05 June 2015

Times a-changing in library systems and linked open data

Twitter activity around Hugh Rundle's blog post last week, Burn it all down, suggested that Hugh's frustrations - with lumbering dinosaurs of library systems, with MARC as a standard that is holding back rather than facilitating innovation, with the wait-for-a-vendor-to-do-it culture in libraries - are shared by a lot of people.

I really enjoyed the post and agreed with it wholeheartedly, but it also made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps it was this part:

Librarians - and specifically, library leaders and managers - need to build a culture that takes responsibility for our own destiny and our own decisions. All too often I hear librarians complaining that they would do things differently if only. If only IT would let us. If only our library software vendor would provide that feature. If only we had more money. If only there was an agreed new linked library metadata standard. [my emphasis]
 Perhaps this made me think: oh no, I'm the manager now, so it's my responsibility to do something about it and not just complain!

Since then though, a few interesting things have happened that have convinced me that the times could be a-changing sooner than we think.

Last week saw the release of a new report by Marshall Breeding on library systems platforms: given that Breeding invented the term 'library systems platform', you'd expect this to be a really useful summary; I haven't had time to properly read it yet but it looks good. Breeding suggests the new platforms will continue to support MARC but not exclusively:
New metadata formats based on linked data, especially BIBFRAME, have not yet been operationalized, but they provide an example of new and emerging metadata practices that will need to be adopted by all resource management systems in the relatively near future. [my emphasis]
On Wednesday, we had a visit at my workplace from several reps from one of our vendors. Part of the session involved a development roadmap that made it clear that MARC in a relational database and RDF in a triple store would both need to be supported as part of hosted library systems infrastructures in the near future.

Then yesterday my partner Conal Tuohy, who's a software developer with an interest in libraries and linked open data, received a book that he had ordered on OCLC efforts in this space. The abstract for that book puts it pretty bluntly:
The linked data architecture has achieved critical mass just as it has become clear that library standards for resource description are nearing obsolescence... This transformation [from traditional library metadata to linked open data] is a high priority because most searches for information start not in the library, nor even in a Web-accessible library catalog, but elsewhere on the Internet. Modeling data in a form that the broader Web understands will project the value of libraries into the Digital Information Age. [my emphasis]
Yes, these are all vendor-driven activities (though it's always worth remembering OCLC is a not-for-profit) and not local efforts to create change. In my workplace there is a strong focus (for often sound reasons around supportability and sustainability) on the purchase of supported enterprise IT solutions over developing and maintaining open source products, so I need to be realistic about what's possible and likely in that context. Which is, to be honest,  is a procurement process in the next 2-3 years that will likely result in a purchase from one of the major vendors. The control we have over that process - when it happens, how requirements are specified (Hugh makes some interesting comments on this), and how we roll out a new system, both technically and in terms of change management - is not as much as we might like, but nor is it negligible at a time when some vendors that are truly prepared to conceptualise library services in a new way are entering the market and need partner libraries to take a big leap with them.

Outside of many technical concerns, all of this is making me think about how to prepare my team for this new world. What new skills will they need and how can they build them? As I tweeted Hugh last week in response to his post, we are not talking about just changing from one schema or system to another. The world of linked open data relies on an understanding of graph-based models of knowledge representation that can be really hard for people to grasp (speaking from my own experience and also observations).

Outside of our small technical team, how can we start conversations with other librarians, particularly in acquisitions and cataloguing, about what is on the horizon so that when the time to implement new systems - systems that will displace the traditional ILS and decrease the emphasis on MARC as the one-standard-to-rule-them-all - that those staff are excited about new possibilities rather than terrified? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know it's going to be an interesting ride over the next few years.

Breeding, Marshall. “Library Services Platforms: A Maturing Genre of Products.” Library Technology Reports, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/ltr.51n4.
Godby, Carol Jean, Shenghui Wang, and Jeffrey K. Mixter. “Library Linked Data in the Cloud: OCLC’s Experiments with New Models of Resource Description.” Synthesis Lectures on the Semantic Web: Theory and Technology 5, no. 2 (April 30, 2015): 1–154. http://www.morganclaypool.com/doi/10.2200/S00620ED1V01Y201412WBE012doi:10.2200/S00620ED1V01Y201412WBE012.
Rundle, Hugh. “Burn It All down.” Hugh Rundle. http://www.hughrundle.net/2015/05/28/burn-it-all-down-2/.


  1. Didn't we librarians traditionally learn, design, co-operate, and build own own systems (usually ahead of our times). Why do we now sit around and wait for some foreign vendor to do it all? I have spent a LOT of time educating vendors on how libraries work when we contracted their 'expertise' to build systems for us. Actually that goes for 'expert' staff inside my own organisations too - IT, finance, etc. When will we extract ourselves from the corner we have let middle management paint us into?

    OK, that's just another whine. How about chopping out one vendor's non-critical system and re-allocating that funding to employing-in expertise and up-skilling existing staff? Short-term pain (reduction in service) for long-term gain (modern and more flexible service).

    Yes, I know, Finance will tell you budgets don't work like that...

    I think the real issue is these large procurement projects - they are a law unto themselves and don't give existing staff room to learn and grow (apart from the 2-5 in the project team). How about a programme of small, incremental in-house trials, or maybe in collaboration with 1-2 other libraries? I've tried lectures series' for staff - they do help a lot, but I now think working hands-on on a relevant, tangible outcome would make more of a difference. If nothing else, they'll be better ready for that procurement project you are threatening.

    Now all you need to do is to find someone friendly with some technical know-how to mentor it... :)

  2. I really worry about the success of cloud-based services (especially so-called "Discovery Layers") to shift market power even further towards vendors. There are huge advantages of scale to be had in the cloud, but if libraries want to capture those benefits for themselves they need to be in the driver's seat and not waiting on their vendors. This is where those initiatives led by library consortia that Hugh mentioned are so good; not just because they can be a lot cheaper, but because they allow libraries to take strategic rather than just tactical decisions regarding their IT systems, and migrate those systems towards more open architectures. Open systems that offer standard APIs and linked data will need systems librarians who are familiar with those standards and know how to orchestrate them using lightweight scripting tools. If the library's MARC catalogue is not yet amenable to that approach, then I'd start (as Mr DC suggests) with a practical project that deals with some local metadata that IS amenable.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mr DC and Unholy Taco. I agree with both of you that it would be great if libraries were able to build up their internal expertise in working outside of the constraints placed on us by vendors and that smaller scale projects would be a great way to both build skills and present new ideas for feedback from the communities that we deliver services to. I love the 'labs' idea that New York Public Libraries does so well; providing a space for experimentation and getting products out in their early prototype stage. I guess what I am finding in my own place of work is that when resources are tight it can be difficult to even keep the day to day operational stuff humming along let alone find time to do new projects. I think it would be necessary to address this structurally, by making sure that staff had time to work on new things and that experimentation outside of maintenance of vendor-supported systems was build in as part of individual and team KPIs; otherwise there will always be other things that get in the way. I guess that it is my job as a manager to try to make that happen!