Meditations from ALA
Ken Chad Executive Director, Talis
Where's the innovation?
"Where do you see the innovation coming from ?" asked Andrew Pace from North Carolina State University towards the end of Friday's "View from the Top" seminar. The question was addressed to me and the other panelists - the CEOs and chief executives in the library and information industry. Judging from the response of the main US library system vendors not from there! Roland Dietz, President and CEO of Endeavor (owned by Elsevier) had earlier, and not surprisingly singled out Google as a major challenge. So is the innovation going to come from outside - Amazon, Google even Microsoft? For me at Talis this is a fundamental question. We are putting a lot of investment in smart people and have some smart ideas too. Of course we have to keep our focus on evolving our core products and services but we won't survive long unless we innovate.
Where's the value?
The seminar provoked a lot of discussion about the "value" of libraries and how that appears not to be expressed the dollars spent with the library automation vendors. Libraries (especially public libraries) are faced with budget cuts. Money is being spent not so much on library technology but rather on other enterprise wide systems for the institution as a whole. We see this too in the UK . Money (lots of it in some cases) in universities and local authorities is going into human resources (or CRM) systems, finance packages, portals and, notably in HE on Virtual Learning environments (VLEs).
Bob Walton, the Vice President for Business and Finance at the College of Wooster and a recent purchaser of such systems wondered why it is that, in his view, compared to library systems, these other enterprise systems are:-
More expense in terms of software licencing
More expensive in ongoing maintenance
Take much longer (three times longer?) to implement
Hugely (ten times?) more expensive in terms of training
Maybe its simply because there is less competition? That market is continuing to consolidate --as will the library market. But the short answer is that's where the institution sees the value. It's true that over the last 25 years librarians and vendors have jointly done a good job in implementing and developing reliable high quality systems. Rob McGee (head of RMG consultants) remarked that maybe, as the library vendors had done such a great job, they should get into this "ERP" sector? "The entry costs are now too high" thought Vinod Chachra from VTLS.
Value on my mind
The value thing is on my mind a lot of course. On the plane over I was reading the Guardian Life section. The job ads in the IT section are just one way to see what's going on in the industry, especially in universities. I note that a major UK university is going to be spending around £25,000 a year (more if you take all costs related to employment into account) on a person to primarily work on integrating the library system with the VLE. A friend of mine recently got a similar job at another university. It's not a short term contract job either, so over five years that's a substantial sum (certainly compared to the cost of library software) being spent on just one aspect of "integration". That's just some indication of where universities see the value and, not unsurprisingly, it's about improving the overall learning environment.
So what about public libraries? Where do they really see the value (i.e. where are they going to be spending their money)? The Government (DCMS), in its recent (Nov 2004) report to Parliament on "Public Library Matters" puts some emphasis on learning too and also sees public libraries as "community hubs". So is that where the money will go? How will those goals be supported by technology?
Heritage and museums have been seen as a way to help with building cohesive communities. Phrases like a "sense of place" come to mind. So why doesn't that sector puts much value on technology? Of course there are a few major projects in the big museums and, in the UK, the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) kick started some projects on digitisation a few years ago. I got involved in some of that and saw some brilliant work being done. But overall it seems museums and archives too don't place much value on IT to support their collections. I bring this up in the context of ALA as I was having coffee with one of the "greats" in our industry -a past president of one of the most successful library vendors. She had been looking to start a new business and thought she saw a great need for better museum and archive systems in the US and the UK. "There seemed so much good stuff I could do.." She even thought of buying one of the companies. "No money in it Ken: I just couldn't see a good return". Is she right?