From tradition to change

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Complex workflows and new services are driving developments in cloud-based library management systems, reports Rebecca Pool

More than two decades ago, client server computing toppled mainframe computing from its lofty pedestal. But today, service-oriented architectures and browser-based interfaces, deployed through cloud-based infrastructure, have usurped this mighty model and fundamentally re-shaped technology platforms.

Products now take the form of ‘software as a service’, with web-based applications being based on externally-provided infrastructure. The impact on the academic library has been profound.

Cloud-based services allow libraries to run software applications in third-party data centres rather than host such applications locally. And as such, myriad libraries have shifted to these service platforms in a bid to better manage complex collections.

Ex Libris Alma has, from the word go, been at the forefront of cloud-based computing for research libraries. Designed to streamline library operations, the platform first went live in 2012, following four years of collaboration with US-based institutions Purdue University, Boston College and Princeton, as well as Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

Then, and now, Alma supported key library operations including selection, acquisition, metadata management and fulfillment, supporting these functions for electronic, digital and print formats. And today, the platform is intended to manage an entire collection through a single interface.

‘We started out with our early adopters in 2012, and in the last few years have had more and more libraries with increasingly larger workloads and more complex workflows choosing Alma,’ highlights Dvir Hoffman, corporate vice president and head of resource management solutions at Ex Libris.

Indeed, as early as 2012, the Orbis Cascade Alliance – a consortium serving 37 academic libraries in the northwestern US – adopted Alma. In December 2016, the world’s largest academic library, Harvard, selected Alma to integrate library management across its 70 units. And also last year, Ex Libris revealed that the University of Cambridge had selected Alma as its libraries needed a robust cloud-based platform to help improve services for students and researchers.


Dvir Hoffman, of Ex Libris                 OCLC ‘s Scott Livingston

‘Many institutions have either wanted to wait and see what happens with Alma and the library market in general, while others have wanted more a hands-on experience,’ says Hoffman. ‘Library system management is at the core of any library operation and not just another application to install; users need to build a consensus when switching to a new system.’

In a similar vein, WorldShare Management Services (WMS) from OCLC has undergone much change. OCLC launched WMS in 2011, making it the first cloud-based library management system. Now more than 500 libraries worldwide use it to share bibliographic records, publisher and knowledge base data, vendor records, serials patterns and more.

As Scott Livingston, OCLC’s executive director for marketing strategy, points out, since 2011, the platform has undergone a gradual evolution rather than a ‘radical revolution’, transforming from a simple circulation-acquisition concept into an integrated suite of applications.

‘It did start from more of a traditional file asset of capabilities, with circulation and acquisition at the heart of the system,’ he says. ‘As library best practices and workflows have evolved, so has the system... what we are really seeing is a growing appreciation that the library management system is part of a larger ecosystem.’

As a result, OCLC is also clinching library deal after large library deal. HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, one of the largest universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, recently signed up to OCLC’s WMS. And the Library and Archives Canada also recently entered into an agreement with OCLC to use WMS as its library services platform.

‘Libraries of all sizes, but particularly larger libraries, are really thinking thoughtfully about their mission and overall contribution to their institutions,’ points out Livingston. ‘As they shift away from more classic workflows, they are [venturing into] areas that include, for example, student engagement with the college community, it’s really a somewhat more human approach.’

Livingston reckons the latest cloud-based management systems provide clear benefits that can translate into extra staff time to engage in these more ‘human’ pursuits. ‘For example, the classic client server model required libraries to have a large hardware infrastructure to load software updates into those machines individually,’ he says. ‘In a cloud-based environment all of that now disappears.’

Human pursuits aside, Ex Libris’s Hoffman also believes ongoing and rising budget pressures, as well as a need to demonstrate value, are continually driving research libraries towards cloud-based library management systems. And as a result, these platforms are providing more and more services.

For starters, Alma has extended its integration interfaces and application programming interfaces (APIs), which provide access to data and workflows stored within the platform. APIs enable programming access to the data and functionality of an application, and in 2016, Ex Libris received more than 479 million API calls, representing 51 per cent of the total transactions that its solutions were involved in.

‘Today we have around 150 APIs that are openly available to all of our customers,’ says Hoffman. ‘The fact that more than 51 per cent of our transactions comes from APIs, shows that Alma is a real platform for various services.’

Hoffman also points to collaboration, highlighting how, today, Alma users can now share configuration, data and reports, if they wish to do so. And at the same time, the platform’s analytics have evolved from operational reports to business-oriented analytics, such as released benchmark reports.

‘Every institution can opt in and create a key performance indicator report that compares its own institution to other institutions with a similar profile on, say, the speed of its acquisition process,’ highlights Hoffman. ‘All data is anonymised... and we already have 14,000 reports in the system. Customers can also create their own reports including benchmark analytics.’

At the same time, Ex Libris has also loaded a lot of ProQuest’s metadata into the Alma Community Zone, a shared repository for all Alma users. And, as Hoffman adds: ‘We have also just revamped Alma’s user interface with the first customers now using this.’

Like Ex Libris, OCLC has integrated more analytics to its platform, provides peer comparisons as well as access to its WorldCat Discovery Services and OCLC Community Center, and recently developed a new mobile phone app. Crucially, the company has also seen the API activity of it library management system grow significantly with around 100 million API calls now being made on a monthly basis.

‘Our members are using APIs incredibly heavily now, and they are an important part of our story for ensuring interoperability with other institution systems,’ says Livingston. ‘And these figures tell us there’s a lot of value that customers are seeing from allowing the system to integrate with other parts of its campus and network.’

Industry consolidation

System evolution aside, industry developments have also had a clear impact on the library management system of today. While past company mergers gave rise to larger players, such as SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces and OCLC, more recently, companies with diverse products have merged.

Content companies, for example, have been looking to also offer resource management technologies; the acquisition of Ex Libris by ProQuest in December is a key example of this.

Indeed, as Hoffman points out, this recent acquisition has led to the integration of Alma with other products. For example, libraries can now create real-time orders in Alma via ProQuest OASIS, a web-based system for searching, selecting, and ordering print and electronic books for academic libraries. And via OASIS, users also have access to e-book platforms, including ProQuest Ebook Central; more product integrations are planned for the future.

But as the established library management platforms continue to develop, a new initiative looks set to shake up the competition. FOLIO – the Future Of Libraries Is Open, backed by EBSCO – is an open source library services platform intended to support traditional library management functionality, but, as EBSCO’s Tamir Borensztajn, vice president of SaaS Strategy says: ‘is built for innovation’.

The platform will be extensible at its core, and crucially, any user will be able to build on the core functionality or extend the platform though the development of applications that will deliver new services. Already, the initial codebase for developers has been released, the roadmap is available and a beta release is scheduled for July 2018.

‘As a member of this initiative, we have found that there is a real desire to have an open platform that allows libraries to run the usual services but also to have new services that they have greater control over,’ says Borensztajn. ‘Vendor consolidation has brought less choice in today’s marketplace and [libraries] can be dependent on vendor-provided roadmaps for software that can be very monolithic.’

ndeed, the architecture of FOLIO allows the separation of library resource management services from discovery, relinquishing users from the bundled arrangements associated with established platforms. What’s more, while established providers of platforms provide robust APIs, systems are not offered with access to software source code. In contrast, the FOLIO platform clearly provides room for more experimentation.

Uris Library, Cornell University: Cornell is one of several institutions spearheading the open source library management system initiative, FOLIO

As Borensztajn highlights: ‘There’s unprecedented transparency in this project. FOLIO affords libraries choice, reduces the risk of libraries being tied into a single vendor and fulfills the desire for more participation.’

But do libraries actually have time for more participation? Indeed, Ex Libris’s Hoffman questions whether or not libraries will actually have the time to develop functionality for an open source core. And while Livingston, of OCLC, believes that open source projects can offer many benefits to the library community, he also points to challenges over support, technology stability, development and investment.

According to Borensztajn, some libraries will clearly have higher levels of participation than other institutions. There is certainly a large number of people that just want to stay informed and are looking at what is transpiring,’ he says. ‘For these libraries and librarians, there will be a platform that will be fully supported by service providers such as EBSCO.’

Project uptake so far indicates clear community enthusiasm. In addition to EBSCO, key technology partners include Index Data, ByWater, SirsiDynix and BiblioLabs. Meanwhile library developers include Cornell, Texas A&M University, Lehigh University, University of Mexico, China-based academic library consortium, CALIS, and more.

As Borensztajn’s colleague, Christopher Spalding, vice president of open source platforms and communities at EBSCO, points out: ‘The momentum has been staggering and this is really turning into an international effort; libraries like this idea of continuous renewal and that they can build something atomic that can be shared and extended.

‘One of the conversations we’ve had with the library community is that many present solutions are focused on past problems, but now libraries are being leaned on to deliver new services around, say, the management of research data and repositories management,’ he adds. ‘This community level approach can streamline workflows and reorganise how libraries operate.’

Clearly it’s still early days for FOLIO, but Borensztajn believes the open source project is already having an impact on the library community, asserting: ‘It’s striking a very important chord and is changing the way library software is developed, provisioned and supported.’

Still, open source or not, library management services are clearly seeing growth across the board. As Livingston points out: ‘In terms of the general adoption of cloud-based solutions, we’ve moved past many of the reservations that used to be in the marketplace... and new country entry will continue to fuel customer acquisition growth for WMS.’

And as Ex Libris celebrates more than 1,000 institutions signed up to Alma, Hoffman is hopeful about the future. ‘I believe that we haven’t even started to scratch the surface yet,’ he concludes.

‘We are starting to sell into new regions, such as Japan and Latin America, and I predict a tremendous peak in the next few years.’