Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why are cloud computing and web services so important to the future of libraries and librarianship?

We recently completed a series of regional meetings for Directors, during which we met with close to 600 senior level library administrators. One question that was posed to the attendees for roundtable discussion was:

“How do you see the value of librarianship being sustained and extended in the future?”
The variety of answers was enlightening, but I want to focus on just one cross-section of answers in this post that were very common across most of the meetings. This category of answers involved face-to-face interaction with a librarian. For instance, librarians’ serving in various capacities in the classrooms was a very common answer or librarians being assigned to various courses to conduct support work, for example, or to write LibGuides or other course specific support tools.

When the various presenters brought up these ideas, I’d pose two questions back:
  1. How do you plan to scale up and support it on the campus?
  2. How do you deliver this kind of service across the Web given that so many course attendees are increasingly remote?
Not surprisingly, the answers to those two questions were not easily formulated. Especially in the current economic climate in which libraries are forced to function.

As if to answer the questions I asked, I recently came across a presentation from October 2010 by Donald King and José -Marie Griffiths entitled: “The Future of Academic Librarians: A Ten-year Forecast of Librarian Supply and Demand”. It’s a fascinating, yet very sobering presentation that underscores the problem I was trying to highlight with my questions.

The problem is this: We’re facing a severe shortage of Academic MLS Librarians. King/Griffiths presentation, on the last slide, summarizes the situation (not all points are listed and the emphasis below is mine):
  • “5,850 MLS librarians received degrees in 2008-2009
  • ~4,500 took jobs in libraries
  • Of the 4,057 MLS grads that were hired in 2006, 1,380 were hired in Academic libraries
  • Demand for all MLS librarians is 62,320
  • If the supply remains constant, the demand fast outpaces the available supply
  • The Academic MLS librarian workforce could be in dire straights.
This data (if, like me, you agree to substitute “could” with “will be”) provides answers to the two questions I posed in the meetings. That is, we can’t plan the future value-add of librarianship using existing or new face-to-face service models. It can’t be done because we’re going to run out of the sheer human resources to do it.

It can, however, be done using a different model. That model is based on implementing cloud computing and web-service tools that deploy the value-add of librarianship right next to the vast information services now available to everyone. Wherever and whenever they use them. Here are some examples based on what we’re doing here at Ex Libris:
  1. bX recommendation service for scholarly articles. I’ve said many times that what makes this product so exciting to me is that we’ve taken the SFX log files, data largely unique to libraries, and mined it to build a data set we can process with analytic tools in order to develop recommendations. bX then takes those recommendations and allows libraries to deploy them across the web and potentially to any device, be it a smart phone, tablet, a personal or organizational PC. So a process that formerly required an end-user to interact directly with a librarian has been captured and automated in a way that now makes it scalable and widely deployable across the Web. This is a perfect example of the kind of tools we have and will continue to develop in order to make librarianship and the work we do important to end users.
  2. Discovery services, such as a hosted Primo with the Primo Central Index, are another example. Products like these are truly scalable, web services that can be embedded in Facebook™, Blackboard™, Sakai, and numerous other places. They are again examples of putting the library and librarianship added value right where the users are located.
  3. Alma, our unified resource management product that is in early releases now and scheduled for general release next year, will also substantially move forward this kind of value-add librarianship. While Alma is designed to manage the backroom operations of print, electronic, and digital collections and provide workflow consolidation. It will also, as a cloud computing web service and through data-in-the-cloud and related analytic analysis, result in data-driven decisions that allow libraries to be more efficient and effective in responding to end-users needs.
Are cloud computing and web-services the end of person-to-person library services? Does this kind of technology replace librarians? No. Anyone worried about that has a far too narrow view. There will be face-to-face library services for a long time. However, as the data above shows, if we continue on the path we’re on, more and more people will never experience librarianship, nor assign any value to it. That, in turn, will mean a decline into obscurity for librarianship.

If we leverage the librarian/human resources we have and will have, take the skills of librarianship, re-engineer them in ways that we can encapsulate and deploy them across the Web to all the virtual places where users can enjoy their benefit; the future of librarianship will be far more vibrant. Librarians will be needed to embrace, implement and help develop and enhance this kind of technology to ensure that happens. Cloud computing and web services, such as these from Ex Libris, will help make this an achievable goal.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where should the focus be when discussing cloud-computing integration?

During recent regional meetings with customers I’ve heard variations of this question several times:
“Will the new cloud based library automation solutions allow libraries to choose the best-of-breed modules from various library automation vendors and integrate them all together?”
I recall that in the past (back when cloud computing meant you were using your notebook computer or PalmPilot(TM) on an airplane..) I had actually predicted we would see a day when this kind of integration would be possible. Mainly because of the way this profession embraces standards. Ok, so I was young, idealistic and naïve. We all now know that the realities of libraries, business, problems with standards adoption and a host of other reasons lead to the near death of this ideology. In the end this kind of integration never truly materialized in any substantial way with standalone ILS products.

For that reason, I’m surprised to hear it being resurrected so strongly in the discussions about cloud computing services for libraries. As I’ve said before, one of the real problems with “cloud-computing” at the moment is that everyone is tying all of their hopes, dreams and solutions to the idea that this technology will solve all their frustrations with existing technology. It won’t. This is why the Gartner Group recently said the term cloud-computing would move into the “trough of disillusionment” as people deal with this reality and come to terms with what the technology can and will do for them. Which, let me be clear, the benefits of cloud-computing are very substantial and very real.

The other reason I’ve been surprised by this question is because I believe it focuses the profession in the wrong direction - inward. This profession has long been accused of being inwardly focused, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Yet, when this inward focus is combined with the rapidly evolving information landscape, libraries declining budgets/headcount and the soaring costs of resources it would seem the path forward should be rethought. In my mind it is far less important to worry about integrating modules between library back-room automation systems and far more important that we integrate our library management systems with other campus automation systems. In other words, will we be able to integrate cleanly and smoothly with the distance learning/course management, campus administration, identity management, alumni and authorization systems?

It is my belief that being successful here is what will help determine if the future of libraries is to wither or blossom. The future of libraries depends heavily on our ability to extend the range of value-added librarian services through, and into, the hands of end-users in meaningful and easy-to-use ways, whatever campus IT system they are using, wherever they are and on whatever device they choose.

There is a final reason I think this question is incorrectly focused. It is because the implementation of standards within the backroom library automation systems has shown us that when we’re dealing with extremely complex processes and workflows it is incredibly difficult, even improbable, that those software modules from disparate vendors can match the full range and rich functionality as when all the modules are provided by the same vendor. True, we’ve seen things like Z39.50, OpenURL, EDI and other standards work and work well, but it is because they’ve been used to deal with a far narrower range of functions than occur in the totality of a library management system. Attempts beyond a defined focus (consider NCIP) have proven extremely difficult to get working well and certainly not to the full range desired by librarians. Especially when attempted with modules from many disparate vendors.

This is further compounded by the fact that new cloud-computing, web service solutions like Alma are devoting considerable effort to bring internal processes more closely together, more tightly integrated, in order to ensure even greater effectiveness and efficiency within the library backroom operations and workflows. In other words the phrase “best-of-breed” should be applied to the totality of the library management system, not to modules. This will, in our minds ensure the minimization of duplicate data, workflows and processes and will allow us to focus where we need to focus in the big picture.

The new cloud-computing unified resource management solutions such as Alma are going to streamline library backroom operations, in part; to free up time for your library staff to focus where they can add major value for your library. In this area, your staff can best do that by helping us focus on defining the touch points between these various campus systems, i.e., how, when, where and to what extent they need to interact with these systems in order to more fully integrate the library into the total campus IT infrastructure. Along with this, we're currently devoting effort to making sure Alma is developed with an open-platform to ensure and enable your staff to have many possible types of outward integration. All of this means we'll be able to move forward in unison to create workable protocols and standards and adopt them so as to enable outward cloud-computing integration.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

End-user privacy isn't a yes/no decision, it is informed choices

Former Sun Microsystems CEO, Scott McNealy, famously declared back in 1999: “Privacy is dead. Get over it.” It is safe to say that library administrators have never subscribed to that theory and aren’t likely to anytime soon. Yet the youth of today and many middle-age to older people as well as librarians seem perfectly willing to surrender large parts of their privacy when using many web-based services. So what is going on here?

The issues surrounding end-user privacy and library services are, as many of us well know, complex, multi-faceted and carry great liability, responsibility and trust. Therefore, it is no surprise that decisions made in this area require soul-searching thought and full understanding of the risks and implications of the final decisions made in dealing with this issue.

Librarianship, as most of us know, is by its very nature, a risk-averse profession. We spend tax dollars and/or organizational resources carefully and after extensive due diligence. So it isn't surprising that we bring this same mindset and framework to bear on decisions regarding end-user privacy. As a result, our decisions frequently lean heavily towards the side of extreme caution. We also tend to make it a black and white or yes/no decision in support of that conservative and cautious approach. However, I think we need to seriously pause and ask ourselves if we can continue to use that approach in dealing with this complex issue? I wonder if we don't need to move from this being a yes/no decision to a series of informed choices for our end-users? Why do I say that?

First of all, the economic pressures on libraries are enormous and growing by the day. At the same time, many libraries are seeing increased usage. So the need to do more with less is rapidly translating into the need to be more efficient and be more effective. Using data to streamline end-users interaction with our systems/staff and our overall management of libraries meets both goals. Yet we seem reluctant and frustrated to do so.

At the last Charleston Conference, an attendee made the comment "I'm so frustrated because I see our users searching Amazon to find materials and then they come back to our discovery tool simply to find out if we can provide access to it." Now clearly Amazon does not offer all the resources that most libraries do, but within the areas where they do provide materials, they offer a very personalized discovery tool and of course, one of the reasons they can do this is because they maintain extensive user usage data, and they use this data to tailor results for the end-users. Very effectively.

When I'm talking with library directors and staff, it is very rare for me to find many who don't actively use Amazon and/or Netflix themselves. So clearly, even though we take a conservative approach on behalf or our end-users, many of us have personally made a decision to allow Amazon and/or Netflix (or related services) to collect and use our personal data in order to tailor services for us. We understand the risks and have agreed to accept those in return for the convenience provided by those services. Many of us also use Facebook. This social networking tool now has over 500M users. The latest interface upgrade collected extensive additional user profile information including schools attended, degrees of study, etc. Again, many have willingly supplied this extensive information (in this case, without any clear understanding of what the benefits/risks will be).

Understandably, making decisions for yourself is not the same as making a decision for all of a library's end-users. However, the question we need to pose to ourselves is this: If as individuals we're willing to accept convenience in return for privacy, why do we think our users aren't willing to make the same compromise when using library resources? Is it right for us to arbitrarily lower the level of service that can be provided to end-users from their libraries without giving them an informed choice that would provide a higher level of service?

Obviously, this question is not as simple as it might first appear. Libraries maintain a level of trust with their users that are deeply valued by both them and the end-users. Frequently there are professional codes-of-conduct and/or legal requirements that must be factored into privacy decisions.

Many librarians feel that their conservative position is in line with that of their professional associations. Yet here in North America for example, ALA in their "Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" clearly say "leave the user in control of as many choices as possible" and that "Users have the right to be informed what policies and procedures govern the amount and retention of personally identifiable information, what that information is necessary for the library and what the user can do to maintain his or her privacy." Furthermore, it says that such information must be "guarded against impediments of open inquiry." All very reasonable statements and they leave the door open for us to do more than we frequently are doing today. Let's note that it does not say we can't retain user information, it doesn't say we can't use it to provide better services. It is only saying that we need to inform and give the user the choice to choose settings that will limit what information is held and for how long. Clearly this is not advocacy of making this a binary decision, it understands and conveys that such information if collected and used must be done within a context that makes it an informed choice of the user.

I think it is time we approach this issue with more openness and some fresh thought. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to lose users to services where people are willing to trade privacy for convenience because it saves them time and, at least for the moment, costs (when we understand personal time also carries real value for many).

We can offer discovery tools and recommendation tools that are more personalized to the end-user, but we need to collect and use more information about those end-users in order to do achieve that goal. In so doing we must spend time clearly laying out for the user (not just in the normal legal terms, but also in terms they understand):
  1. Explain the overall privacy policy.
  2. What data we’re collecting and using.
  3. How we’ll use that data (i.e. the statement of benefits)
  4. How long that data will be retained and how it can be deleted by the end-user.
  5. Under what conditions that data would be disclosed to an outside third party if it is held by the library.
  6. Make participation in the tailored services something the end-user very consciously indicates they want to use. In other words, don’t make them opt out, have them opt in.
The increasing use and expansion of library cloud-computing based solutions will mean that more and more data might well start to reside in the cloud. There it will be possible to quickly amalgamate and use analytical tools to develop highly customized, data-driven decisions that will help to shape end-users interactions with the library. New services will readily become possible, but with it so will the need to deal with the issues surrounding end-user privacy.

What other preparation needs to happen here? A good start would be to read the new Library Technology Report that was recently published on the subject. Barbara Jones, Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at ALA, in concluding the second chapter in this work, offered some excellent suggestions for librarians (from which I selectively pick and substantially abbreviate here):
  • As librarians we need to work to help educate and draft legislation that addresses privacy.
  • We need to get and give training to staff on privacy issues.
  • We should instruct our users in making informed choices about privacy settings and what the continued incremental loss of privacy could result in.
  • We should build on the work of others and our associations.
It’s good advice. End user privacy is far more gray than black and white. In order to maintain our trusted relationship with end-users and to encourage their greater use of our services, we’ll need to better meet their needs and be very upfront about what information we’re using and how we’re using it. It’s all about informed choices.

(Finally, remember I’m not a lawyer and this is not to be taken as legal advice. Before making decisions for your organization, get appropriate and authoritative legal advice.)