Thursday, November 8, 2012

Impressions of the new library services platforms - Part 5 - OLE by Kuali

Note:  If you haven't read the first post in this series, I'd recommend your clicking here and doing so before reading the following post. That first post sets some definitions in place that are used in the analysis and comparison(s) that follow.


This is the only open source software solution being offered among the new library services platforms.   Backed by Kuali, development partners and using Mellon Foundation grants, a number of academic and research libraries have banded together to build, own and govern this offering. The stated values of OLE membership include the ability to drive the product to meet the needs of member institutions, the ownership of the software as a long-term investment and the ability to meet the enterprise needs of a research library that will also work for librarians in a consortia environment.


The stated goal of the OLE project is to build a flexible, service oriented, enterprise library management system for academic and research libraries.  As such, the product is a ground-up write of a new offering.   However, where possible, some of the other Kuali OSS components (financial for example) are being utilized.

Considerations for Libraries

Currently the available functionality includes acquisitions, record loading, accounts receivable and basic reports.  Planned for future releases are circulation, cataloging, inventory, financial processing and ERM components.  In the case of circulation, it is expect that version 1.0 will have core circulation functions and this release is expected within a year from now.  The product is designed to support the range and formats of scholarly information, interoperates and integrates with other systems while providing workflow configuration capabilities.

OLE in its initial release assumes a local installation.  A SaaS offering is in the plans but either way, this is not a true cloud computing system.   Institutions wanting to use a SaaS delivery model the must select their own hosting service.  Note this may change however, as commercial partners sign on and it they elect to offer hosting services.  In any event, I would think sites shouldn't expect to see SaaS capabilities for 18 to 24 months.  This product is not written using a true multi-tenant architecture. So again, in comparison to the true cloud computing systems using multi-tenant architecture, OLE systems will miss out on the associated benefits (lower overhead costs, data aggregation/sharing and analytics).   Their method of data sharing across systems is to use the open linked data model.  Aggregated data is largely a manual operation between system silos, so in comparison to the true cloud computing systems, this is a low level approach.

OLE, like many of the new library services platforms, is at a very early development stage.   As such, things like interface design have not yet been addressed with any level of sophistication. Existing interfaces are extremely text heavy and a bit cumbersome to navigate. OLE has hired an interface designer so hopefully this issue will be addressed soon in upcoming release.

Another thing that librarians must be aware of is that it's not yet clear if OLE can acquire enough support among academic and research libraries to sustain itself over the long term.  The product is clearly being designed primarily by and for research libraries (look at the partner list).  It's an assumption that other academics will want to use the product, but I know from my own experience that medium to smaller academics are radically different environments than research libraries. They need products with less overhead, less complexity and as much back-end efficiency as possible.  It's not yet clear that OLE can do that.  If OLE can't do that soon, these libraries may get drawn in by the competitive offerings which will take them off the market for at least several years if not much longer.  By the time OLE comes back around for consideration, a lot of ground could be lost.  Furthermore, if they can't make OLE appeal to the mid-small size libraries and then they must survive solely on ARL sites and they may not find enough sites to divide the cost across in order to make the annual contribution affordable or, more importantly, a cost that is lower or at least competitive with comparable commercial systems.  It's just a huge unknown at this point.

Bottom Line

For me personally, OLE is, to borrow a phrase, "a paradox, wrapped in a riddle inside of an enigma".  The product has huge potential, it is a community good, it has solid backing and it has packages some very good ideas and components.  From that perspective OLE package has little competition among today’s library service platform offerings.  The only real exception is OCLC's WorldShare MS, which, because it is owned by the library collaborative, also has a lot of community good, but that product isn't open source, so OLE should clearly have the lead here.  Yet it doesn't appear they do.

In addition, I’m forever finding myself stumbling over things like the fact that so much of the code writing was outsourced to HTC Global Services.  Did we really have to do that?  Could we not find ALL of the necessary talent within the existing library/university communities?   If it’s an open source software project, a place where people and organizations donate their time to build the code, why was it necessary to pay a for-profit company to do this?  (Note, see the comment on this post for one participants view on why this happened). Especially when using Mellon Foundation grant money? This action seems to confirm the suspicions, or fears, that the library community of OSS developers is not large enough, or well enough resourced to support an OSS project of this size and complexity. (See my post on OCLC's WorldShare for what might be a further confirmation of this).  What should we read between the lines of these actions?  It seems to me this needs further explanation and in a very upfront way so as to position this project ahead of these questions rather than being reactive to to them.

I’m also at a loss to understand why the product continues to be marketed in ways that don’t really explain the benefit of the product in meaningful ways for the people that will make the decision to commit to it.  The focus in presentations on OLE (that I've seen) are the primarily the technically components and to some degree, the benefits of OSS, which while is important, is not as important as some other high-visibility issues.  I keep encouraging the OLE team to put themselves in the shoes of those institutions they want to have adopt the product, and particularly from an administrator's point of view, and look at OLE through their eyes.  Administrators have real problems to solve, expenses to reduce and end-users to please, all while being more efficient and effective (i.e. do more with less).   Yes, OSS will help them do that, but that is a bit more of a long-term benefit and many problems that administrators are fighting are VERY short-term.  A Director or AUL that attends an OLE presentation would leave thinking this product requires a lot of technical talent to install, run and certainly to modify in order to meet unique needs.   That same Director attending a WorldShare, Alma, Intota, Open Skies or Sierra presentation is going to see far more functionality, well designed interfaces, working examples of workflows surrounded by really very solid marketing/sales presentations.  As it stands, based on the presentations I've seen, it won’t be much of a contest.  Yet it should be and that is what is unfortunate.

As I said above, I believe OLE has huge potential.  It is a community good at a time when libraries need as many of those as they can find.  The design is not as cutting-edge as I think it should be, but it is certainly workable for the near future.  Should libraries look at it?  Yes.  But many will have needs this product won't be able to address for some time to come, if at all.  As a result, building a sufficient user base to create the needed momentum among academic and research libraries, a necessary foundation for the long-term success of OLE, remains to be seen. The key players - most notably the folks at Indiana, Duke, Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania seem determined to see it through and deliver a system that is robust, flexible and powerful. There is a large amount of interest being shown in the United States from academic libraries of various sizes. Sessions on the offering are well attended.  I'm hoping however, that the OLE team realizes some of this interest may be people just doing their due diligence so that they can report back to their authorities that they've examined the option. However, it would be overly optimistic to assume all of those attending sessions will turn into adopters.  Still, there are reportedly active conversations underway with potential partners in the UK and Europe. Obviously many European academic libraries and library groups seem quite intensely interested in community-driven infrastructure development. There could also be some potential leveraged from the relationship with JISC and the work around the Global Open Knowledge Base (GOKb) project which does have  potential (although there are many unanswered questions about GOKb).  Whether or not all of this can be translated into partner sites that will put the offering into production, we will have to wait and see.  

I wish them great luck and and even greater success.

NOTE:  This is one post in a series.  All the posts are listed below:

1. Introduction 
2. Sierra by Innovative 
3. Intota by Serials Solutions
4. Worldshare by OCLC

5. OLE by Kuali (this post)
6. Alma by Ex Libris
6a. Ex Libris and Golden Gate Capital
7. Open Skies by VTLS