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.