I always tease Roy Tennant about how so many geek girls (me included) — and probably geek boys too — are totally crushing on him. He doesn’t really “get it”. I think his recent post in TechEssence, “Open Letter to ILS Vendors” is a great example of how smart, pragmatic and (as John Blyberg puts it) “cheeky” Roy is. Roy gave some very good advice to ILS vendors out there, and likened their troubles adapting to a new marketplace to that of Eastman Kodak in the wake of the digital camera revolution. And the Business Week article he cites offers some very sage wisdom for any company that needs to adapt to the changing needs of their customers (hey, that’s you SirsiDynix, Innovative, Endeavor, etc.).
While some of these companies have tried to put “lipstick on a pig” by giving libraries small things they want (oooh! RSS feeds! All of our problems are solved!), Roy argues “you can’t simply provide incremental changes to your legacy code. You need to think strategically and invest in some serious re-engineering.” And I don’t know how many companies are really willing to do that.
The idea of an Open Source ILS is a bit scary when you don’t have someone capable of running it, but companies are springing up who will manage it for you. I remember meeting some folks from LibLime at ALA Annual 2005 in Chicago and thinking “what a smart idea! We need companies who can manage this open source stuff for us, since so many of us don’t have someone at the library who can!” This is what the open source business model is all about — providing support. Some of my colleagues and I have looked at Koha and some of the other open source projects. And we like what we see. So often, it’s the pain involved in making a change, I think, that keeps libraries married to these vendors. The pain involved in using the system has to become a certain amount greater than the pain (whether real or perceived) involved in switching vendors. As the vendors fall further and further behind the curve and the open source options start getting adopted by more libraries, we will likely see a sea change in this area.
John Blyberg cautions librarians to also avoid complacency. We should be looking seriously at these alternatives and how we can provide the services our patrons want and expect in the age of Netflix and Amazon. We, too, should be reading that Business Week article, because we often need to reinvent as much as our vendors do:
There’s no better example than Kodak of the importance of coming up with new ways of doing business — and the difficulties of succeeding. At its peak, Kodak was an icon of American technology innovation. Now it’s fighting to recover from a tech revolution that is strangling its core business. Kodak was late to recognize the problem, slow to react, and then went down the wrong innovation path. It faces many of the problems and is making many of the mistakes that any company can make when so threatened. Because of these delays and missteps, it’s still far from clear how Kodak’s story will play out. Yet it provides a vivid case study for businesses facing similar challenges.
If there is one thing most libraries have been doing all along, it’s coming up with new ways of doing business. Our mission may not change, but the way we fulfill that mission must and will continue to require new methods. Let’s be change leaders rather than following Kodak’s sad example and waiting too long in spite of all the signs telling us that the things around us are changing.
I wish I had more to say, but right now, YES! is all I can come up with.
One of the things that gets in the way of library systems innovation is the difficulty of switching core systems. All of that circulation, book handling, bar coding blah blah that’s invisible to the patron experience but crucial to the system holding together is messy even in the best of systems, and as a result libraries are rightfully scared of doing system switches very often.
This points even more to the need then for patron-facing application programming interfaces, so that the change at the user and patron level in the experience of working with the library’s catalog can change without the need for a “forklift upgrade” to haul out the old system and bring in the new one.
I totally agree, Ed. I know here, there would be riots from the cataloging and circ staff if we totally changed our system. Things would have to get really bad for our library (and most libraries) to make that sort of a decision.
That’s why things like Aquabrowser and Endeca are so appealing. But really, our current ILS vendors should be doing something about their own UI, not forcing us to go to someone else to make their stuff work well and look good.
Open Source software may not be for everyone, but the mere presence of OSS products in the library market highlights the premium pricing of the proprietary ILSs. If the vendors can’t handle the re-engineering costs now, just wait a few years until every upgrade bid is compared with OSS alternatives– it could really act as a brake on prices. Vendors could find themselves in a real bind.
In fact, it seems to me that a valid strategy for an ILS vendor would be to pull a Novell. Rather than try to keep Netware competitive, Novell chose to buy a Linux distribution and migrate their customer base to OSS, where they can benefit from the efforts of the whole community and put their money to use in adding value where their customers can see it. They sell support as well as “official” versions of the software. Would your library buy an Open Source ILS if it was supported by Innovative or SirsiDynix?
Beyond price, another key advantage of OSS is that it lends itself to mashups– combining existing products (all perfectly legal, of course) rather than creating from scratch. If the next generation of library software is not one “integrated” package but a collection of tools, some of them perhaps coming from other industries, the constelllation of OSS products is hard to beat. Need databases, content management systems, library-rich scripting environments? Open Source has ’em.
Should Rolls Downhill…
It never ceases to amaze me how many managers and executives think that they can impose change on their staff, but it does not apply to them. I’ve been fortunate in that my recent clients do not share that philosophy….