Transcending the LMS – Jisc Library Systems Programme workshop

On Monday 15 July I attended Jisc’s Library Systems Programme workshop which summed up experience from the LMS Change programme and the various Jisc-funded pathfinder projects. Our Bloomsbury LMS project to implement the Kuali OLE library services platform at the University of London is not funded by Jisc, we were participating as part of Jisc’s wider community engagement.

Helen Harrop of Sero Consulting collected tweets from the day here – Jisc Library Systems Programme Event on Storify and Ben Showers blogged a summary of the day including presentations here – Library Systems Workshop.

Thanks to Jisc for organizing the workshop – super job.

On being provocative

In the afternoon I spoke on a panel with Owen Stephens and Martin Myhill. I was asked to be provocative and talk about what I want to see in my imagined library system of the future – what is on my systems wishlist?

What a great platform. I think systems librarians and shambrarians are good at provocative, sweeping statements as we often need to see things terms of complete systems and the structure and interconnectedness of their component parts. Add to this years of experience with libraryland systems, and the 2012-13 turning point where next-generation library services platforms started being deployed in our libraries and things get quite interesting.

As I prepared slides in advance I didn’t have much chance to tweak what I’d say over the day. Listening to Ann Rossiter of Sconul and Ben Showers of Jisc speak about the history of the project and the current landscape I worried I might just be telling directors and systems workers things they already know and agree with. Nice as motherhood and apple pie is, it’s not provocative.

I wanted to expand on my points and relate things other speakers said to my vision of how I think we should develop our systems. My sides from the day are available on Slideshare, but they were only intended as soundbites for me to talk around so I’ve reproduced those as my headings below.

What’s I’ve missed out is a major point about the opportunity to disrupt our traditional procurement approaches to drive new systems and especially adoption of Free and Open Source software. This point was made by Ben Showers early on and it kept coming back to my mind over the course of the day, what I heard from Glyn Ryland of the Whelf shared LMS project about their next steps to procure and implement a new system was particularly thought-provoking. A blog post will follow on this in future.

Transcending the LMS

Transcending the library management system is the fundamental issue for me.

Next-generation library services platforms are now being implemented and deployed in libraries in higher education. They are a thing of concrete reality not of the imagination. For me the vision of the next-generation is hidebound and limited by notions of what is appropriate for libraries and what lies outside these systems.

I guess most of us in systems are familiar with the corporate slide decks library vendors present for these platforms. They are all similar with a circle of components such as discovery, resource discovery, ERM, perhaps even digital asset management and reading lists, grouped around the vendor’s core library system at the centre. The implication is the vendor understands the complete picture and you’re in safe hands buying everything you need from them.

There is something seductive about this, but for me it’s incomplete and self-limiting. There are risks here too, as Owen Stephens made the point that by buying from that one vendor, you might end up prioritizing ease over your strategic goals.

To unpack this with an example, I want a library system that understands metadata and content beyond library. So I imagine a system that can manage our library and archives metadata equally well and support cataloguing workflows for both. This will be possible because my future system won’t have one cataloguing user interface; it’ll be possible to build your own interface as needed for different staff and workflows. My future system would be built with an understanding of our need to move to linked data approaches to cataloguing (catalinking, if we must), and our need for cohesive presentation of different types of content and descriptive metadata while avoiding creation of yet more silos.

My system of the future would transcend the limited notion of a library system for managing local bibliographic data and providing inventory and circulation functions – and it could really exist! In the cataloguing examples above I’m cheating as these are features either being coded or planned for future Kuali OLE releases, not pie in the sky.

By and for higher education

I want a library system that does what an academic research library wants and needs to support our business. A system we can employ to improve user experience for our students, and the academics who rely on us for their research and supporting their teaching. But library staff and IT staff count too. Improving user experience for colleagues in the library, and system functionality for our IT departments smooths the operation and maintenance of our systems.

Some of this sounds abstract, but comes into sharp focus as I think of how many times I’ve run into problems with my favourite monolithic library system because it’s just not designed for a complex group of higher education libraries.

In defence of librarians

It’s a bit fashionable to say librarians don’t really understand concepts around service and should borrow ideas from other sectors. Retail springs to mind here. For my part I think librarians don’t appreciate how similar the customer-facing aspects of our roles are to those in IT services, and how service management concepts can be re-used in libraries.

However, as a professional I believe strongly librarians in higher education do know what we’re doing in supporting our core purpose as universities, and I have much less faith in software suppliers to do that. One point made on the day was it’s not just what library software supplier are doing doesn’t reflect what libraries need, but that it might not reflect what they themselves think they should be doing. Rather, they are doing whatever best creates value for the private equity firms that own most of them nowadays.

The Kuali Foundation ‘gets it’ in this respect as our subject matter experts – meaning librarians and other library workers with expert knowledge – sit within a foundation that includes development expertise in analysis, consultancy, and project management. That means you avoid pitfalls that you can imagine if I asked you to imagine a library management system built by librarians.

Enterprise, not libraryland

Having said all that I think we’ll get best use from our future library systems by focusing on what we’re good at, which is providing library services, rather than what we’re not, which is generic IT and systems administration.

To enable this my wishlist includes features that allow our future systems to be taken seriously by colleagues in IT and the wider university. This means stepping away from libraryland systems and towards enterprise IT.

So, expect to take various options for cloud hosting using commodity IT services to our IT department rather than a single ‘vendor cloud’. I expect the future system to plug into a standard enterprise backup system, and I expect it to support virtualized hardware without being overly fussy about which particular Linux distribution or virtualization technology it runs on. I expect to be able to cope with peaks of demand over the academic year by temporarily bringing in more (virtualized) application servers.

Open and interoperable

My future library system will be open and interoperable with documented, web-based APIs and will be based on service-oriented architecture. Here I am almost quoting Ken Chad in his presentation on the day word-for-word.

It will be possible to get data into and out of the system easily, in whatever machine or human-readable form we wish to describe. These will be standard features rather than expensive optional extras. I’m thinking of features at the level of then button present in Kuali OLE 0.8 that produces XML output from the bibliographic database to feed into a discovery layer.

I’m entirely opposed to building the hacked-together and kludgy solutions “made out of glue and string” as my colleague Tim Fletcher at Birkbeck, University of London calls them.

Any library technology company could and should be able to do this now: there are no excuses. In my view software supplies do understand this and are moving in the right direction. This is great to see as we have been asking for this for quite some years. The point where vendors start getting tricky is in trying to convince us that some limited “openness” in the form of open APIs and accessible data is quite enough, which finally brings me on to…

Free and Open Source software

My future LMS will be be released under a license that appears in the Free Software Foundation’s list of free software licenses.

Let’s get this out of the way, the GNU four freedoms are a matter of liberty rather than cost and for me are central as a wishlist item for a future library system.

However there are more sophisticated and nuanced arguments to be made in favour of Open Source software. Liberty is important for practical reasons because it drains away risks associated with having a single software supplier for support and development, and it provides a safe and secure future for our system that won’t be influenced by private equity firms buying up library vendors. Commissioning development specifically of an Open Source system would allow a group of libraries to pool resources without one partner ceding their control to others, or becoming locked in to the particular technology or development roadmap that suits the vendor best.

Happily, we know systems vendors agree Free and Open Source Software is good software, because they use this software themselves as components to develop and build their systems. It’s wonderful to see library technology companies generating value by selling this software. No sarcasm intended: it’s what that Free Software Foundation think too.

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