April 20, 2024

Boston University Libraries Pushing Forward With Alma Platform


Roger Brisson, the head of metadata services at Boston University  (BU) Libraries, has been deeply immersed in the cloud-based library services platform Alma from Ex Libris for the better part of two years.

BU went live with Alma in November, one of the early adopters, and Brisson, as part of the ALA Midwinter Conference, explained to an overflow crowd at the Seattle Convention Center on Sunday how Alma is fundamentally changing infrastructure operations at BU.

“We talk about what ‘cloud’ means and what SaaS [software as a service] means, but when you really start working in it you start seeing the implications—and they are very, very far reaching,” Brisson said. “They are profound changes for the way we work. “

Brisson said that Alma is addressing the challenges that have emerged from the dramatic growth in scholarly research and the expansion of the collecting universe, which have created a dynamic tension between technology and scholarly communication.

“This isn’t just really interesting, nerdy stuff,” Brisson said. “This is addressing real problems and real issues.”

Alma, which has been implemented in about 120 institutions, according to Susan Stearns, the vice president of strategic partnerships for Ex Libris, promises a cloud-based unified management and discovery system (BU has also implemented Primo, Ex Libris’s discovery layer). Alma, like other library services platforms, breaks down the traditional workflow silos that grew from the functionalities of legacy ILSes, the management of which had become a large and untenable part of the job at BU, Brisson said.

“It’s very, very different from any of the ILSes you’ve worked with,” Brisson said, adding that it is not correct to think of these new platforms as an ILS. “The workflow task system is very powerful, and we’re still learning how to maximize our use of it.”

The major library services platforms either on the market or in development in addition to Alma are Intota from Serials Solutions, WorldShare Management Services from OCLC, and Sierra from Innovative Interfaces.

Brisson said that Alma expands and alters the traditional metadata management system.

“When you imagine SFX [the Ex Libris knowledgebase] being an integral part of your metadata management system that changes everything. You’ve got SFX right there and it’s not a separate silo,” Brisson said. “You can do things that you just haven’t imagined before in terms of workflow with the data.”

However, such major changes create pushback from library staff who worry that the library is rationalizing their jobs away through these efficiencies. At the start of his talk, Brisson held up a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Never Forget” beneath a picture of an old card catalog drawer.

“A really key part of the migration was our staff and getting our staff on board and involved and interested and engaged in the project,” Brisson said. “And really for that to work it was just helping our staff understand that what they were doing in terms of traditional cataloging fits very well in a very, very different and a very new kind of context and environment,” Brisson said. “

“They are doing things perhaps differently, but conceptually we are still using the principles that we were using with the card catalog,” he said.

Brisson said he expects it will take about six months to get Alma where he wants it to be (about the same time it took to completely “dial in” Primo). And he said the digital repository aspects are still “relatively undeveloped” and BU has not had a chance yet to take advantage of Alma’s analytics, but he was “looking forward to taking advantage of them” since they promise to help buttress arguments about the library’s value within the larger institutional framework.

On numbers, he did say that Primo, which has replaced the OPAC and drives the library’s new website, is now up to 15,000 searches a day.

“We know from our statistics that our resources are being used infinitely more than they were prior to this transition,” he said. BU previously employed Millennium from Innovative Interfaces.

There are still “rough edges that we have to work through,” but Ex Libris has so far delivered on its promises, Brisson said, in part because the agile development methodology being employed is dynamic and allows for monthly updates (which soon may become quarterly).

“When we first engaged with Ex Libris we knew what we wanted already so we were prepared to be able to respond quickly to what Ex Libris told us their products could do—and we did,” Brisson said. “We jumped on to the early adopter bandwagon and never looked back.”

Ex Libris also did a presentation on Saturday about the implementation of Alma by the 37 academic libraries that make up the Orbis Cascade Alliance that drew a large crowd. For a more detailed discussion of some of the issues surrounding Alma and library services platforms in general, watch the  “Moving Up to the Cloud” event held January 9 at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. >>>However, such major changes create pushback from library staff who worry that the library is rationalizing their jobs away through these efficiencies. <<< Well, then how about addressing that directly instead of giving us more rhetoric? All these codewords for downsizing or outsourcing don't fool us. We may not be librarians or have the MLS, but we're far from stupid. Seems to me that with staff "freed up" to make decisions, what that really means is that all the work we paraprofessionals now do will be "automated," and the librarians will keep their jobs while we're tossed out in favor of student, part-time or unpaid intern help. All we hear is "streamlining"…"efficiency"… "frees staff" – really??? Is anyone really surprised that there is pushback??? ADDRESS IT. We wouldn't be so wary of change to a 2.0 environment if our leaders would commit firmly (and make it clear) to a policy that we will not lose our jobs and will receive the training we need to remain in the new library environment as valued members of the team.