Someone once called me a library provocateur. I much prefer that to rabble-rouser. Here are a few recent thoughts meant to both provoke and rouse the rabble.
Last week I asked why consolidation in the library vendor market is such a bad thing. Librarians typically don’t like consolidation. It happens so much in the publisher arena that we fear one monolithic beast to whom all scholars feed the products of their labor. We fear that the beast will refuse to regurgitate on demand, instead requiring huge sums of money to let that wealth of content out again. Librarians and scholars are not the meek foes of the beast that the stereotypes create. We fight back with open access, institutional repositories, etc.
But this is not only a bit outside my area of expertise, it is an order of magnitude away from the library software arena. As I have argued on these virtual pages before, the multimillion-dollar software industry pales in comparison to the multibillion-dollar content industry. Remember that librarians’ favorite whipping-beast of “evil publishers”—Elsevier—recently spit out its ILS (Endeavor) after chewing on it for over six years.
Okay, time to switch metaphors. A few years ago, I wrote an article that covers the library industry. “Dismantling the Integrated Library System” (LJ, Feb. 1, 2004) was meant to point out the fact that librarians and vendors were both beginning to distinguish the traditional ILS from the new modules that were emerging on the library automation scene. My point was that this made the legacy ILS a lot like a rental car . . . a commodity, with standard functionality that made one choice barely distinguishable from another.
So, as I got to thinking about consolidation in this market, I began to wonder “Who cares?” Who cares if I can’t choose between Ford and Chevy at the Avis lot? I realize this analogy begins to break down because some of us are already driving the Ford at top speed when the rental company asks us to please step out and get in the Chevy. But I’m trying to avoid the migration issue and concentrate on the market from a broader perspective.
Marshall Breeding has an excellent vendor timeline that covers 40 years of mergers and acquisitions. From a field of over 60 vendors, we’re down to just over 20. If you think the academic market lacks choice, just take a look at the school market, which has pretty much consolidated down to one large vendor (Follett) and a handful of smaller ones.
So here’s the question: If the rallying cry against further consolidation of a commodity market is “choice!” then what are the choices we are trying to make? I realize there are at least three assumptions in that question and readers have at their disposal the disarming rhetorical device of not accepting the premise of the question.
“The Request for Proposal (RFP) hasn’t changed to reflect the similarities among integrated systems and requires retooling to uncover the qualities that distinguish one vendor from another.”
–Andrew K. Pace, from the aforementioned article
Keep in mind that we can no more fight further consolidation of this market than we can get patrons to stop using Google for research. The 20+ ILS solutions Marshall has itemized will likely narrow to a dozen or so in the next few years. So perhaps I am already rationalizing that which I feel powerless to stop. More to the point, I am questioning the impetus to make it stop at all.
Next week, Part 2: The Open Source ILS—Savior, Threat, Turning Point?
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]