Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Twiddly Bits

Light blogging here...the Dublin-based IAGers have been attending the OCLC Members' Council. I think we all might have things we want to post about based on the meeting.

Yesterday morning, Robin Murray gave a good presentation on library systems. Robin is the CEO of Fretwell-Downing Informatics which was acquired by OCLC PICA recently. He provided a written version of his presentation that would be of interest to many, I think, so I'll see if we can provide a digital version. I could reproduce the text but he had some informative graphics that I can't although these will eventually be available on the OCLC web site.

The talk was titled "Library Systems: Synthesize, Specialize, Moblilize" and the essential point was that the business and service model of libraries is evolving from acquiring, cataloging and circulating physical collections to synthesizing, specializing and mobilizing web-based services.

Here's some points from his conclusion:

"Library systems have traditionally been synonymous with the ILS. The classical ILS is increasingly managed and focused on a legacy business process. While the ILS will remain a critical component in the management of a library service, its functions will gradually become peripheral to the core of library service.

While the 'new library model' is an evolution of the traditional model, the IT systems required to support it are clearly not an evolutionary development of the ILS. At some point there will be a critical jump in perception as to what is the core system supporting the library.
-Libraries need to keep aware of new services that can be synthesized into the offering.
-Libraries need to be ready to outsource internal services to network service providers who can realize enormous economies of scale.
Network service providers have to be looking for opportunities to provide new 'synthesizable services.'
- Library systems providers have to ensure 'plug-and-play compatibility with network services.

Above all, to maximize the value of our library services the industry needs to be far more externally focused."

And my favorite quote from Robin's talk was in his comment on something Pat Sommers, the CEO of SirsiDynix, said in a presentation--about the ILS-- to delegates on Sunday evening. Pat was responding, if I recall correctly, to a question from the floor about why ILS vendors don't innovate more quickly. Pat remarked that his company spends $10 million a year tweaking their systems to respond to requests from customers, and that left scant time and resources to make big changes. Robin rephrased this to describe all that activity as "building twiddly bits."

I was probably not the only OCLC person in the audience that thought we, OCLC, also spend a lot of time and resources building twiddly bits. Enhancements to this product and that service. Interface design changes. And so on. It is a Scylla and Charybdis that any product-and-service providing company must navigate between,


George said...

One of the most points that Lorcan Dempsey made in his presentation that preceded Robin's was that the MARC record and the work that goes into it becomes more important as we develop tools that let us make the data work harder. As we can develop these tools that mine deeper in the records, the quality of the data will allow us to provide better results to users.

This was actually one of the most optimistic, upbeat presentations on the future of libraries and the work that we do that I've heard in years (not including the feel good schlock we get from non-librarians who speak at conferences about how they loved libraries when they were six years old!)

Anonymous said...

As an ex-software developer, now librarian, I can see the "twiddly bits" problem from both sides. There's a perception that high tech moves rapidly -- and it does -- but what many people outside the industry don't seem to realize is that a large software system, like our ILS's, are as ponderous as any other large thing.

Many, many years ago, I worked for a company that had to make a decision on a new technology. We had plenty of work to do on the twiddly bits. Using the new tech would have meant a huge amount of work retooling our product, maybe even a complete rewrite. It would take, maybe, years. It was risky, and the decision makers decided not to go with it. The new tech was something called a Graphical User Interface. You won't have heard of the company, they're long gone.

The thing is, while new tech is popping up all around us, the lead time to bring it to market can be very long. Tech companies have to look very far out, choose an untried technology, then put tremendous resources into their guess, and hope they guessed right. It isn't easy, and it's made harder if you have an established client base that relies on your product and needs for you to keep it working.

It's dangerous to ignore the twiddly bits. You risk losing the customers that fund your efforts, including R&D. In my current role as librarian/user, it's the twiddly bits that make me nuts on a daily basis. It's also dangerous to focus only on the twiddly bits. The Next Big Thing may suck your customer base away, if you don't try to keep up. It's a hugely difficult balancing act, and as the quote from Pat Sommers shows, an expensive one.

Anonymous said...

As a marketing and PR Coordinator for a company called Userful I closely follow a number of library related blogs, listserves, RSS feeds, etc. As an ex-high school teacher I find this part of my work most enjoyable as I share a lot of the same values and concerns of Librarians. With experience in IT support I also understand the challenges libraries face in moving into the forefront of providing free information technologies to a so very demanding public with limited budgets and limited practical technology experience and support. A big part of the problem as I see it is that people still really don't understand the tools they use, nor do vendors understand this or the real needs of the people they wish to sell those tools too. What if there was a way of providing technology by starting over? There are companies, like mine, that have already done this. Part of the problem is the mindset that providing and support technology is always to be in fire-fighting mode. Once one expresses that this is not desirable then one can begin to see how to move forward, if only by believing that solutions are possible now and then envisioning what they should look like.

In response to the whole of "Twiddlly Bits" and the quoted pieces below I invite those interested to take a look a company, Userful, and a product, DiscoverStation, that already exists and is working directly with libraires, and providing services in just the way that schools of thought such as Library 2.0 demand.

-Libraries need to be ready to outsource internal services to network service providers who can realize enormous economies of scale.

We do this.

Network service providers have to be looking for opportunities to provide new 'synthesizable services.'

We do this.

- Library systems providers have to ensure 'plug-and-play compatibility with network services.

We do this.

Alice said...

Right now you are probably clutching your chest, wondering what snarky IAG administrator is doing to moderate Members Council delegate Bruce Newell's comments.

Never fear, I am simply complying with Bruce's own wishes. The only way to modify comments in blogger is to delete and repost. So here is Bruce Newell's post, as intended:

Bruce Newell said...
I took from Robin's presentation the message that we are living during a sea change. The emphasis is changing from library-focus to user-focus. Our tools are changing from one-size-fits-all to what a really smart guy named Migel calls a "subscription-like-service".

Library service and content appears to each user as designed for me, and me alone. And of course, this scales, using just-now emerging tools that give us a hint at the future. Internet 2 meets the library--that was Robin's talk.

And a whole bunch of people at Member's Council (I was fortunate enough to be there) got it all at once. There was quite a buzz for the rest of the meeting. Change is in the air, and, like this blog's title, it is (mostly) all good.