The Ex Libris Users of North America (ELUNA) hold an annual meeting for the regional user group of Ex Libris in the United States and Canada. Steelsen Smith, Technical Lead for Client Services and IT Operations, attended the conference this past in May and has written about the sessions and news from the conference.
Keynote by Marshall Breeding
The keynote wove through the history of library systems, from the dozens of integrated library systems (ILS) and support systems that grew and shriveled to the eventual market consolidation into Alma and WorldShare. That consolidation reflected what he called a transition to “Library Services Platforms” (LSPs) – a transition which he described as effectively complete. This change involved rethinking the ILS, understanding its limitations, and re-imagining it as a platform – a set of tools on which you build the custom services offered by your organization. The speaker suggested that if you haven’t completed this transition then you are already falling behind.
Breeding was just as hard on institutional repositories and discovery tools as he was on the traditional ILS, describing research tools and discovery as “old hat.” He argued that the existing tools are mature, accepted, and functional and that libraries should focus on “discoverability” rather than discovery – getting users to the end resource rather than focusing on channeling through our own ecosystem.
If the ILS, discovery tools, and institutional repository are “out,” then what’s “in?” Delivering value to the university through cost savings, research support, and improving outcomes for grant seekers. The speaker didn’t phrase this quite so directly, but the substance of the message was clear: libraries need to focus on services that improve their ability to demonstrate value. If the library can make it easier for researchers to present their work, then grant outcomes will improve. Strategic resource sharing drives down acquisition costs. If the library stores research data (even in progress) then it embeds itself in the academic pipeline. Course reserves reduce student expenses and improve the university’s ability to market itself.
In this light, vertical consolidation and reorganization in the vendor space make perfect sense. Traditional publishers and platforms like Elsevier, Digital Science, and Clarivate have rebranded themselves as “data analytics” firms. They are developing workflow tools and researcher publishing applications which can (theoretically) place them squarely in the research pipeline, while also selling back data and insights to improve funding outcomes. The speaker asserted that the consolidation of Ex Libris and ProQuest also follows in this vein, allowing the new broader firm to operate more strategically in providing tools and demonstrating value to the university.
While much of the narrative is compelling, it’s important to note that Marshall Breeding was not invited by accident. His speech dovetailed perfectly with Ex Libris’s pivot towards the broader campus. Products like Leganto (course reserves), CampusM (campus app builder), Esploro (research data management) cover areas explicitly called out in the keynote. His shout out to APIs and the corresponding prediction of the end of batch processes plays nicely with Alma’s powerful API toolkit even if it ignores that certain jobs will likely always be “batch” in nature, whether triggered by a timer or by an API call.
The opening keynote called out some interesting concepts and certainly set the stage for the rest of the conference. The presentation was clearly intended to be provocative and ended with the suggestion that the entire field of library technology is awaiting disruption. It’s hard to disagree.
Ex Libris and ProQuest Corporate Presentations
Most of the first day of the conference was reserved for Ex Libris and ProQuest corporate presentations. The presentations ran the gamut in content – from a video-in-a-video ad-like presentation to an AC/DC-themed intro – but served the critical function of giving us insight into the thoughts and plan of one of our largest vendors. The most basic summary of the morning would sound like this; it was a victory lap for Alma, a tale of the tribulations of aligning Summon and Primo, and the promise of a pivot to broader campus services. The last point will be critical in the future of ProQuest/Ex Libris, even if it is not brought to fruition at Yale.
Belle of the Ball
Throughout the entire conference, Alma, the cloud-based LSP (library services platform) was the “belle of the ball;” Ex Libris never missed a chance to describe its success. The platform is evolving, OpenID Connect has been added as an authentication regime (the same system used by Google and the SSO system for FindIt/Aeon), data security and privacy controls have been tightened, webhooks have been added, cataloging improved, invoice management refreshed, and over 300 new libraries will come onboard in the next year. The product owners are certainly not resting on their laurels. New features are being added including “actionable analytics” – the ability to trigger an action based on data from their reporting system, new support for BIBFRAME, and new AI functionalities – automating suggestions for course reserves or reprioritizing resource sharing partners. New tools in “Alma Digital” – the digital library facet of Alma (licensed separately) will include a streaming service for AV materials, improved full-text management, interchangeable image viewers (including IIIF), and a “self-migration” tool to move repositories into Alma. This is the vendor’s presentation, and the problems/challenges of Alma libraries did not feature at all. Nonetheless, the accomplishments were impressive.
Less compelling than the Alma narrative was the description of work to align Primo (the Ex Libris discovery tool) with Summon (the former SerialSolutions discovery tool). While Summon is being developed and will be maintained indefinitely, the presentation glossed over most enhancements, listing only improved search scoping tools and an update to the frequency of content ingest. The biggest update was really on the back-end where ingest workflows for Primo and Summon have been unified and the content operation teams are being centralized. This should improve the long-term stability of both products.
Primo itself still seems to be the preferred child of Ex Libris. That tool has a new version being brought online, PrimoVE, which simplifies the Primo administrative interface. A new tool called “Primo Studio” will allow simpler customization of the Primo interface and will also be sharing of user-contributed plugins, widgets, and other elements of the tool’s look-and-feel. Discovery of streaming video materials (e.g., Kanopy) has been improved. On the infrastructure side, the Primo Central index has had a new datacenter brought online for improved redundancy, and the software is increasing its internal use of linked data, working with schema.org to make library materials more discoverable through search engines like Google. Finally, the speaker emphasized the importance of data, mentioning that the Ex Libris discovery division is 10 years old and has been tracking trends and efficacy over the past decade. Unsurprisingly, the Primo team has found that things are looking good for their product.
Pivot to Higher-Ed Cloud Platform
Arguably the most important announcements were not specific enhancements, but rather a pivot in the company’s mission. Ex Libris has indicated that it is switching its focus away from the library services platform to the more general “Higher-Ed Cloud Platform”. My analogy would be an enterprise resource planning platform (ERP) for universities. Their LSP software is obviously still critical, but it will now exist in an ecosystem where products are also being targeted directly at research and instructional support divisions.
The speaker promised they would not merely “rip off and reshuffle” their old technologies, but instead build a platform where you can mix-and-match solutions to meet your university’s needs. These will include infrastructure services – multi-tenant, API-driven platforms supporting various metadata and data schemas, security/authentication systems, and an agile release structure. They will also include new applications, including a mobile design framework, workflow engines, collaboration services, analytics/dashboarding tools, and data/content sharing tools. This sounds impressive, but the software manifestations of some of these tools leave questions about what this initiative will look like long-term. For example, the Ex Libris mobile design tool, CampusM, is interesting but not revolutionary. Nonetheless, for the company to so prominently announce this pivot is telling, and it will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Various speakers took pains to emphasize that there are no plans to retire any of their existing software. Both Summon and Voyager are receiving active development and will be supported indefinitely. With that said, the company presentations made clear that the products are falling behind, and even Alma is shrinking in importance relative to the more holistic ecosystem of learning and data management tools the vendor is bringing to market. The long-term implications for clients are unknown and may change the way that libraries interact with both Ex Libris and their parent universities – whether they’d like to change or not.
The Future of the ILS at Yale
The first point is that, no matter how many times Ex Libris asserts to the contrary, Voyager is on life-support. Even though it may hypothetically be supported for another two decades, the release of Voyager 11 has been delayed and replaced with additional dot releases for 10. Product enhancements are increasingly minor, and the implication of prolonging support for Voyager 9 is that libraries may want more time to plan an Alma migration without worrying about upgrading Voyager. The few Voyager presentations unrelated to migration came dangerously close to a 1:1 speaker/attendee ratio.
Planning for Tomorrow
In a way, staying on Voyager has put us behind the curve of ILS technology. Another way of looking at it, however, is that we’ve waited out the awkward growing phase of the Library Services Platform (a name for cloud-based library services more generally) and may have more options when we choose to migrate to a next-generation ILS, Alma or otherwise. We also will have more insight into how library technology will shape the library’s relationship with the university. Much of this conference was devoted to the support of research, data, teaching, and other areas outside of the scope of most current library systems. We will have an opportunity to build these systems right into our own roadmap.
If anything, this conference emphasized the importance of planning for tomorrow. If we want to migrate to a next-generation system without heartache, then we will need to start the long process of addressing known pain-points now. Done effectively, the transition may even be smooth. More importantly, our vendors are looking 5 to 10 years ahead to address the needs they anticipate will materialize in the future. When it comes to library technology we have to do the same. Resource allocation will need to mirror the pivot towards directly supporting research and expanding teaching support while still cutting expenses. Nonetheless, libraries like Yale cannot sacrifice their traditional focus on the collection. If we don’t, then who will?
Role of the Library in the University
ELUNA is a vendor conference, and while I’m reluctant to use the phrase “over-hyped,” it’s necessary to keep perspective when evaluating their exciting predictions for the future. With that said, the conference certainly left me feeling excited about the role of the library in the university generally. It also left me convinced that strategic planning and updated resource allocation will be critical to the long-term success of the university library in general – ourselves not excluded.