Steve Thomas: Marshall Breeding, welcome to Circulating Ideas.
Marshall Breeding: Well, thank you. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you and to your audience. So thanks for inviting me.
Steve Thomas: I know your degrees are in philosophy, psychology, history, religion. How did you start incorporating technology and get into libraries? What was your career plan?
Marshall Breeding: Well, so, life happens accidentally sometimes. I never really had a strategy in mind to work for libraries. Began in technology back when I was at Colorado State University, I had majors there in philosophy and psychology, and my work-study job happened to be in the department of psychology, and they needed me to help them with kind of data processing things. This was back in the days of punch cards. So they were using SPSS and I would have to keypunch data and that kind of thing, but a lot of the questions that they had for the data, they couldn’t really do. So they asked me to start figuring out how to program and to write some more specific kinds of analysis that they needed. So yeah, my first programming, I taught myself FORTRAN and did key punch cards and the multiple iterations of that, where you submit your deck, wait for it to run, find the one typo, start all over again. So that was my earliest exposure to computing. I had an interest in it all along. And so, as I was studying philosophy and other things, technology was what I did on the side. And eventually it turned around the other way where mostly what I enjoy doing was the technology side of things.
So how do libraries fit in? Well, I came to Vanderbilt University to pursue more higher education in philosophy and religion. My job there was at the circulation desk at the science library. And that was back in the days before automation in those libraries. So, this was the days of the keysort cards where you had to punch the cards, and use a little rod to figure out the overdues, and copy them and send out notices, very manual process.
So understand how difficult it is to operate a library without computing and automation. And on the other side of things, having to file catalog cards, and all of that, and how hard it is to find what you’re looking for when you have to go to the card catalog, look by author and subject and Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to be able to find articles. So having done all of that, it really made me appreciate how technology could benefit all of that.
As automation came to the Vanderbilt libraries, we implemented the NOTIS system beginning about 1985, and I was involved with that. First for my position in the library, but then ended up doing that halftime, then full-time, kind of moved over to the system side of things. And my initial responsibilities had to do with keeping the network of terminals running that connected all the different libraries to the central mainframe. So that gave me a networking beginning that was one of my specialties for a long time in my career, and that I continue to find pretty interesting.
I like trying to figure out how to make things work together. That’s probably another theme that’s been present in my career as we kind of think about the early days. A lot of times the common arrangement in libraries was for catalogers to catalog on OCLC terminals, the old beehive terminologies that were, so I’m going to present in libraries in the eighties and early nineties, and then you’d have the NOTIS terminal that you would go and put the local record on.
As microcomputers came into the library, I devised this way of being able to access OCLC and NOTIS on the same computer at the same time. Folks had never, ever done that before. And then developed some networking techniques to instantly transfer a record from OCLC to the NOTIS system using a set of programs that notice had four terminal to terminal communication called GTO (Generic Transfer and Overlay). So just an example of some of the early things that I did at Vanderbilt that gave me this pragmatic approach to technology in libraries.
Steve Thomas: Can you talk a little bit about the Television News Archive?
Marshall Breeding: So, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive is really an interesting institution. Beginning in 1968, they started, and this was obviously long before me, recording television news, thinking that this is an important thing. Paul Simpson, who was a local real estate executive and a news buff and conservative, thought it was important to keep news in the same way to keep newspapers and libraries would be well positioned to do that. So, he proposed an idea to the library, Paul Grisham was leading the library at that time, to do a three month experiment. So they started recording news, and it was on tape and so forth.
I could spend an hour talking about that, but fast forward to the time I became involved, the Television News Archive had this massive set of tapes, so in order to provide access to a news program, we would have to take a tape, copy it, send it to someone, maybe they could come in to the archives office and look at it. But it really needed to be transformed, and so I was asked to kind of think about the archive and think of a digital future for that.
So that would mean having the database online. It was in a way but built some new database technologies in order to be able to easily search through that interface and then to digitize the collection, in the early 2000 where digitizing video was really hard and expensive. I did a grant to the National Science Foundation as a planning grant for one year to design the technologies that could be used to address such a large collection. So I did that, came up with the right standards and formats that we would use. And then it had to integrate a lot of different separate components in order to just get from tape to digital files in a way that would be able to make it available online in some way.
So yeah, got hands-on work with hardware and software to be able to design some equipment to digitize and make available online television news programming and a couple of grants, the NEH, and then some private foundation grants, it was probably about a million dollars in funding altogether to execute that project. Technology was kind of the easy part, the hard part is copyright because the networks own that content and there was lots of legal and contract stuff to do to get permission to do anything with that content. So again, I could talk another hour about that, but pragmatic technology, hands-on involvement, and kind of thinking of the future of libraries through digital technologies.
Steve Thomas: Do you feel like your philosophy, psychology background influences the way you think about this kind of thing?
Marshall Breeding: To a certain extent and indirectly. The area of philosophy that I was studying was process philosophy, and for that, the fundamental of reality is change. So, rather than Platonic, Aristotelian philosophy where it’s a static ideal, having looked at process philosophy, it instilled in my thinking the essence of change as being part of the natural order of things. So there is a pretty indirect connection, but that’s something that comes to mind in connecting philosophy and pragmatic technology.
Steve Thomas: You’ve been at the forefront of communicating library technology issues. What do you feel is the importance of communicating this kind of information to the field in general?
Marshall Breeding: I take this pragmatic approach that I think it’s important to be able to communicate in practical ways the ways that technology can help libraries. I didn’t particularly plan to be so much of a writer as it turned out, I’ve had great opportunities my whole career.
So the thing that got things started was the Computers in Libraries conference. It started in the mid -80s, about the same time I started doing computing at Vanderbilt. So I got involved with that early and I’ve gone to everyone ever since, but Mecklermedia was the folks that were running that conference and they do conferences and publications, so as I became more involved as a speaker and involved with all of that, they asked me to take on some writing projects. I was editor in chief of Library Software Review, which was published by Meckler for awhile, later by Sage. They asked me to do a couple of book projects, so that was my start, and then lots of book chapters and other publications along the way. Library Systems Newsletter really wasn’t mine, that was existing, and then I started writing for ALA when it was Smart Libraries Newsletter, that’d been going on a year or two. About 2002 or so, they asked me to join a team of contributors to transition between Library Systems Newsletter and Smart Libraries Newsletter, and a couple of years later, they asked me to do it exclusively, so I did that for a number of years, and it happens to be that at the end of 2021, last year, a print newsletter just didn’t have a good business model and ALA decided to stop publishing it, and they actually stopped publishing some other things at the same time, as ALA was figuring out what to do and not to do. So at that juncture, I thought, well, I like writing this, this has been a good format for me. So then I launched Library Technology Newsletter as my own publication, published through Library Technology Guides, and so it’s been going for a few months now. So finding myself, not only in the role of contributor, but editor and publisher has been interesting, to go through the process of getting an ISSN, to be more responsible for the distribution and formatting and copy editing, which I’m really bad at, so it’s been interesting.
I plan to keep doing it. I think that the content of the newsletter, continuing this tradition that started with Richard Boss with the Library Systems Newsletter chronicling the events of the industry as they take place. No one else is really doing that. So I feel like it’s part of my role to keep doing that as long as I can, or until somebody else steps in and does it instead. It’s been kind of interesting, maybe even frustrating that I have been the main person that has been involved in this niche for awhile, and it’s both an opportunity because I get a platform to be able to talk about technology in lots of ways, but I also wish there was a broader group of folks that was out there doing it in the same way, and there are a lot of other areas of interest that I think younger librarians and scholars of technology are involved with and not this kind of library systems niche, so, we’ll see what happens.
Steve Thomas: And you do still write the “Systems Librarian” column for Computers in Libraries. How did that come about in the first place and what’s the importance to you to continue to write that?
Marshall Breeding: So it’s just another outlet. So I’ve been writing the “Systems Librarian” column since about 2000, I think. It was first published in Information Today, again, a publication by the company Information Today that also publishes Computers in Libraries magazine that they acquired from Mecklermedia. So after a couple of three years, they decided, well, this format belongs better in Computers in Libraries so I was happy for them to publish it there, and I agreed with them that it was a better venue for that column, a pragmatic approach to technology essays about any given topic that fits the theme of the issue or whatever I’m thinking about that month.
It’s a different style of writing, more essay like, so it’s been good for me to learn to write in that way as well. So I’ve been doing that for a long time, just every other issue now for the last couple of years. Computers in Libraries is mostly a print magazine, and how long are those kind of formats going to be viable?
And the other thing that I always point out is that I didn’t come up with the name “Systems Librarian”, and that was the column that I inherited, I think, and I’m not a librarian. I didn’t go to library school. I don’t call myself a librarian, never claimed to be, but you know, the audience for that column are systems librarians. So again, I hope that kind of content is useful to the practitioners of technology and libraries, which is often the systems librarian, so that’s the background for that.
Steve Thomas: And then did you create the libraries.org directory of libraries in the first place?
Marshall Breeding: I did. So again going back to the Mecklermedia days, I was asked to do this thing called the World Wide Web Yellow Pages. And when they asked me to do that, I said, this is kind of a terrible idea. It’s going to be obsolete before you ever publish it, but they really wanted to do it. So, we did, and they sold a lot of copies, and I enlisted other folks to help me create this yellow pages of the web at the time. This was 1995 and when it was a little bit more finite than it is now, and the section that I did myself was the libraries that were on the web.
So that was the beginning of a database of libraries that I’ve been building ever since. So, the first four or five hundred, I forget how many were in that publication and in that database that was behind building that publication, I’ve been building ever since. It’s now I’ve got over 200,000 libraries in it.
It was one of the early directory of libraries on the web. For many years, it was called lib-web-cats. A name that I always kind of hated, but there was lib-web and web-cat, a couple of other directories: one library webpages, library catalog. So mine had both. So that’s how it started. At first it was a standalone directory, then I started up Library Technology Guides. It was a section within that and that’s how it’s gone ever since. And then at some point I decided that I hated the name enough to rebrand it. And so I acquired the libraries.org domain name and used that as the name of this directory of libraries that really is the heart of a lot of my research when it comes to the technologies that libraries use because not only is it a directory of information about what libraries exist and what their websites and addresses and phone numbers and so forth are, but it also has a lot of data related to the automation systems that are used by each library, when they implemented it, what they implemented before. So, it’s a massive dataset related to the technologies that have been implemented in libraries that really help track those trends over time.
Steve Thomas: Part of communication is doing it in the right format. You’ve got texts, charts, tables, other visualizations. How do you choose the best way you want to present certain types of data?
Marshall Breeding: I think more in pictures, so what makes sense to me, I start off that way, and then the website is built out of Perl and mySQL so I’m able to integrate data in other kinds of ways. And I mostly use the Google charts and visualization API in order to be able to spin out these charts and graphs and maps and all of that.
I think it’s important to give you something to look at that just makes the data make sense quickly, and then there’ll be tables and other kinds of things that have the detailed data for those that really want to look at it in that way too. But as you say, I think folks like looking at pictures and graphs and so forth. Another thing that I do are these mergers and acquisitions charts. There’s a lot of history and then I thought about this for a long time. How do I make a visualization that makes sense and shows these big trends, and the history of these vendors and systems? That’s a much more manual process and each one is like a work of art that takes several hours, maybe multiple days to put together, but it’s a result that I like that, that is easy for me to see, and that helps others get this massive trend of consolidation in the industry, as these fragmented charts show lots and lots of companies on one end, and come down to like one company on the other end. For a long time I had this version of mergers and acquisition that was all in one page, and now I have a chart for each company. It’s a little bit more graphic, more visual. It becomes so complex that you have to kind of slice and dice it in different ways now, but it’s still a 40 year history. Each one of the visualizations goes from 1980 to present. So again, it’s a visualization that I think works.
Steve Thomas: For the Library Systems Report, how did you start to compile it in the first place?
Marshall Breeding: The Library Systems Report started off as the Library Automation Marketplace in Library Journal. There are a lot of other folks who wrote that report in the eighties and nineties, and then in 2002 Library Journal asked me to take it on. And so I to a certain extent followed the format of my predecessors, but I thought it was important to kind of start building a dataset in a consistent way, so I built a set of web forms that vendors are asked to respond to and thought about all the kind of data that I would need in order to be able to describe the industry. You know, what systems are sold in a year and counting them in very precise ways because the numbers don’t mean much unless you’re able to say, this is a contract, this is a library, what counts when you say you sold a system?
So again, starting in that date, I made my definitions of what counts and then how many people work for the company, in what positions, lots of data related to the activities of a company. So I built those forms in 2002, and I still use those same forms, again, year after year, so the vendors are used to the way to submit this, and a lot of them will do their CRM systems in a way that matched the information that I’m asking for, so that is the data that then drives the Library Systems Report even now.
So going back to some of the history of the article, I wrote it for Library Journal through 2013, I think, I don’t have it in front of me, and then Library Journal decided that that format of article didn’t fit their publication as well, but American Libraries really wanted it. So then I just took the same report and shifted publications, and that’s when it got the name Library Systems Report instead of Automation Marketplace. But the data behind it is the same, the person behind it’s the same, me. So, it’s this continuity over time that I really like doing. Each year is a snapshot, but those snapshots over time, it’s more of a film of what’s going on in the library technology industry, which I work really hard to try to help folks understand what’s happening at any given time.
Steve Thomas: Are there some vendors who are less transparent than others, that you have to do more digging to get the data that you want, or do they pretty cooperative with you at this point?
Marshall Breeding: So the interesting thing is that most of the companies involved, most of the vendors, are private for-profit vendors that have no requirement to disclose anything, but I think because their customers are libraries that expect a little bit more transparency, I find that they’ve been amazingly willing to share a lot of data that absolutely would not be shared in other industries. Now they won’t tell me their annual financial revenue in most cases, that’s probably a little bit trickier for them to be able to disclose, but the number of things they sell, how many people work for the company, those pieces of data they have been willing to share, year by year.
And so the thing is is that if they don’t, it’s pretty conspicuous, like there was one company that for a couple of years, they didn’t share data and the absence of that, I think in a major industry report was seen as negative. So then they started sharing again. It’s not that I pressured them. It’s just that their absence from this report wouldn’t serve them well, I think, because I think I’ve built a lot of trust with the vendor community that they’ll know that I will treat them fairly, if they don’t do well in sales in a certain year, I’m not going to lambaste them for it, but I’ll provide context for why the numbers came out that year.
That’s part of what I think my approach to the industry is, being able to communicate to libraries and be able to work with vendors in a way that keeps everybody’s trust that I will be objective, to the fullest extent. I’m not going to favor one vendor over another. I’m not going to favor one approach, open source over proprietary. All of these are part of this interesting mix that comprises the industry, and I value all of that and I think that helps me be objective. I hope that part of my brand in the industry is being objective and not biased and not favoring any given approach or vendor.
Steve Thomas: About how long does it take you to put the report together? Are you working on the 2023 report as soon as you put the 2022 to bed, I know you’re getting data from the vendors, but like just various things that you’re keeping track of?
Marshall Breeding: So it’s both. I’m constantly keeping track of things. So every sale that gets announced goes into my database, every press release issued gets put on my website, and then there’s constant churn of updates that go into the library’s database, this constant updating of information that I have at my disposal, but for the report itself, it’s a little bit more concentrated.
So usually in December I send the survey to the vendors so they can start thinking about putting in their data. Of course they don’t close out their sales until the end of the year so usually there’s this more hurried set of work, both on the vendors and my part to submit all of the data through those forms by early February. And then my deadline is usually mid February, so it doesn’t give me much time. So the actual compilation and writing the report happens and it kind of compressed timeframe, but it’s based on some data that I’ve been collecting all year. And then the statistics for the specific report are done in a period of a month.
Steve Thomas: And are you sometimes having to make adjustments right up to the publication date? Like if there’s a big sale that happens in time for you to get it in, but just barely, do you still try to fit it in? I guess you have your drop dead date because there’s a print edition of American Libraries.
Marshall Breeding: There’s that lead of a few weeks. So, this issue that will be published May 1st, I submitted February 20th. So that’s the lag time, but anything that happens up until the day that I turn it in, I’ll try to squeeze in, sometimes it’s a few little things and sometimes it’s a big thing, it varies by year. I try to make it as current as I can, but there will always be some things happen in March and April that just don’t make it in. They’ll show up in one of my newsletters, in other places, but just can’t get it into that annual report. I’m so fortunate to have multiple platforms to be able to communicate. So I really consider myself quite privileged to be able to have these different things at my disposal.
Steve Thomas: So how do you decide what to include in the report? How do you define what strategic, like who’s a vendor that is in and who’s the one that’s out, where do you make that line?
Marshall Breeding: So part of it is size and impact. So when ProQuest buys Ex Libris, when Clarivate buys ProQuest, these are events that impact thousands and thousands of libraries, so sure that rises to the top right away. And then the mid-level companies, Sirsi-Dynix now has gotten to be mid-level and they before were one of the largest. So, the scale of things changes over time.
I really try to make it not just about the big guys that if you look at the report, you’ll see that I’m mentioning a lot of smaller companies, they keep the industry going, the big companies are not going to address the needs of every library. Small libraries have a hard time finding affordable systems. When you take the large scale systems, they scale in price, according to the size and complexity of the library, but they don’t scale down that far. So it’s great that there are some other vendors that specialize in more affordable products for small libraries, and it’s important to say something about those.
I try to say something. About vendors outside the US, I think it’s important for us to realize the brand names that we know aren’t the same worldwide. Some of the vendors operate in all global regions, but there are a lot of vendors that operate in some regions, but not here, but they may eventually, so I think it’s important to expose the audience to this broader set of vendors, not all of which sell a lot of products in the US so Axiell, Baratz, and other things like that are ones that I closely follow, but they don’t have a lot of presence here. Civica is in that category.
Steve Thomas: But it’s possible in the future they may have, or they may get bought by somebody else, which happens occasionally, an American company might buy out somebody else.
Marshall Breeding: Yeah, you bet. So again, try to paint with this broad of a brush as I can to be not just US- focused, even though it’s published in American Libraries. I try to make it as international as I can.
Steve Thomas: Why do you feel like this kind of report is important for librarians to keep track of? Is there like an element of accountability to it?
Marshall Breeding: Library spend a good bit of their budgets on technology. Somewhere between two and 5% may go to these kinds of systems.
So I just think it’s important to give libraries as much information and context and perspective as I can, in order to help them make good decisions about what technologies to invest in, because there’s a lot at stake. I want libraries to be successful, and so much of that is by using the kinds of technologies that are well aligned with what a want to do as organizations. So, yeah, I think it’s really important to try to do that.
Steve Thomas: So every year, your report has a title like “Advancing Library Technologies in Challenging Times” was last year’s title. What is the title for 2022’s report?
Marshall Breeding: So it’s really hard to capture in just a phrase, all of the complex things that happened, but this year, the title that I proposed and that it has is “An Industry Disrupted” because there really were some really large events that stand to disrupt a lot of the existing trends, especially on the business side of things that’ve been playing out in the industry. The big acquisition of ProQuest by Clarivate is a disrupting event where libraries are now getting technology from a vendor that has a lot of other interests in higher education, information, intellectual property and so forth.
The transition from a lot of companies that were formerly owned by successive rounds of private equity now being part of public companies, that’s something to think about. A lot of companies that have been in transition for a while finding final exits for their businesses. So those are things that are different, and I think that the disruption from a lot of current trends is notable.
Steve Thomas: And there continues to be a lot of consolidation in the field as well. Do libraries gain anything from this kind of consolidation and then what kind of stuff do we lose by having so much consolidation?
Marshall Breeding: So there are two sides of the consolidations for one, let’s talk about the negative side first is that you have your eggs in fewer baskets, that you’re buying more and more technology and content and services from one vendor instead of three or four or five. So you’re dependent on these large vendors and are they really going to be able to satisfy the needs of their ever- larger and broader customers that they’re channeling content products, indexing products, technology products. Are they all going to do that well?
The other side of the coin are the things that might be more positive. One is that these large companies, by acquiring a lot of businesses, have enormous resources. They have the means to develop very large, complex, and sophisticated technologies that otherwise might not have been created, products that otherwise smaller companies wouldn’t build. You go back 20 years into the field of ILS companies, there were dozens of them, maybe each of them kind of making the same kind of product you had brand ABCD and whatever of integrated library system. So it wasn’t until some consolidation happened that kind of the new breed of systems started to emerge.
Alma is a much larger, more consolidated technology system that manages print to electronic and digital OCLC WorldShare. So these are systems of a kind different than the one that proceeded them that didn’t come out of the smaller or mid-sized ILS companies. So the resources to develop technologies that meet the ever more complex needs of libraries over time is becomes more of a possibility. The other side of it is that when these companies coalesce they talk about what synergies are they going to have between their existing products and the required products that can sometimes lead to efficiencies for libraries, where if you happen to use this company’s technology, you can manage their content in a really streamlined way, but I hope what we also keep is kind of this bright red line between technology and content, so that you’re never forced to buy content from one vendor if you use their technology product and vice versa. So I do think that there are a lot of possible efficiencies that happen as content and technology products come together in a given company, but there’s also some things to be quite careful about.
Steve Thomas: When it comes to interoperability, are library vendors generally good with that or not good with that, like having standards so that you can use this digital resource system with this ILS and things like that?
Marshall Breeding: Technically they are quite good at that. Modern systems are much more based on standards and APIs than the ones that came before. They have the means to communicate with institutional infrastructure, with the vendors and partners that libraries work with, whether it be for content for buying books, all these kinds of things. So there’s much more of a technology and information ecosystem than we’ve ever been able to do before. But then there’s also a kind of business relationship problems, the classic example is that ProQuest and EBSCO don’t always exchange data and technology in the way that we wish that they would, longstanding topic of conversation in the industry, but that’s the exception, the rule is that the content and the technology vendors work well with each other and among themselves. So, I’m talking about self-check and other kinds of equipment they’ll work with any system that you have. So, I think that we are in a good space when it comes to technical interoperability among lots of various types of products.
Steve Thomas: And hopefully that encourages them just to make their own entrance into that field better. So that somebody would go with their digital system instead of somebody else’s like, go with whatever Axis 360 instead of Overdrive, because it just works better, not because it works better with their other products.
Marshall Breeding: I think so. You have a lot of freedom to choose, even though it feels like there’s less competition than there used to be, there’s still alternatives in almost every category of product. So I don’t see any monopolies, I think that interoperability, across these different choices continues to be quite good. It’s rare that a library is going to drop one vendor for another because they couldn’t get it to work with their other products. That may happen in edge cases, but in general, I think there’s pretty good interoperability among content and technology products.
Steve Thomas: Libraries can be adverse to change sometimes, but there’s a certain point when you need to, especially with your ILS, you need to upgrade to something new, but a lot of times vendors seem to offer support quite a long time after their products have technically been sunset. How do they tend to drive a library’s interest to migrate if they’re reluctant?
Marshall Breeding: Gently. I think the lesson of the industry is that you let libraries decide when they want to change. You offer them alternatives that will serve their needs better, and if the systems really kind of prove their mettle and are available, libraries will change when they need to. There are some examples where a business pulled out their system too soon, abruptly and that does nothing but drive customers away. It creates distrust. Library systems have a long life.
Libraries are conservative institutions. They have long budget planning cycles. The average lifespan of any ILS implementation, I calculated one time a few years ago where the average was 12 years, some have been in place for more than 20. If the system is still viable, as far as the operating system it runs on, the vendor is still in business, libraries will hold onto their systems for a very long time.
It’s not a successful business strategy to say that “well, you’ve been using this system for a long time. Here’s this other one you have to change by next year!” That triggers a formal procurement. And you’re just as likely to lose them as a customer as to win them to your new system. So I think the vendors know the field. They know that they have to satisfy libraries with their old systems if they want to entice them to move to their new systems.
Steve Thomas: And not only do libraries have these long budget cycles, but they are traditionally stereotypically underfunded as well, so it’s not like we can just switch ILS is whenever we want, because that’s a big cost you got to add on there.
Marshall Breeding: Another important thing to mention is that we talked a lot about mergers and acquisitions. So the number of companies narrows much faster than the number of products. When you are a company and you acquire another one, you already have a product, you acquired another one, you own that system for a long time and again, to abruptly discontinue it is not good business. So it’s easy to think that the industry is consolidating and there are so fewer choices, but I did a study that shows that there are more choices available in the last year or two then there were, and the 2010- 11 timeframe where there were the least number of choices from the least number of vendors.
The good news is that not only is it different brands of products, but it’s different kinds of products. There are open source solutions and proprietary solutions. There are some from for-profit vendors, some from nonprofit vendors, some that are traditional integrated library systems, some that are library services platforms. There are more meaningful choices today than there have been in the past despite the consolidation of the industry.
Steve Thomas: Speaking of open source, a lot of times there’s a stigma to open-source that, “oh, well we have to have like a really techie staff to do that because it’s too hard if we do that. So we have to just keep doing this one with the big proprietary companies.” Can you talk about that perception a little bit and how true or untrue it might be?
Marshall Breeding: So it’s a misperception. I think that the license of the software has not as much to do with its appropriateness for libraries as people think. So if you’re wanting to get open source and download it and implement it yourself, yeah, that’s a lot of work, but that is not the common case. In a more likely scenario, you’re contracting with a vendor that happens to work with an open source system, and they’re going to give you comprehensive support for that system that happens to be open source. So I think that is that it’s important to acknowledge that that in most cases, you as a customer don’t have to deal with the source code of the system. It’s just the system that it is. And you have somebody to call if it breaks, somebody who’s gonna help you migrate into it, they’re going to create new versions of it that you’ll get over time as well. So the operational similarity is very close, even though it’s a different license model for the software.
There’ll be some libraries who really want to exploit the open source-ness of it, that they really want to contribute to the development of it, they’ve got the resources to do that, they have the technical staff to do that. But again, that’s more the exception than the rule. You do not have to have more technical staff to use a vendor supported open source system than if you’re buying a proprietary system from another vendor.
Steve Thomas: What are some of the features that libraries are pushing vendors to offer? What kind of services are libraries really looking for these days that’s driving their purchasing decisions?
Marshall Breeding: It depends on the type of library that it is. One thing I’m always pointing out is that the needs of each type of library are really quite different than others. Academic libraries, start off there. They spend most of their budgets on electronic resources and that’s where most of the automation needs to work. How do you efficiently manage large complex collections of electronic resources along with print? Multi-format complex collections take a certain type of system to be able to manage efficiently and then to be able to provide discovery at the article level that works well with articles, works well with books, and all of that. So the needs of academic libraries are driven by that, but increasingly they’re wanting technology to help beyond the standard bounds. They want to be able to integrate library resources and do copyright management and all of that within the courseware system, the learning management system. So a set of tools that help them do that, how we have all this content that we can manage and provide access to our website, but how do we help lecturers and teachers and students get access to all of that content, because they’re not going to come to the library’s website to do that.
Research universities really want more and more help and support for managing the research enterprise. How do you provide better exposure for that? How do you increase the success of the institution at winning grants and that kind of thing? So beyond the normal bounds, I think is what academic libraries, especially research libraries, are thinking about. Provosts and university presidents don’t care how you manage your resources, but if you can tell them, “yeah, we can really help in the classroom, we can really help with institutional research,” you may get more of their attention and may strengthen the role of the library as a strategic player in the academic campus.
On the public library side again, systems have been able to circulate books for four decades so that’s old news, but what’s the next thing? How do you help public libraries better engage with their communities? How do you get their message out? How do you market the library? How do you replicate the experience of visiting the library on the website? It’s this more customer-facing, patron-facing, whatever the right word is, that is driving the technology that public libraries are asking from their vendors now.
School libraries are tricky now. How do you provide age and reading level appropriate resources for a school or a district? How do you have a kind of efficient ways of acquiring content and all of that? So again, that the needs vary across each of the different types of libraries.
Steve Thomas: As part of the larger conversation going around school libraries now, Follett School Solutions had offered a somewhat controversial, I would say, solution to help out school libraries. Can you talk about what that was?
Marshall Breeding: Yeah. I was following that pretty closely and talking with the folks at Follett and listening to library community, and they were in a pretty tight spot. All of this new legislation that’s coming out that has to do with what books can a school library have, what topics can they cover, parents wanting to be more involved or controlling of what their children in the schools are reading, so some libraries fearing that talked to Follett and said, “yeah, can you give us some tools that will help us deal with these new demands?” And so Follett announced that they would do a couple of things to notify parents about what materials their child checks out and then put in some tools to help, I forget what the content side of it was, but to help identify materials that might be controversial.
So they announced that they were going to do that, and that caused a stir on Twitter and other places that I closely followed. It’s not that their basest Destiny was doing that. It has never done that. They were talking about maybe writing some tools that would work around the privacy framework that’s built into their solution, but there was really quite a negative fallout, and for good reason that, libraries highly value privacy, even in a student context, which is different. These are K to 12 students, so kindergartners and first and second graders get caught up in this too. What level of privacy are they entitled to? I think that Follett took the temperature of the room and decided that “this isn’t a good idea. We don’t want to be on this side of censorship.” I think that they wisely decided not to do that. They canceled those plans despite having publicly announced they were going to, so I think that’s a good thing to have a vendor change course based on the feedback they’re getting from the library community. They made that course because a small number of loud voices were telling them they needed to, but then with more time and context, they said, “no, we’re not going to do that. We do value your privacy. We have better things to do to help with schools and education than to follow this course of censorship.” So they didn’t do it. So credit to them.
Steve Thomas: Yeah. It came from requests from libraries in the first place. They thought they were responding to a genuine need, but I think once they thought it through a little bit more and that if they add those features, they’re almost facilitating those laws.
Marshall Breeding: That’s right. The initial reaction from some of the districts that approached Follett was out of fear. ” This legislation says that we can be arrested if we’re caught violating any of these policies and laws.” But once you look deeper, the laws didn’t require some of the things that they were asking for. So again, with more time and distance and perspective, a more rational approach ultimately prevailed.
Steve Thomas: Libraries really do have privacy as one of our big concerns and that’s one of the things about adding those personalization features of marketing and things like that that libraries need to be careful of.
Marshall Breeding: So the business community has an easier way to do outreach and marketing because they aggressively harvest personal data and use it and exploit it. So for a library to do marketing, to do segmented messaging, and those kinds of things, it’s really a lot harder because you’re saying that we need to do this in the absence of a lot of personally identifiable information the commercial systems are built around, but our values and our business rules are different and it makes that kind of thing actually harder.
Steve Thomas: The last thing I wanted to ask about was what kinds of emerging technologies are the most interesting to you? If you were on the Top Tech Trends panel, what kinds of things would you be talking about?
Marshall Breeding: Libraries really are not a hotbed of emerging technology. We’re more consumers of pragmatic and established technologies. So, you have to walk that line pretty carefully. The makerspaces and those kinds of things were a hot topic a few years ago. They still are, and that’s a place where libraries can try out technologies that are newer and provide their patrons exposure to them, but the way that libraries manage their operation, provide access to their collections, the more innovative you try to get there, the more trouble you get into. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and all those kinds of things can pretty quickly create biases within the library information discovery ecosystem.
I’m not so much looking out for the latest and most innovative thing that libraries can do, but how can they harness the technology that’s out there to let them do what they do in the best way. If you were to look at the hot things that are in the general technology world, we’d be all changing to Bitcoin and that kind of thing, but those kind of things come and go. Blockchain based technologies add a lot of overhead, and that’s the last thing that that libraries need. I think you have to keep an eye out for the new things that are happening in the consumer and business environment and be on the lookout for things that really might help libraries, but nine out of ten of them are going to come and go anyway. And does a library want to invest a lot of resources on a technology that just really isn’t ready for prime time and isn’t likely to work out? So it’s that more conservative way that libraries consume technology. You still want to pay attention to great usability, great use by mobile devices. You gotta be in tune with the times, but you also can’t jump ahead too far because the more you do that, the more risk you’re taking on in regard to how you’re spending your technology dollars.
Steve Thomas: Marshall, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk through the Library Systems Report, and lots of other stuff that we’ve talked about. People want to read the full report, it is available in American Libraries magazine May issue, available now, so again, thank you so much for talking to me and for letting my listeners know about all this great stuff.
Marshall Breeding: Sure, this has been a really fun conversation. Thanks for inviting me on your show.
Steve Thomas: Have a great day.