Re-re-thinking the Integrated Library System
Neil Block, MLS, VP Discovery Innovation Academic Libraries
There's been much ado about the "next-generation" integrated library system. Often coined a "library services platform," the re-imagined ILS promises an open platform, using APIs that move libraries away from a print-centric approach towards one that better accommodates digital content. Fundamentally of course, libraries are about serving their users. So, does the new library services platform improve the user experience for the library community? Or, in other words, how does the new platform truly address patron needs in today’s digital age?
This question really leads to a more fundamental inquiry. What are "patron needs" and how do we deliver solutions and tools to address them? The obvious answer for academic libraries is that we must "enable research." But how we do this in the most optimal way requires us to really rethink the relationships between the ILS, the discovery layer, and - possibly - the priorities that we see in libraries today.
Let’s start with a given. Most academic libraries spend most of their budgets on digital content. This naturally makes sense; it’s where the core mission of “enabling research” begins. Yet, at the same time, staff resources and the largest software investments still focus on managing the physical inventory of the library. Considering that discoverability of content – both print and digital – is fundamental to the library’s mission, we must shift our focus to the front-end. When we evaluate the ILS, we must examine its usefulness and functionality with a focus on its “interoperability” with the discovery service of the library’s choosing.
Given the centrality of the end-user and the importance of the discovery experience, libraries should review the discovery service in the context of the value it provides to the entire community. There are many facets to discovery: the user interface, the content that can be incorporated, the relevance and value ranking, the ability to tailor the solution for specific research needs, and the ability to use APIs to interoperate with the ILS. What’s more, the choice of a discovery service – or the source of full-text article content within discovery - must be independent from the ILS. What matters, ultimately, is the ability of the ILS to utilize discovery by integrating with the knowledgebase, authentication, the learning management system and other critical services within the organization.
This is where openness becomes critical. Openness means choice. Openness means configurability. When software applications are open, libraries can choose the discovery solution that delivers the best user experience, regardless of the ILS “back-end” restrictions. Yet the promise of “openness” and interoperability is often different than the reality. As vendors we must deliver on the promise, and as librarians we must demand as much.
In all, rethinking the ILS means shifting the attention, shifting the evaluation method – outward – to a user-focused discovery model. Providing access to content of all kind is imperative in-and-of-itself, yet the “how” is equally critical. Librarians should assess each discovery service and choose based on its ability to ensure the discoverability of the entire universe of the collection: full-text content, subject databases, eBooks, prints, IR, etc. The new, end user-focused ILS supports and interfaces with the discovery solution – if it is to be truly next-generation in performance, not just in words.