Helping libraries to help users

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Library-management software company, SirsiDynix

Pat Sommers is the CEO of SirsiDynix.

Modern libraries rely heavily on software. In the early days they wrote their own, but it has now become cheaper and easier to buy a standard package. Over the years those packages have evolved into today's all-singing, all-dancing integrated library systems (ILS).

Library management software is an interesting market because there are large numbers of libraries around the world and those libraries are likely to become long-term customers once they have made the big change to a feature-rich, highly-flexible modern ILS. However, this market is not for the faint-hearted, and many companies have come and gone over the years. Even large suppliers of business software have tried to muscle in on this market - but they pulled out when they realised just how specialised and complicated it was.

Two of the largest players in this market were Sirsi and Dynix, with Sirsi's Unicorn and Dynix's Horizon and Corinthian (a version of Horizon optimised for the workflows of academic libraries). Despite the major market presence that both companies had, they realised that the market for new big installations was not going to grow while there was an increasing effort to compete in the market. So, after years of competing, they decided to merge last June. Although described as a 'merger of equals' the deal was executed as a takeover of Dynix by Sirsi, with the Sirsi CEO, Pat Sommers, taking over as CEO of the combined business - now called SirsiDynix.

Part of the reason for the merger was scale - the companies could afford to deploy their resources more efficiently within the market by combining their development efforts. 'We saw the merger as a way of bringing together two companies with existing customer bases who were working on similar objectives. We do not need two groups working on portal technology and we do not have to source two sets of content, so it gives us efficiency,' explained Sommers.

But the benefits of the merger go beyond efficiency, according to Sommers. 'Libraries are asking vendors to do more. They don't just want more from their ILS; they also want additional tools such as portals and search technology,' he pointed out.

Helping the libraries

The combined company believes that libraries are looking to their software vendors to help them take on new roles within their customer communities, whether it be a city, region, research institution or corporation. The libraries have made a heavy investment in their systems and want to be able to add on functions that allow them to compete as the community's trusted source of reliable information in the face of the onslaught of the internet search engines.

Sommers believes that the challenge for software vendors is to create new tools for libraries that will allow them to provide a service to their own customers that is as easy to use as a search engine but which brings in the other sources of information available to a library, such as its collection of books, its archives and its subscriptions to journals and databases. SirsiDynix is concentrating on providing search portals which bring sources together into a single interface and in which the professional library staff can have a role as facilitators rather than just keeping track of the assets.

'We believe that libraries are going to have a much more important role than they have had even in the last few years. There is so much information out there that people are overwhelmed,' said Sommers. 'Major academic institutions tell me that they have invested millions of dollars in resources and find that 80 per cent of their students are using Google for their homework. You could say that this is the beginning of the end for libraries but the other way of look at it is that libraries should not surrender to Google. The internet does have useful resources but there is other 'more reliable' information.'

So how can the library help users to make sense of this wealth of information? For Sommers, the answer is in meeting the users where they are. 'Some libraries want people to learn about Boolean searching, but there is an important distinction between experienced academic users who have trained themselves to use the specialist search engines like Medline and the first year undergraduates who are going to use Google to research their essays. Libraries need to accept that people expect it to be easy. They are used to things like Amazon, where you say you are looking for a book and you get a whole lot of other information back,' he explained.

'I don't think that you have to sacrifice anything to do this. You can make searching easy and then apply that to the specialist databases as well as the high-quality websites. It's about exposing people to multiple sources of information at the same time. We want to expand the view of what a library is,' he said.

Whenever technology companies merge, the user communities of each company start to wonder which company product line will prevail and which will be allowed to wither. Will they be persuaded to 'upgrade' away from what they have to the products of the other party in the merger? Sommers believes that at least in the short term there is little to gain from trying to do this and has pledged that both Horizon and Unicorn will be fully supported and upgraded for as long as he can foresee. He says the action is really all at the front-end interface with the newer products in the lines of both companies. The advantage of the merger, he believes, is that the benefits of add-ons can be offered to both sets of customers by making all the products interoperable between Horizon and Unicorn.

'Some products, like our portals, searching and archiving products, are going to be merged so they can be used against any of our back-end systems. Our strategy today is not to try and merge our back-end products. Both companies had very solid and reliable ILS that sold to a lot of libraries around the world. We are not going to try and disrupt the whole market and force people to buy things that they do not want. We believe that we can apply our future developments to both platforms.'

Sommers added that he believed that it was up to the market to decide which product line was best suited to which market. The Corinthian (academic library) variant of Horizon 8.0 will be rolled out soon, but Unicorn also has a strong following in the academic community. 'Unicorn does not have a specified special version for the academic world. If the academic world decides they prefer the look and feel of the Corinthian product then that is what we will sell - but we will not make every academic customer buy Corinthian, if they prefer Unicorn.'

Hosting services

One of the most important developments of the last few years has been offering software as a hosted service. In some cases, libraries have formed consortia that have shared the fixed costs of maintaining systems. For example a group of public libraries that all work in broadly similar ways can run everything from a single server farm. SirsiDynix is now offering its software as a remotely hosted application service provider (ASP) service where the library does not have to get involved in any of the infrastructure problems; they rent the software like they rent a phone service. This clearly offers economies of scale in hardware, so support costs can be massively reduced.

'It's probably less than 10 per cent of our market at the moment but most of our new customers and a lot of our existing customers are talking to us about taking over and hosting the systems,' said Sommers.

In recent years the secondary publishers have been adding functionality to their services and, in many ways, it looks like there is a convergence between the library software industry and the secondary publishers. But Sommers believes that these secondary publishers will only ever be able to provide services such as searching and management information for a small fraction of a library's resources. Libraries will always need their own local services to consolidate the streams of information coming in with the resources that they already have.

He said: 'It's an interesting industry we are in. The main secondary publishers are all trying to facilitate and build better interfaces to their products and that is great. The problem is that they only have a subset of what is available in the world. There is a lot of overlap between them. But what we do is take it up one level. We don't care where the information comes from; our systems will allow you to find it.

'We don't look at the secondary publishers as competition. We believe that we have more of a chance to help the libraries to go in their direction rather than to go in the direction the secondary publishers want them to go in. The secondary publishers cannot serve all the needs of a library unless it is a very specialised library. For a general community or academic library there are more resources out there than can be discovered by what any one secondary publisher offers. They have a nice interface to what they offer but they are not giving you access to what is on the web, the library's own collection or in other databases.

'We provide those services through our Director's Station product, which analyses the library's collection and usage. The subscription agent provides a subset that gives usage patterns for the titles that are in their database but they cannot provide usage analysis for the library's books. I think it is great that they are providing more information and I wish that we could adopt more industry standards so everyone could analyse all the data available across all their databases.'

Looking to the future

So how does the company view some of the other recent trends in the industry? 'We support the open-access idea. At the moment there is not a well-defined version of what it is but as far as we are concerned the more information that is available the better,' said Sommers. 'The big challenge today for publishers is how business models can survive the technology of the 21st century. Maybe they will not be able to make as much money as they could from the old business models.'

And he has strong views on the role of books: 'I think it's the height of lunacy that we are still publishing text books. They should be electronic; they should be dynamic and should be linked into dynamic encyclopaedias. Eventually you could have one library where every book is held electronically and is downloaded to a reader. It is not the technology but the publishers that are in the way of many developments in information delivery. The problem for them is how to move it around the world and still make the same amount of money.'

John Murphy