The deal struck in September between the Orbis Cascade Alliance and Ex Libris may be the most forceful illustration to date that that the integrated library system (ILS) is facing the same fate that ultimately befell card catalog cabinets.
Over the next two years, the 37 academic libraries in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho that constitute the Alliance will abandon their discrete ILS systems based on local servers in favor of a single, shared, cloud-based system from Ex Libris that will employ the next-generation library services platform Alma for all back office functions (selection, acquisition, metadata management, digitization, and fulfillment) and Primo as the discovery layer. The deal was a coup for Ex Libris, and a sign that the Alliance remains at the forefront when it comes to resource sharing and collaborative technical services.
Moving beyond the ILS
“This is big,” said Mark Triest, the president of Ex Libris North America. “The Alliance is breaking down the silos of the past. They are moving everything to the cloud. They will shut down the legacy systems of the past, and in doing so they will realize the opportunity to truly benefit from rich collaboration and resource sharing across the consortium.”
By transferring its funding from a variety of fungible products, the Alliance can develop a new, unified system that will achieve better services and a strong return on investment over the long run, according to John F. Helmer, the Alliance’s executive director. While some members will pay more and others less than they do now (details were not available), direct cost savings is only one of the motivating factors.
“We have found that operating in a distributed legacy ILS environment—with multiple platforms, coding and indexing decisions, policies, discovery systems and more—greatly complicates our collaborative work and increases the cost of achieving a strong outcome,” Helmer said.
“We hope and expect that our outcomes will be quite radical, and that we will be operating in a new way over the next few years,” Helmer said. “This is not a time when libraries can be complacent.”
The deal will not only consolidate multiple organizations and systems into a cooperative network based on a single technology framework, but it will also replace existing library systems—including Innovative Interfaces’ Millennium ILS (used by 35 of the 37 members), Evergreen, Voyager, Serials Solutions’ 360 Link, OCLC’s WorldCat Local, Serials Solutions’ Summon, and others.
“While a rare event, we’re obviously disappointed to see any Millennium library leave us. We will continue to support our working relationship with Orbis Cascade during the transition,” said Gene Shimshock, the senior vice president of product and market management for III.
Marshall Breeding, the founder of Library Technology Guides, wrote in the December issue of Computers in Libraries, that he expects in 2013 “intense activity for these new library services platforms” such as Alma, and he also expects to see procurement patterns that more resemble the Alliance’s deal with Ex Libris.
“In the coming years, I expect that libraries will acquire fewer automation components à la carte, but they will rather shift to more comprehensive product suites,” Breeding wrote.
“It is increasingly less attractive to acquire link resolvers, electronic resource management tools, and discovery tools from different vendors given their increasing interdependencies,” Breeding wrote. “These products are increasingly tied to a knowledgebase of e-resource holdings, which bring together products that may have previously been acquired individually into a more tightly knit suite of functionality.”
Triest echoed this, saying that the Alliance deal shows that it is time for libraries, whether they are part of a consortium or a stand-alone institution, to plan for “a transition from the legacy systems of the past to a unified set of services that exceed traditional ILS capabilities.”
Many Alliance members will get new functionality that they could not afford on their own, such as a discovery service, and all members will gain economical and needed capabilities that traditional ILS systems have lagged in, such as creating new workflows, integrating with other systems, and extracting data. For example, Alliance members said that it is currently essentially impossible to meaningfully pair up circulation and collections data in a way that allows for informed cooperative collection development.
Collaborating to survive
“Academic libraries have a choice: we can collaborate, or we can die,” said William Jordan, the associate dean of the University of Washington Libraries, an Alliance member. “The move from separate stand-alone systems to a truly shared library management platform is radical, but it opens the door to realizing the strategic vision of deep collaboration that we hold across the Alliance.”
Jordan said this was the most exciting project he had worked on in the last 15 years.
“Getting an Alliance-wide picture of the collection, using that data to inform building out the collection, and being able to share staff, expertise, and workflows across institutions are all compelling,” he said, even though the project has created a mix of anticipation and concern among front-line staff
“I’m less worried about the technology aspects than I am about us managing change and getting the communication right with both staff and end users,” he said.
The initiative is clearly a break with tradition, and for that reason, Helmer said, “it would be wrong to imply 100 percent support across hundreds of individuals.”
“Going forward, we will have to get used to new concepts, data structures, capabilities, and vocabulary,” Helmer said. “This is a big hurdle in itself for staff that may have worked in a single ILS environment for decades.”
“We don’t see a great deal of fear, but certainly a heightened sense of opportunity and change,” Helmer said. “Some, no doubt, fear the change, or at least don’t look forward to the disruption, but many also see this as an exciting time to rethink legacy systems and workflows that may predate their career.”
The implementation timeline is aggressive, beginning in earnest in January, with the first cohort of six libraries expected to migrate by July 2013. Three cohorts will follow, with all members migrated in about two years. There will be a presentation about the project on January 26 at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle.
“The Alliance’s project is the first, and it has created tremendous buzz among library systems and consortia across North America, and around the globe,” Triest said. “It’s well known that libraries want to realize the benefits available from collaboration and resource sharing, but until now the IT systems of the past have hindered their ability to effectively execute on this vision.”
As far as could be determined, as Triest alluded to, the Alliance is the first consortium in North America to move to one of the next-generation library services platforms that are being actively developed by Ex Libris (Alma) as well as OCLC (WorldShare Management Services), Serials Solutions (Intota), III (Sierra), and open source options such as Kuali OLE. The Alliance contract was a plum, with written bids coming from EBSCO, III, OCLC, and Serials Solutions as well as Ex Libris.
Triest said there is “tremendous interest” in next generation systems among libraries and consortia globally, and “it’s fair to say it’s not a matter of if they move to next-generation systems, but rather when. And for most it will be soon, as the payoff is compelling.”
Helmer said the project is big not only because of the migration from 37 systems to one, but also because moving to a next generation system will require the Alliance’s membership to “think in new ways and engage in some degree of product development, especially where consortial functionality is concerned.” It also will require innovative collaboration in technical services. In other words, it is three big projects rolled into one.
“We don’t know of another effort trying to do all three of these things at the same time, but many are thinking about some version of such an effort,” Helmer said.
Other examples of innovative work in collaborative technical services include the University of California Next-Generation Technical Services initiative, begun in 2011 in partnership with OCLC, and the 2CUL effort underway at Columbia and Cornell.
Helmer said the alliance envisions itself as a “unified multi-institutional entity,” and migrating to the next generation system was a powerful tool to help realize the alliance’s goal of achieving a single collection distributed across a large geographic area. The Ex Libris deal is just one prong of this overarching strategy which has included, among other initiatives, a demand driven ebook purchasing program, a distributed print repository, consortium-wide participation in the Western Regional Storage Trust (WEST), and pilot projects in collaborative technical services.
“ ‘Collaborate to customize’ is a good way to express this desire to offer unified services and collections where it makes sense in order to free up resources to fully develop the unique strengths of each member library and engage directly with faculty and students,” Helmer said.
Helmer said libraries should be “strongly considering” group implementation of next generation systems, even though the decision is time consuming and difficult. The Alliance began this effort two years ago. The selection process included not only scoring the vendor responses to the Alliance’s request for proposal (RFP), but over 20 hours of online demonstrations, input from membership, and “a careful consideration of the capacity of each vendor and the degree of shared vision.”
“The new open source and proprietary systems currently under development are very exciting, and this may be a time that is not unlike the first migration from card to computer catalogs,” Helmer said. “We were quite impressed with all of the ideas expressed in response to our RFP. Each one of these organizations is doing ground-breaking work and truly rethinking business models and the systems libraries of the future will need.”
“In the end, Ex Libris fit our needs best in terms of readiness, innovation, and shared vision, but this was a difficult decision. Each of the systems we considered, as well as several open source options, should be examined closely by anyone interested in next generation library management systems.”