What will library staff do 5 years from now?
I attended the IGeLU 2009 annual conference in Helsinki September 6-9. IGeLU is the International Group of Ex Libris Users, an independent organisation that represents Ex Libris customers. Just to state my position clearly I would like to add that I am a member of the IGeLU Steering Committee.
These annual user group meetings typically have three types of sessions: internal organisational sessions (product working groups and steering committee business meetings, elections), Ex Libris sessions (product updates, Q&A, strategic visions), and customer sessions (presentations of local solutions, addons, developments).
Not surprisingly, the main overall theme of this conference was the future of library systems and libraries. The word that characterises the conference best in my mind (besides “next generation“and “metaphor“) is “roadmap“. All Ex Libris products but also all attending libraries are on their way to something new, which strangely enough is still largely uncertain.
Ex Libris presented the latest state of design and development of their URM (Unified Resource Management) project, ‘A New Model for Next-generation Library Services’. In the final URM environment all back end functionality of all current Ex Libris products will be integrated into one big modular system, implemented in a SaaS (“Software as a Service“) architecture. In the Ex Libris vision the front end to this model will be their Primo Indexing and Discovery interface, but all URM modules will have open API’s to enable using them with other tools.
The goal of this roadmap apparently is efficiency in the areas of technical and functional system administration for libraries.
In the mean time development of existing products is geared towards final inclusion in URM. All future upgrades will result in what I would like to call “intermediate” instead of “next generation” products . MetaLib, the metasearch or federated search tool, will be replaced by MetaLib Next Generation, with a re-designed metasearch engine and a Primo front end. The digital collection management tool DigiTool will be merged into its new and bigger nephew Rosetta, the digital preservation system. The database of the OpenUrl resolver SFX will be restructured to accommodate the URM datamodel. The next version of Verde (electronic resource management) will effectively be URM version 1, which will also be usable as an alternative for both ILS’es Voyager and Aleph.
Here we see a kind of “intermediate” roadmap to different “base camps” from where the travelers can try to reach their final destination.
From the perspective of library staff we see another panorama appearing.
In one of the customer presentations Janet Lute of Princeton University Library, one of the three (now four) URM development partners, mentioned a couple of “holy cows” or library tasks they might consider stopping doing while on their way to the new horizon:
- managing prediction patterns for journal issues
- checking in print serials
- maintaining lots of circulation matrices and policies
- collecting fines
- cataloging over 80% of bibliographic records
I would like to add my own holy cow MARC to this list, about which I have written a previous post Who needs MARC?. (Some other developments in this area are self service, approval plans, shared cataloging, digitisation, etc.)
This roadmap is supposed to lead to more efficient work and less pressure for acquisitions, cataloging and circulation staff.
Eldorado or Brave New World?
To summarise: we see a sketchy roadmap leading us via all kinds of optional intermediate stations to an as yet still vague and unclear Eldorado of scholarly information disclosure and discovery.
The majority of public and professional attention is focused on discovery: modern web 2.0 front ends to library collections, and the benefits for the libraries’ end users. But it is probably even more important to look at the other side, disclosure: the library back end, and the consequences of all these developments for library staff, both technically oriented system administrators and professionally oriented librarians.
Future efficient integrated and modular library systems will no doubt eliminate a lot of tasks performed by library staff, but does this mean there will be no more library jobs?
Will the university library of the future be “sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas“, as was stated recently in an article in “Inside Higher Education”? I mentioned similar options in “No future for libraries?“.
Personally I expect that the two far ends of the library jobs spectrum will merge into a single generic job type which we can truly call “system librarian“, as I stated in my post “System librarians 2.0“. But what will these professionals do? Will they catalog? Will they configure systems? Will they serve the public? Will they develop system add-ons?
This largely depends on how the new integrated systems will be designed and implemented, how systems and databases from different vendors and providers will be able to interact, how much libraries/information management organisations will outsource and crowdsource, how much library staff is prepared to rethink existing workflows, how much libraries want to distinguish themselves from other organisations, how much end users are interested in differences between information management organisations; in brief: how much these new platforms will allow us to do ourselves.
We have come up with a realistic image of ourselves for the next couple of decades soon, otherwise our publishers and system vendors will be doing it for us.