Posted by: mhdiaz | October 19, 2011

Why Can’t We Talk? The Island of the ILS

Jane Burke continues a new blog series on InfoViews — Crushed by the Tsunami: Are Libraries at Sea?  The focus of this series is resource and data management challenges and their implications for demonstrating library impact and value.  In her second post, Jane discusses issues with interoperability. 

– Mike

As librarians continue to focus on enhancing service levels and user experiences, there is just not enough staff time to do everything.   We would like to be more “out front” but are often tied to processing routines developed in the past.  This week, I posit that the lack of interoperability of library systems significantly impacts library efficiency.  .  Most pressing is the inability of the Integrated Library System to programmatically interact with supplier, student registration, and budgetary/financial systems which causes library staff and other university staff to waste time on duplicative data entry.  (Not the only cause, though – more next week.)

“Interoperability” is inherent in most enterprise systems today.  (and there is no doubt that the ILS is an enterprise system.)  Modern systems talk to each other seamlessly through a variety of interfaces.  Even systems with very different architectures are programmatically interconnected, using technologies such as SOA (service-oriented architecture.)

Unfortunately, our ILS’ weren’t put together this way.  During the 1980’s, we wanted dedicated systems, controlled by the library.  Even newer versions of those systems follow this “turnkey” architecture, which basically makes the library system an island.  That self-sufficiency suited (sort of) an era of managing print collections.  The desired outcome of measuring the library’s value to the institution could be accomplished (sort of) by printed usage reports.

But being on an island now comes at a high price.  Just a few examples of efficiency impacts:

  • Difficulty importing and exporting user records from/to  registrar
  • Difficulty connecting to common e-commerce techniques, such as debit cards
  • Limited (!) ability to import bibliographic data – ftp is a batch technology
  • Limited ability to receive/process invoices and other financial transactions from suppliers
  • Inability to output financial transactions to institutional financial systems

… and the list goes on and on.

The suppliers we use in our daily lives – Amazon, Wal-Mart, QVC – could not survive with these limitations.  And libraries have limited resources to compensate for the fundamental inefficiencies of these systems.

Supplier invoices seem to be a particularly bad use case.  Over and over again, I hear stories of how these electronic invoices for electronic collections are:

  • Received electronically
  • Printed
  • Entered manually into the ILS acquisitions module
  • Walked (or maybe faxed) to the financial office

The amount of valuable staff time being spent on such repetitive – and error prone – activities keeps the library as an “island” at a time when the librarians need to embed the library deeper into its user community.

In my opinion, the most critical impact of being on the island is the how it limits the library’s ability to have a meaningful impact on assessment.  As institutions focus on metrics and learning outcomes, the library is hampered at every turn by system constraints.   As an example, most of the usage is of electronic collections.  That usage data must be exported to mix with student data in order to see the impact of the library on user success.  Today it is simply too difficult and time-consuming to do that.

Of course, beyond the ILS, it is easy to identify lots of other enterprise systems where outdated technologies impede organizational efficiency and impact..  Many organizations have such issues, including library suppliers.  However,  at a time when libraries are struggling to establish a new, visible mission, these system difficulties inhibit our compelling communication of library relevance and impact.  It’s not the nature of the technology itself that is the issue – it’s the consequences.


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