Friday, April 29, 2011

thoughts on e-books and the ILS

I've been quieter about library systems and technology on this blog than on synthesize-specialize-mobilize, but I'm going to return to that realm for this post. I've had the privilege of joining the Orbis Cascade Alliance's Shared Integrated Library System Team this past month. This team is charged with analyzing the market for a shared ILS for the Alliance and investigating options for its procurement. The team read over RFI responses submitted by several vendors the other week giving us a general picture of the maturity of the market.

I'm not going to comment on those RFIs--we've promised to keep them within the Alliance. But I will say that this process and our library's recent exploration of the e book marketplace has got me thinking about where the next generation of library management systems should go.

I've been a champion of the WorldCat-based ILS for a long time now. Putting the world's largest cooperatively created catalog at the center of a library management system is a logical way to leverage network effects. It also could enable libraries to see data about their activities in the aggregate. OCLC clearly has a strategic advantage with WorldCat data as well as their resource sharing network. One of the main drivers of the Alliance effort is greater collaboration on traditional technical services activities like acquisition and cataloging of print materials and the shared WorldCat database might enable some deep collaboration here.

But if we really are moving into a world where e content becomes prevalent, or even dominant, the central nature of WorldCat bibliographic data is up in the air. When you have a scenario where libraries purchase large packages of electronic books, it doesn't necessarily make sense to do the cataloging for these in the distributed sort of way that WorldCat is built around where libraries do original cataloging as they get items in hand. It makes more sense to perform that activity at a higher level on the chain: the publisher, the book vendor, a national library. Likewise, if we load thousands of records for e books into our discovery system for demand driven purchasing, the records need to be created ahead of time in the absence of physical items.

Furthermore, the expectation for full text searching of books is growing, something the WorldCat database can't help with at this point. Fundamentally, WorldCat is based on records whose data was intended for cards in a print catalog. In a search engine world, an ILS built around managing a catalog, even a web-scale next generation one, may not make as much sense as it used to.

The ability to easily assimilate and manage large pools of vendor supplied data and metadata for licensed and purchased e content may be the most essential aspect of the next generation integrated library system. Serials Solutions seems to shine in this area historically with its e journal products and more currently with Summon while I've been less impressed with OCLC's record here.

It also seems logical to include digital collections management as a next generation activity of the ILS, though its also possible that the tools for this activity (DSpace, ContentDM, Omeka, Shared Shelf, etc.) are evolving too independently from the ILS market to try and bundle them in.

On another note, our library looked at purchasing some e book packages recently. Before looking closely, I had the impression that it was possible to license large aggregations of high quality e books. But what we're finding is that many e books are only available for sale, and at very little discount from the print even if purchased in aggregate packages. This situation really makes the demand driven acquisitions model seem attractive, though I'm leery of buying e books on one platform should that platform prove to be funky or worse, extinct, in the future.

Ebrary's 'Academic Complete' package seems to be a good deal. Offered for a modest annual fee, it provides access to some 50K e books. I get the impression its sort of like the NetFlix Instant library: it offers a wide array of quality content, but is by no means comprehensive and many of publishers' newer, popular titles are not included.

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