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 Рwhat 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď meaning librarians and other library workers with expert knowledge ‚Äď 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‚Äôre 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‚Ķ

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.

Discovery at Senate House Libraries: staff focus groups


At Senate House Libraries, University of London we’re part way though our project to migrate our library management system (LMS) to Kuali OLE, a Free Software / Open Source library services platform.¬†As a deliberate design choice OLE does not come with an online catalogue for end users, so we are approaching discovery as a work package in our LMS project.¬†To this end I recently ran focus groups for staff to start to specify what goes into a functional specification for our discovery system.

Part way into writing my summary of the high-level¬†requirements¬†I realised I was writing something like a manifesto. I stopped and split this into a separate page in our Confluence wiki, and this is what I wanted to share with you.¬†If you want to see something more like a specification for a library discovery / vertical search system, take a look at Ken Chad’s libtechrfp site on Vertical Search¬†as a starting point.

Running focus groups

From my point of view it’s liberating to start with a clean slate for discovery and not with the limitations of existing library vendor solutions.¬†There are a whole host of implications here, primary for me are not being tied to vendor development roadmaps and technology choices, and not having limitations from the LMS carry through to the discovery layer. So, I wanted to start with an open mind and not presume too much about staff received opinion or staff use of our existing discovery systems.

I asked participants to think about some questions as a prelude to a mix of small- and big-group discussion in a workshop context.

  • What’s valued in our current discovery systems, and what are outstanding problems?
  • What’s missing that should be included in the next discovery system?
  • What’s most important to researchers?
  • What would a good discovery system look like, and how would it behave?

I have to apologize for management-speak of asking what does good look like,¬†but it’s a serious point. It is incredibly hard to describe what a successful new system would be like to use, but these are the things we need to be thinking about rather than say, a list of missing features in Innovative’s Encore Discovery versus their older WebPAC Pro catalogue.

Just to add that yes, testing with library members is to follow. This will include the usual usability testing that accompanies and informs any sensible, well-designed web project and also a more in-depth investigation into user behaviour using ethnographic methods.

“[We want] the moon on a stick”

These group discussions were incredibly productive and featured a good deal of imaginative and daring thinking about what a library catalogue should be and how it should behave. My favourite headline from these small group discussions was a page titled, “the moon on a stick”.¬†I think this is a good starting point: we should think big and aspirational, not small and limited.

Our goal should be full discovery of everything¬†including searching across books, journals, archives, images, and so on in a way that is clear about what you’re searching and provides options to include and exclude different content. In this context the local bibliographic database becomes the biggest of several databases that discovery draws from alongside the archives catalogue, eprints repository, and digital asset management system.

Unfolding complexity

So, how do we provide breadth and depth of discovery without overwhelming the reader with a firehose-like experience of masses of information; and impossible complexity that requires a LIS masters degree to understand?

The key point for us is discovery needs the ability to be as simple or complex as you want to at any given time. We need a way of providing a range of levels of complexity in the same system rather than hiding all the complexity behind an ‘advanced search’ link.

This doesn’t just mean copying from web search, as a single search box is very difficult to get right in the library context.¬†Even if many libraries are going this way nowadays it is very hard to do it well and impossible to please everyone.¬†On the one hand, old school OPACs rely too much on specialist knowledge of how the catalogue works and the structure of the underlying metadata that powers them. On the other,¬†library attempts at single search boxes use¬†keyword indexes that fail to make best use of the complexity and richness of that underlying metadata.

Instead we need an approach that respects the intellectual ability of our readership and the status of our institution, and respects the reader’s conceptual understanding of the library.¬†Our approach should reflect the pride we have in being a library and our professional abilities as librarians, without attempting to turn readers into mini-librarians.

Discovery must include ways of bringing in complexity from a simple starting point, something web search engines can do quite well.

Readers shouldn’t feel they’re starting from a position where they’re telling the library, “I’m stupid”, or “I’m intelligent”.¬†Discovery needs to reconcile providing a simple starting point with surfacing information that may be relevant, but is deep and complex. We know that buried somewhere in the clutter are results that are useful to the reader. The underlying technology may be very complicated but the experience of the system should be the opposite.

We need to meet the needs of different groups of users, or the differing needs of the same user. We know there are primary and secondary uses of our collections for the same person, and a reader may have a different approach in a different context depending on what they are using us for. Staff are users of the catalogue and discovery tools should be easier for staff, too.

User experience

To inform this ‘unfolding complexity’, discovery must bring in user experience concepts and best practise from elsewhere in and outside libraries.¬†The starting point in our thinking here is discovery should be navigable like a modern web site is, and to achieve this it will be designed in a similar way to how our our website was designed. That is, similar approaches and techniques given a library spin that respects our role and the reasons readers choose to sign up for membership.

User experience is key to our web presence but it must be a theme throughout the services we offer: it can’t stop at the library website. There is a gulf between library websites and library catalogues and discovery that we need to bridge. Libraries spend time and money building good websites, but you’ll still¬†find terrible usability when you move over to their catalogues. John Blyberg sums this up as:

The problem lies with inflexible and outdated systems rather than¬†no-one bothering with usability testing or not caring about their readers. Our next discovery system can’t be another weird product from Libraryland that is disconnected from the approach we take when building our websites.

Objecting to my own methodology

I’d like to end on a little reflection about methodology and our¬†subjective views of catalogues based on our experience and familiarity.

Many staff expressed a wish for a “simple”, “uncluttered”, “user friendly”, or “intuitive” interface as contrasted with a “busy”, “cluttered”, or “clunky” interface. I understand these wishes, and I think there is a certain know it when I see it¬†gut feeling about overall user experience that makes something “simple” or “clunky”, but intellectually I know it’s¬†difficult to unpack what these terms mean as they’re so subjective.¬†You might guess a concern here is a term like “user friendly” being used as a proxy for personal preferences or familiarity, and there is a contrast between familiarity of staff traditional information retrieval interfaces versus familiarity of readers with modern websites that I think is important too.

So we do need to dig in! At this point the workshop format breaks down because it’s difficult to employ methods such as close questioning or laddering in a group work situation, you really need a one-to-one interview. However, I tried to unpick this as much as possible in the focus groups without anyone feeling too interrogated. For example, if the Encore feel is “cluttered” what is it that would improve it? What is it about the classic WebPAC Pro or another catalogue that is uncluttered?

I can see a danger here in acting as an interpretive layer or a translator between what someone says and what I think they really mean, and then how I think that should be implemented in a new discovery layer.¬†In hindsight I wish I could’ve sat everyone down one-to-one and ran through some repertory grids to allow for comparisons between different catalogue interfaces based on those constructs such as “clutteredness”.

I had done this in my masters dissertation on library catalogue user experience and found it works really well, once you get over it being an “out-there method” (I smiled in agreement when I read that in Lauren Smith’s recent blog post on fieldwork).

This is something I may try as part of testing options for discovery interfaces such as VuFind and Blacklight.


Thanks to Andrea Meyer-Ludowisy (Research Librarian, Western European Languages) and Joe Honywill (Associate Director, Digital Futures) at Senate House Libraries for helpful discussion on the subject.

Free and Open Source Software and distributed innovation

‘The battle of the library systems’

On 28 November Senate House closed early for the University of London Foundation Day,¬†¬†our annual celebration of our grant of royal charter on 28 November 1836. As the library closed down I made the short journey to Cilip HQ to attend the “Battle of the Library Systems” event organized by Bic.

This event was a panel debate between two sets of speakers in favour of Open Source software (OSS) and proprietary software. I was speaking in the Open Source “blue corner” alongside Dave Parkes of Staffordshire University and Nick Dimant of PTFS Europe. Sadly, Mark Hughes of Swansea University was ill and unable to attend and speak as planned. In solidarity the open team shared between us presenting Mark’s slides.

The house motion was:

Open source is about distributed innovation and will become the dominant way of producing software.

This is a quote from Talis – slightly modified from the original –¬†from the¬†Jisc and Sconul LMS study (Sero Consulting,¬†2008).

I will say a little about the arguments I made in favour of the house motion and what I thought were some strengths and¬†weaknesses with¬†the proprietary team’s arguments.¬†Mick Fortune summed up as a guest speaker and I’d recommend reading his blog post ‘BIC Battles ‚Äď Open Source or Proprietary?‘.

My argument

I opened by explaining our situation. Senate House Libraries and the colleges that make up the Bloomsbury Colleges group recently made a decision in principle to select Kuali Open Library Environment (Ole) as our next library management system. We have chosen an OSS system which will be run on a shared services model by the University of London.

Why is Open Source software a good fit for higher education?

I explained I prefer the older term Free Software to Open Source as it’s conceptually broader.¬†Thinking in¬†terms of one dimension – software development with access to the source code –¬†sidelines the underpinning philosophy of community, sharing, and respecting software users’ freedom.

The audience was mainly academic libraries and I argued that our industry, higher education, has a culture of sharing and collaboration and librarianship is collaborative as profession. The same point was made by the proprietary software panel, but I go further and argue this therefore makes the software a good fit for us.

Kuali Ole is a library services platform¬†being developed collaboratively by universities and their software development partners specifically to meet the needs of academic research-focused¬†libraries.¬†Ole is an enterprise-level system that we intend to use for business-critical services within our consortium. It will be cloud-hosted and managed collaboratively to provide a stable and trustworthy service – about as far as you can get from the idea of a keen systems librarian installing a Linux distribution on an old server and deciding to ‘give an Open Source LMS a whirl’.

I argued the key differences with Ole are that:

  • It is a true library services platform rather than a traditional library management system
  • As it is¬†collaboratively-developed OSS we have the possibility of developing the software to meet our needs

It is the Free or Open Source licensing that is important here, as it effectively provides a strong position of sharing by default to the development model used in the foundation. Effectively, sharing and collaboration is baked in to the product and the processes used to develop it.

Proprietary software suppliers and Open Source software

Among the strongest arguments in favour of OSS for library systems is the range and variety of OSS used by proprietary suppliers themselves. Examples are most prevalent in next-generation discovery engines where Apache Solr and Lucene are used extensively, but in other library systems Postgres, Apache Tomcat, and of course the Apache http server are used widely.

I think proprietary supplies use OSS because it represents best-of-breed software that is stable and well-supported, and importantly flexible and free to use. It is licensed in a way that allows development and may be used for any purpose. This is why I emphasised freedom or liberty initially: while proprietary software suppliers enjoy the benefits of OSS themselves they’re not so keen on passing those freedoms onto us, libraries that buy their software and support services.

Suppliers’ use of OSS was acknowledged by the proprietary team. Jim Burton of Axiell mentioned extensive use of OSS throughout the company with an estimate of something like 500 different pieces used in their processes – though I expect this includes things like development tools and that the amount of OSS in their finished products is much less.

It is difficult for software suppliers selling systems based on Open Source to argue against Open Source. In using it in your own products you are vouching for it Рand also undermining your arguments against it. For me this ubiquity in use and development is a compelling argument in favour of Open Source becoming the dominant way of producing software in the future.

Choosing software pragmatically

Jim made what I felt was the best argument against OSS for a complete library system directly relevant to my own experience in higher education. That was that the license is of secondary concern if the software does what you want and meets your needs. That software has an Open Source license doesn’t mean it’ll be a good fit for a given specification – relevant in a software ecosystem with relatively few complete OSS library systems as options.

I take from this that in practice our assessment process should lead us to choose pragmatically based on need rather than buying something because ‘it has a badge’. For many libraries that choice would mean proprietary software as best fit to a specification: perhaps an LMS with open and standards-compliant APIs allowing development work, perhaps cloud-hosted, perhaps with developer communities, perhaps itself built from OSS?

Distributed innovation

I argued as a software development method Open Source and open collaborative development methods make sense in our increasingly complex and networked world. I borrowed a term from David Weinberger here, that that nowadays knowledge has become “too big to know” (Weinberger, 2012)¬†particularly evident in higher education with the complexity and sheer scale of research data.

It is a distributed and networked development approach that has created successful projects such as the¬†Debian GNU/Linux¬†distribution, and indeed the¬†Linux kernel¬†itself.¬†One reason for the success of these projects is¬†networked expertise: the ability to surface skills and knowledge from a globally-distributed community of developers.¬†To apply this to library systems software I argued suppliers building systems based on a closed approach cannot respond to our changing needs as one based on networked expertise with ‘peaks’ of local knowledge that best understand our own situation and requirements can do.

The proprietary team emphasized software suppliers’ wish to listen to their customers. I don’t doubt their honesty in this at all. I think engaging customers and encouraging more open development such as developer communities very welcome. However, I argue any single vendor lacks the depth and breadth of knowledge that we have collectively in our own institutions and the scale that can be brought to bear by networked collaborative development. For this reason, the future is necessarily an open one.


Weinberger, D. (2012) Too big to know. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Sero Consulting Ltd (2008). JISC & SCONUL library management systems study. Available at: (Accessed: 6 January 2022).