Out-of-Date Systems Are Holding Libraries Back

Letter from the Executive Director, June 2021

Last month, I had the honor of being one of the keynote presenters at the FEDLINK Spring Expo hosted by the Library of Congress. Normally an in-person event, like so many others this year, the session was hosted virtually. My talk focused on the future of standards for library systems, but there was also an important underlying theme: the lack of investment in libraries and in library systems, in particular.

My attention had been drawn to this topic by an article in LISTedTech, which highlighted the average various ages of information systems in higher education. At the top of that list, indicating they were the oldest systems on most campuses, were library information systems.  The average age of these systems is 22 years, which is nearly double the average lifespan of an IT system in higher ed. This is hardly surprising, given that I know of many libraries still running legacy systems that are one or two generations behind the current versions. Particularly as library budgets have been squeezed over the past decade or more, investing in infrastructure systems is not normally the highest priority.

This is not to single out libraries as the only institutions that hold onto legacy systems, resisting the need to upgrade them. This practice is pervasive in the business world and in our personal lives, as well. There is a constant chorus of update notifications from all the software and devices we use on a daily basis. But not upgrading software, just like not upgrading one's plumbing or electrical systems, has costs. The costs may be hidden, existing as lost productivity, having to find workarounds for systemic problems, or limited ability to try new approaches to solving problems. Then there are significant potential costs related to security, data preservation, and unexpected service interruptions. Often, people ignore or put off investments in infrastructure, quietly accepting the risks of catastrophe because we underestimate their likelihood or their costs. We need only look to recent headlines to see how impactful and costly it can be when these problems become a crisis. NISO, too, is in this position, with our back-end balloting and groups management software. We need to undertake a project to upgrade that system this year, because the version we are running is out of date and showing signs of breaking.

Over the years, library systems have improved significantly, but realistically, they still aren’t keeping up with changing expectations and demands for library services. Three quick examples that are consuming a lot of my time recently are controlled digital lending, cooperative collections work, and open infrastructure. 

Controlled digital lending (CDL) is essentially a new approach to the long-standing practice of interlibrary loan (ILL), in which digital technology replicates and makes more efficient the process of loaning library materials by using digital formats under controlled conditions. While standards for ILL have existed for many years, there are many new questions specifically about CDL that need to be addressed in order to adapt these traditional services to the new approach.  

Similarly, libraries need to find ways to improve efficiency through cooperative activities. It has long been understood that no library could collect every item. In part, this is the rationale for ILL, but it’s also a driving force that is compelling many institutions to create cooperative collections activities, such as the Minitex CALD Cooperative Collection Management Project, the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s Big Collection, the Ivy Plus group’s Borrow Direct, and others. These networks require a great deal more coordination and consistent business practices than institutions that work independently but exchange materials occasionally. Systems designed to manage a single institution’s collections, circulation, and acquisitions lack the functionality needed to manage this more complex operating environment. 

Finally, open infrastructure and interoperability have been topics for discussion led by the Invest in Open Infrastructure project. A core element of this movement is the interoperability of the systems it defines as infrastructure and the standards that facilitate it.

Traditional library systems have made significant improvements, and I don’t mean to imply that vendors have been letting systems languish. Advances in metadata (such as KBART and RDA), management of electronic resources (such as COUNTER, SUSHI, and ERMI), discovery (such as ODI and pre-indexed search), and even cloud-based services have certainly improved the management of systems over recent years. However, fundamental advances in management of library information, such as more active use of linked data via efforts like BIBFRAME, have been slow to advance. As much as libraries may want to implement new models of interacting, without the demand from libraries for new systems with greater functionality the vendor market will be slower to adapt to these new service models and features. There is a fundamental chicken-and-egg problem where some libraries would like to advance but can’t because the systems don’t support the new services, while the vendors are hesitant to invest in new software development until there is an obvious demand from the market. As made obvious from the age of library systems, the lack of demand is inhibiting innovation while driving consolidation among vendors. Fundamentally, this logjam will have to break up in order for libraries to progress in these new directions.

Driving  change forward is also, in some respects, tied to leadership, and this applies to NISO as well as other institutions. I’d like to draw people’s attention to the fact that NISO Voting Members are in the process of selecting new Board representatives. If you are a NISO Voting Representative, I strongly encourage you to make your voice heard by voting in the Board of Directors election, which closes on June 11.

We look forward to “seeing” many of you at the NISO events associated with the American Library Association’s annual conference that is, of course, virtual this year.  We have a terrific lineup of topics and presentations again this year, as well as our NISO Annual Members meeting. You can register now for those events. Perhaps we will share with you some of the amazing details of the emergence of Brood X in Maryland this month!


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO