follow up and ensure the pieces are resourced, completed on schedule, and coordinated in time to move towards the full implementation of the ideas in a coherent, cohesive manner. This should be assigned to ALA Headquarters staff to achieve.
Maybe I’m being naïve or too simplistic. However, what’s described in this report is a set of strategically important steps. They will serve to enhance and document the value of academic (and really all) libraries. In my mind, that makes it important enough to think that ALA should marshal resources across the organization, from all the divisions, chapters and round-tables in order to push this agenda forward in a new and bold way.

Such an initiative would demonstrate leadership not only in achieving the goals of this report, but in demonstrating that through directed, focused efforts, ALA can achieve new and very important things for librarianship.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stretching the horizon of technology based solutions in libraries

I just finished reading the 2010 “The Horizon Report - 2010 Museum Edition” and I would encourage you to do the same, with a view to considering how you can stretch the horizon described in this report to include libraries.

Museums, like libraries, are faced with the challenge of increasing their visibility and strengthening their relevance and value in an era when its targeted users would rather look at Facebook and preferably on their mobile phone. The report challenges museums to embrace a wide range of new technologies.

Libraries need to do the same thing and this report can serve as a wonderful, mind-stretching read for a librarian. You could substitute the word “libraries” for “museums” in many, many places and the validity of the statements wouldn’t change at all. Perhaps that underscores the increasing trend towards the blending of the needs these two types of organizations are trying to address. Read the list of technologies that are suggested for museums to watch, which includes:
  1. Mobile and Social Media.
  2. Augmented reality and location based services
  3. Gesture based computing, and the
  4. Semantic Web
Some of those technologies clearly overlap with libraries and some might seem a bit far out to deserve serious consideration. However, before arriving at that conclusion, read the report. Some of my favorite observations were:
  1. Mobile devices.
    “According to a recent Garner Report, mobiles will be the most common way for people to access the Internet by 2013” (page 9).
    (We’re preparing our customers for this with Primo Version 3.0, which includes a mobile discovery interface. Our Open Platform website, EL Commons, includes other open source mobile interfaces.)

  2. The real value of social media.
    “In the way that they encourage a community around the media they host. Users can talk about, evaluate, critique and augment the content that is there – and do so in tremendous numbers.” “Social media allow users to collaborate and engage one another.” (page 13).
    Think about what would happen if we did that with library content, particularly in academic settings. This is really the kind of activity I was talking about in my recent post about the collaborative we really need. This report sees a similar opportunity.

  3. Augmented Reality
    “The concept of blending (augmenting) data – information, rich media and even live action – with what we see in the real world..”. (page 16)
    The report highlights examples such as that:
    “features content layers that may include ratings, reviews, advertising, or other such information to assist consumers on location in shopping or dining areas” (page 16).
    It doesn’t take much imagination to see what we could do with this in academic libraries. Bringing information to life takes on a whole new meaning with this kind of technology.

  4. Gesture-based computing. If you think gesture-based computing is out there in the future a bit, this report points out
    “The screens of the iPhone.. react to pressure, motion and the number of fingers touching the devices. The iPhone additionally can react to manipulation of the device itself – shaking, rotating, tilting, or moving the device in space.” (page 24).
    The Wii is another example of this technology and the list goes on. In other words, this technology is here today. Applying it to museums (and libraries) would give
    “the direct and satisfying personal connection of an individual with the object” (page 25).
    We’re seeing some initial uses of this with assorted mobile library applications, but this report helps you to imagine new and creative ways it might be further embraced and deployed.

  5. Semantic Web. I suspect most of us conceptually buy into the Semantic Web already. A key line here:
    “Semantic searching is currently used primarily to streamline scientific inquiries, allowing researchers to find relevant information without having to deal with apparently similar, but irrelevant information.” (page 28).
    No doubt we can benefit from this technology in libraries.
The report cites numerous real-life examples for each of the technologies and gives further readings. You’ll find ideas that can be readily stretched to include libraries.

I always encourage stepping back from challenging times and situations to take a different view of them. Reading this report about how museums are thinking of applying technology to their operations makes for an intriguing and invigorating read for us as librarians. It bears enough similarities to provide the opportunity to see how what is being proposed there (museums) could be applied here (libraries). It’s an exercise that we as librarians should do more frequently in difficult times. Most importantly it can give you a horizon that makes you feel excited about moving towards it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ex Libris – The book

Long weekends are a wonderful opportunity to think and reflect. Celebrating an anniversary, my wife and I took a trip to the coast and while walking through the hotel store, a book on the shelf captured my eye: “Ex Libris; Confessions of a Common Reader”, by Anne Fadiman. It is no surprise that this title would attract me and I promptly bought it. Published in 1998, I’m not sure how I’ve missed this book over all the years I’ve worked for Ex Libris (the two are unrelated except for the title). During the course of the weekend I read it.

I suspect many of you, like me, would find yourself nodding your head as you read this authors description of her interactions, appreciation and immersion in the world of books. Describing her home, with several walls lined with bookshelves, filled with books, certainly struck home (accompanied by a deep sigh from my wife). A shelf in those bookcases, called the “Odd Shelf” that is lined with books that don’t really fit with the volumes lining the other shelves also struck home. The chapter entitled “Never do that to a book” is a fun read; there are volumes I’ve read many times that still look like new and others I’ve marked up, made notes in the margins and refer to over and over, but I never, ever leave a book face down to mark my place. Overall, I found this work a delightful read for those who love physical books, love holding them, collecting them and working with them.

As I finished the final pages with a satisfaction similar to that I feel when taking the final sips of a fine port, I paused to think and reflect about our rapidly evolving world of e-books and e-resources. Will we lose something irreplaceable as we move towards that world? Or will it simply be an evolution in the vehicle that conveys feelings, ideas, thoughts and knowledge?

Looking at my Kindle and iPad, I see books containing the underlines of others who’ve read them (and how many people underlined it); I see the integration of multi-media and the Web into the text. So, I know the answer to my question is that it will be an evolution. While I’ll be among the last to advocate we slow down our embrace of technology, it is important to remember that reading is a larger experience than just consuming the words. It is also about the hunt for the right book, the embrace and collection of books that says something about who we are and what we care about that is also important. The very experience of reading them involves a number of mechanisms and results we must be sure to carry forth into the future of e-resources in some evolutionary way.

If you need an enjoyable break from our hectic world of technology and trying to harness information, I encourage you to pick this book up and take the journey. It serves as a useful reminder to us technologists of all the things books represent.