Last month, OhioLINK and Ithaka S+R co-published a vision for the future of library systems. Just as publishers rely on manuscript submission and management systems and delivery platforms for their core business processes, libraries rely on what are sometimes called “integrated library systems” to manage their collections, including budgets, acquisitions, discovery, and more. Recognizing that systems are not keeping pace with strategic directions, a working group of directors of OhioLINK member libraries decided to develop this vision to help spur along the marketplace. I led the Ithaka S+R project team that facilitated OhioLINK’s visioning process. Today, I interview Gwen Evans, OhioLINK Executive Director, about some of the elements of the OhioLINK vision and the opportunities for publishers and others to better engage with the needs of libraries and users for systems.

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First off, many Scholarly Kitchen readers may know OhioLINK more as a negotiator and licensee of scholarly content than as a provider of library systems. Tell us a little bit about OhioLINK as a library systems organization. 

OhioLINK is both a state agency under the Ohio Department of Higher Education and a membership organization, serving 118 academic libraries in 89 institutions of higher education and the State Library of Ohio. We serve over 800,000 headcount of students, faculty, and researchers. We manage a central union catalog and enable rapid print sharing among members, including the SearchOhio network of public libraries; we not only contract for access at publisher sites for our members, but we also have an electronic journal platform with over 20 million articles that ingests full text content from major publishers, as well as an ebook platform that performs the same function; we developed and support a multi-tenant Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertation repository for more than 30 institutions that recently reached its 100,000th submission milestone. We run an installation of Rosetta for digital preservation of our full text content. We also have catalogers on staff who catalog all the shared electronic resources for our members. OhioLINK plays a very large and mostly hidden role in authentication and proxy services for our members.  

Additionally, we manage a collaborative tutoring platform for participating institutions, and a customized installation of OER Commons for statewide Open Educational Resources. Our business is increasingly not restricted to the traditional library functions but highly integrated to other higher education initiatives — just like our member libraries. 

OhioLINK and its members have grown frustrated with current offerings as it becomes harder and more labor intensive to gather and analyze collection and usage data at the consortial level, ensure seamless access, deliver faster, more transparent delivery of print, and connect our resources to other systems on campuses.

So, what is the OhioLINK vision for library systems? 

The OhioLINK vision is shaped by several important observations. First, the primacy of print is past — both at most of our member libraries and for resource sharing among the collective. Libraries need systems that are digital first and appreciate the transition beyond licensing towards open access models. Second, user behaviors are increasingly shaped by commercial technology products. Libraries need systems that push towards greater seamlessness and personalization digitally, while enabling logistical optimization, transparency, and speed for tangible materials. Third, in order to serve their users well by demonstrating institutional ROI and value for collections and services, libraries need sophisticated analytics and business intelligence out of their systems.

Ultimately, the single most essential aspect of the OhioLINK vision is to recenter library systems on the user — rather than on the library or its collection. Many library systems are essentially acquisitions and inventory management platforms at their heart. OhioLINK is looking for systems that are fundamentally centered around the user’s search for information, desire to access it, and efforts to utilize it effectively — regardless of their institutional affiliation and regardless of information ownership. Even business intelligence should serve to assess and deliver better value for our users and thus the institution. We understand that this is a radical proposition that will entail re-architecting substantial elements of existing systems — or perhaps serve as an opportunity to design interconnected new library applications. 

Why did OhioLINK decide to issue a white paper rather than an RFP? 

The decision to issue an OhioLINK white paper instead of an RFP was a strategic one, as was to compose the working group at the dean and director level. The paper reflects the ennui with which OhioLINK’s 118 library deans and directors approached the prospect of an RFP and possible ILS migration both at the network and the local level. This lack of enthusiasm emanated from a diverse set of libraries — libraries in R1 institutions, liberal arts colleges, two year and technical colleges, special focus institutions, etc. From the reaction to the white paper from outside OhioLINK at that strategic level, OhioLINK does not think we are outliers.

One of our working group’s biggest concerns has been whether the marketplace is competitive enough to ensure continued innovation. There has been substantial consolidation among the systems vendors that serve academic and research libraries in recent years, most recently with Ex Libris (which is owned by ProQuest) purchasing Innovative. There are other major players, like OCLC and SirsiDynix, but it remains to be seen how each will compete in the marketplace over time. And, while there are several open source options, including FOLIO which importantly has had support from EBSCO, at this point they have minimal adoption. One of the goals of the OhioLINK visioning exercise was to enable all interested parties to have a clear sense of how to position a strong competitive offering; and to attract interest from parties that might not be thinking about our market right now. 

Why should this matter for the scientific publishing sector? 

While we can already report some tentative interest from existing library systems vendors to embracing some parts of the OhioLINK vision, it is probably worth dwelling on other opportunities for resulting partnerships. For example, we note the substantial interest in workflow, platform, and identity issues from the scholarly publishing community, including from Elsevier, Clarivate, Digital Science, and Wiley. Is there a scenario in which one or more of these providers might be interested in building out — for example, from Mendeley or Kopernio — some of the user centric elements of this vision? What entity is best placed to build a model that starts with an author or group of authors and the potential readers of a digital resource (preprint, article, book, data set, etc.), then moves through an enhancement lifecycle both on campus and off for discovery, curation, access, assessment of reach and impact (however defined), and preservation? While some of these companies arguably have a better understanding of researcher workflow than many libraries do, our expectation would be that they would engage with the library sector to understand the role that libraries play in the information production to consumption chain and associated activities that are now out of scope for their particular business model. For example:

  • Libraries, unwittingly or not, are already implicated because of Kopernio, Mendeley, etc. There is an enormous amount of business intelligence of vital concern to libraries in those services but it is inaccessible to us. Only those companies know how many individual users on a campus or in a geographical area are already customers. Engaging with libraries to explore or build out services targeted to end users but with a more nuanced integration of library content and services that include print, for example, may serve everyone well. Thinking about them as products for libraries, as well as products for end users may deliver more ROI for libraries and therefore more value-add from a particular publisher.
  • The workflows for managing open access (OA) funding under various models, for example Wiley’s backend administration for Projekt Deal, OhioLINK, and others, are being built out now. From both the consortial and institutional point of view, standardization and integration will benefit administration of OA deals from multiple sources. Libraries are all too familiar with the strains of managing multiple different flavors of any service from multiple vendors, and systems that can integrate disparate sources of OA funding on campus, offer clear options at the researcher end for funding and mandates, allow for integrated analysis of use and impact, and last but not at all least provide scalable OA management for library and higher education staff may be the only way to make widespread OA support possible.

Why should this matter for the humanities and social sciences publishing sector? 

Our working group maintained that one of the biggest constraints in the continued relevance of the print and monographic literature was systems that were optimized for previous generations of readers. 

  • For social scientists and humanities, there are different research or support funding mechanisms, organization of collaboration or production, a different publication workflow, and a different library-directed acquisition, curation and management of scholarly consumption. The longer the form, the more complex the metadata might need to be for discovery purposes in Google search. Search Engine Optimization for books, for example, must compete with Amazon’s dominance.  Balancing the preference for print in specific contexts with the affordances of digital material and seamlessly providing access to the right format delivered to the right place should be a given.
  • The monographic disciplines, university presses in particular, are struggling to stay viable as market trends increasingly make revenue streams precarious. Libraries need help in responsibly and efficiently acquiring more books in whatever format with pricing that is acceptable for different kinds of institutions. This is especially true at the consortial level, and like it or not, the collective collection, whether print or consortial ebook packages, will become increasingly dominant over time for reasons of budget, space, and user preference. It benefits everyone in the acquisition chain to be able to analyze what is both sustainable and possible in terms of business intelligence. Libraries are interested in open access monographic models, but crowdsourcing funding will require systems that can match or aggregate institutional curricular and research models to ensure ROI for specific money spent on a specific campus. 

So do you see scholarly publishers having the main new opportunity in the library systems category? Or are there other parties that might be interested in pursuing the OhioLINK vision? 

Actually, we made a statement that our business was a higher education business. What opportunities might be available with other campus players like Canvas or other course management systems, analytics companies, or the companies that support integrated information and technologies on campus such as Oracle and Microsoft? What about Dropbox, Workday, or customer relationship management software like Interactive Intelligence’s PureCloud Engage? In 2010, Jeff Nelson, then an enterprising bookstore manager at OhioLINK member Bowling Green State University, and now the Vice President of Industry Collaboration and Development, worked with Verba Compare, textbook price comparison software meant for student users, to integrate library and OhioLINK holdings into the comparison tool so that students could borrow no-cost print or access library or OhioLINK ebooks instead of buying them. Textbook affordability as a campus issue is now hotter than ever, and we would love to see some collaborations and enhancements in campus bookstore systems that don’t require students to know to go to the library “silo” and check for no-cost book options. The non-profit higher education technology consortium Unizin is doing some really interesting things with integrating their various services — could they potentially integrate library holdings as content choices into their Engage eTextbook platform, for example, and/or develop data analytics for library materials as part of their analyses of student success? Campuses, not just libraries, should be aware of these possibilities and require these enhancements from any vendors as a matter of course. 

It’s notable that OhioLINK is working to transform the market for a given product category, rather than responding to the initiatives of vendors and publishers. Is this a new pattern we should watch out for? Or do you see it as being a long-standing part of OhioLINK’s DNA?

OhioLINK has a very long history of innovation and partnerships, both in developing technology platforms and new business models. The OhioLINK RFP for a patron-initiated print lending resulted in Innovative, Inc. developing their commercial product INN-REACH, and many members maintain that issuing the OhioLINK RFP in 2008 for a discovery layer defined many of the expectations for the existing offerings. Our members have high expectations, a strong service ethic, entrepreneurial spirits, and a very, very strong culture of collaboration to meet the needs of a variety of library and institutional types. I would say it’s definitely part of OhioLINK’s DNA. 

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


2 Thoughts on "“Recenter Library Systems on the User”: An Interview with OhioLINK’s Gwen Evans"

It was great to learn from this post about some of the innovative directions OhioLINK is pursuing or at least thinking about. While library systems have been “recentering” on the user for at least three decades now, that “center” continues to shift as the changing environment continues to shift expectations.

Particularly in light of the expectation of a looming shift to OA, library platforms are going to *necessarily* undergo a transformation that is analogous to the transformation that has been happening in our physical facilities over the last couple decades. The value proposition of our buildings has gone from “come here because we have all the content” to “come here because it’s the best place to learn”. Similarly, as more and more academic content is published OA, our platforms need to shift from “use our tools because we have all the content” to “use our tools because we provide the best user experience”. We have a long way to go before we can say that, but we can get there — some of the suggested directions in this post are great places to start.

I echo Mr. Goddard’s observation that libraries have re-centering on users for a long time. In my own context, a parallel challenge is to convince real users (professors and students) that it is worth their time to learn how to use tools (existing ones or imagined better ones) to get to the highest quality information for their particular need.

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