OPACs in the frying pan, Vendors in the fire

An interesting week, this was, in the blogosphere as it pertained to vendors, ILSs and OPACs. I’m not sure if the moon is crossing some strange celestial tract or if library bloggers are particularly sensitive to sunspots lately, but a number of people have been putting the screws to their vendors (III, in particular) and a righteous smack-down on their OPACs. At any rate, I’ve received a lot of linkage to the “ILS Customer Bill of Rights“, including some criticism. Enough so that I feel the need to gather these into some sort of usable nebulae…

Vendor’s in the hot-seat

June 1 – Touched a Nerve – An account by Nicole Engard of a run-in with some III folks at IUG (Innovative Users Group meeting). Her post seems to be the one that kicked off this particular vendor roast. Essentially, She mentions an incident at this year’s Denver IUG in which a III employee expressed displeasure at her post, State of the ILS. I agree with Nicole that it’s probably a good thing that III employees are a little upset with some of these assessments. I’ll also stand by my comments on Nicole’s post–I’m among the first to admit that III can be infuriating to work with and I would not recommend it to any library interested in doing heavy customization. I’d caution all parties, however, to address the problems and not their emotions associated with this hot potato.

June 14 – Attention Innovative: Get a Clue(train)! – Michael Stephens weighs in, responds to Nicole.

June 14 – Squashing Criticism vs. Improving Products – Casey Bisson reacts to Nicole’s Post and follows up on his previous post, The ILS Brick Wall. I didn’t read Nicole’s June 1 post the same way as Casey–that is to say that I don’t see any indication that III was squashing criticism directed at them. They may be upset, but that doesn’t, in my mind, seem to indicate that III was trying to silence anyone. I mention this because if we (mis)interperate what III does or says and take it at anything but face-value, we run the risk of alienating them which is not at all productive. I have a suspicion that they’re already starting to feel a little like the family stone. The very fact that someone at III is reading blogs like Nicole’s is actually heartening to me since there’s been little evidence to suggest they’re even aware of a librarian’s blogosphere.

June 16 – Empathy, But Not Sympathy for Innovative – Pegasus Librarian (not sure who this is), gathers a number of these posts together as well and recalls from IUG:

These users all wanted to be able to do stuff with the catalog… web 2.0 stuff, fun stuff, necessary stuff, stuff that should be do-able. And Dinah’s response was always the same. She’s been wanting to do all that, too, but there’s no time, and they aren’t allowed to fix stuff unless they’re actively supposed to be working on that module or code. Her refrain was (and I quote), “As we touch it, we can fix it.

To be blunt, I don’t care what’s going on inside Innovative. If I go to Burger King and get a raw hamburger, the last thing I want them to tell me is that they’re short-staffed and one of the grills is broken. In fact, reports like this make me more cognizant of the fact that Innovative’s house is is complete disarray. Half-a-million dollars should get us more than a dysfunctional family. Hearing something like this just makes me angry.

OPAC under fire

Sometime last week – What if Amazon sucked like our OPAC – a la David Walker – You just have to see it if you haven’t yet.

June 13 – Is the Writing on the Wall for the Integrated Library System?OhioLINK‘s Peter Murray muses on the future of the ILS and the OPAC. This is a good post that I’d recommend, even though I disagree with some of it. Murray has drawn from the newly formed Next Generation OPACs mailing list to discuss the relevancy of the OPAC in today’s library. He believes that the OPAC is barely utilized–I suppose he believes that to be the case in most libraries. He also seems to suggest that the “ILS/OPAC” (Which I take to mean the ILS with OPAC) should be considered an asset management system. In a way he’s correct, but fundamentally, the ILS is much more than that. The ILS is a suite of applications that, hopefully, facilitate everything from the art of cataloging (not inventorying) to finding material and information. I also do not see any evidence to support his claim that patrons do not use the OPAC. He writes, “I would challenge the notion that the OPAC is a ‘useful tool’ — if it was, our patrons would still be using it. As it is, anecdotal evidence suggest that the OPAC is the last thing they would choose to use.” We’ve got logs that prove that the OPAC is used heavily in our organization–it always has been. Perhaps the situation is different in academia where databases rule the roost, but the OPAC is the primary search tool for the public library patron, both in our buildings and from home. In many ways, the OPAC represents our double-doors–if there were no OPAC, we could not conduct business, and it’s very much alive. Where I do agree with him is in his remarks about libraries getting themselves in to trouble, though it’s not because we listened to ourselves as he suggests, but because there has never been a change-agent-inducing catalyst to light a fire under our collective behinds. In fact, the libraries who have been successful at transitioning into this “2.0 era” have largely been lucky in that they simply were in possession of the right people at the right time. The combination of vision, passion, and expertise is what makes a 600,000-ton tanker full of institutional inertia change course–not software suites.

June 14 – Are we really ready to say goodbye to the Sucky OPAC – Jennifer over at Life as We know It asks whether, in general, libraries are ready to chuck their existing OPACs and slide in shiny new replacements. Her concern is that we’re just not ready for a step like this. She makes a good point–one that I’d say is very valid considering the state of technology in many libraries. I’ve been contacted a number of times by individuals at other libraries who want to do what AADL has done with Drupal. I explain that Drupal is not the answer–it was a means to an end for us–so when they ask, “Ok, now I just need to get a copy of Drupal, install Linux somewhere and learn PHP?”, I try to make it clear that there is also an ocean of experience to cross because the answer is not in a book, nor is it in any particular software product. I hate to bring bad news to bear with some folks, but in many cases, libraries are just not ready yet.

The issue at hand here is really about redefining purpose within the library and staffing your technology department with passionate creators–employees who are extremely knowledgeable, technically, and driven to pursue a vision. Essentially, we need to be grokking the entire Library 2.0 meme. Pragmatically, if you look at the alternative, you’ve got a situation that does not diverge, at all, from the present vendor-centric model. Say, for the sake of argument, that NCSU’s Endeca model becomes the next gold standard as far as OPACs are concerned. Average, across-the-board OPAC quality may very well benefit in the short term, but you still have not addressed the fact that as libraries, we cannot shape the systems into new and unique forms. Turn-key implementation comes at the cost of innovation and ingenuity at the micro level which, in today’s world, can have a profound influence over the macro level. In other words, we shrink the pool of potential innovators by an order of magnitude and continue to forfeit control over our collective institutional destiny.

I’m glad Jennefer turns the argument back on ourselves because we are, after all, the other side of this equation. Every day we have another chance to address the technology deficit in our libraries and we can either choose to or not. Last week, I spent two days at the Darien Public Library in Darien Connecticut–a library full of people with vision, passion, and courage. I’m convinced that they’ll be able to do anything they want, simply because of their drive to get there and their willingness to make radical change. At any rate, I was having dinner with Alan Gray and he made a fabulous comment. He said, “power is 20% given and 80% taken.” I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to see libraries take a firmer hand in letting vendors know what we need, not just want from them. We need to take our 80 and stop giving them their 20.

But there is work to be done before we can do that.

A “Bill of Rights” questioned

June 15 – The Problem with the ILS Bill of Rights – Daniel Chudnov’s (Dchud) takes on my manifesto. There’s quite a bit here so I suggest reading his post. Drawing directly from my “ILS Customer’s Bill-of-Rights”, Dan makes the case that we do not need a Bill-of-Rights (the Rights). Aside from the fact that I believe his arguments never intersect with my original intent for the Rights, there are several problems with the points he makes. There are also several very good points. Dan’s main argument is that, as libraries and customers, we don’t have to sign a contract for something we don’t want. Ultimately, he’s right, but there is a difficult and very involved transitional period between the world he’s talking about and the one we live in now.

Libraries are like anyone else buying something–they need to be educated buyers. Until libraries can make truly informed decisions about the systems they purchase, we need discussion like the constellation of posts I’m outlining here as well as touchstones like the Rights post I wrote last November. Also, Dan’s suggestion that libraries just not sign a contract they’re not happy with presupposes that there are better alternatives waiting in the wing. What choice have libraries had, really? Can you say with all honesty that libraries have been in much of a bargaining position. Yes, vendors want our money, but they are also the power-brokers in these transactions until we change that. Dan also mentions the Open Source route as an alternative and points to the State of Georgia as a case for consideration in his follow-up post. Well yes, the State of Georgia can consider a home-grown, OS-based solution because they have the resources to make it happen. For most libraries, however, there is a severe tech-deficit that makes them blind with terror at the prospect of maintaining multiple points of contact for their ILS. Libraries are fully aware that they have, for years, been getting fleeced by vendors. He also suggests lawsuits as a mechanism for change. Perhaps he’s right, but lawsuits are costly and have no guarantee of success and would leave libraries in the same position as a diner who sends back a plate of food–will there be something nasty in it when it comes back?

Focusing on contracts and lawsuits is not the answer here. Focusing on ourselves is–bettering ourselves to the point of technical excellence is a must when you’re talking about the David and Goliath standoff between us and them. It’s a showdown that’s inevitable, we just better not show up to the party with poor aim. That’s why the time-line between now and the the future Dan talks about needs to be filled, not just with changes on the vendor side, but within libraries as well. Infrastructure upgrades, organizational restructuring, strategic planning, intensive education, and vision building need to proceed in tandem with our efforts to lobby change from our vendors. Otherwise, we’ll just be demanding something we can’t handle yet and our vendors will know it.

I mentioned that Dan’s post doesn’t really intersect with the purpose of the “ILS Bill of Rights”. That’s because it’s intended to provide a set of standards by which we, as libraries, consider potential new systems. It’s not for the vendors, it’s for us. I never thought that someone at Innovative might read it and think, “Uh oh, they’re on to us!” I’m not presenting it for ratification by anyone, anywhere. It’s sole purpose is to educate and promote discussion, which it has done beautifully, this past week.

More follow-up on Dan’s post:

June 15 – Wait a minute: you mean the OPAC doesn’t suck? *We* suck? Colorado College’s Steve Lawson addresses Dchus’s post.

June 15 – It’s not that simple – We’re back to Nicole who also takes on Dchud’s post.

FYI: I’ll be speaking about this next Sunday, June 25 in New Orleans on a panel, aptly named, “Catalog Transformed”. Hope to see you there!


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