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/.