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The Business Side of Library Automation

Submitted by Marshall Breeding on May 6, 2010 - 7:58am

This column appears in the April 2010 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter. To read more from Marshall Breeding on mobile library technology and other facets of the library automation industry, you can purchase this issue or subscribe to Smart Libraries Newsletter at http://alatechsource.metapress.com/content/p61u1704g93v/offerings.

I have a strong interest in the business side of the library automation industry. I find it fascinating to monitor and report on the latest news and events surrounding the companies and other organizations that develop and make technology products available to libraries. Libraries make significant investments in technology year after year, and it’s essential that we understand as much as we can about the organizations involved.  As a writer and analyst of the library automation industry, I try to make sure as much information as possible is available to libraries as they make decisions about how they work with these companies and organizations.

I think that a library’s approach to technology should be more about partnerships than procurements. Acquiring a new technology product isn’t necessarily just about the current snapshot of its features and functionality, but also about the alignment between the library’s strategic directions and that of its technology partners. It’s important to know as much as we can about these organizations in terms of business stability, commitment to the industry, and especially about their broad vision for library technology and a roadmap of where their products are heading.

Given my perspective that we should look to our technology providers as partners, I think that the configuration of the businesses involved with libraries is a very important thing to consider. The library automation industry today includes some companies owned and managed by their original founders. Others have involvement with external private equity or venture capital investors. One of the major players is a non-profit membership organization. The size of these companies ranges from small firms employing only a handful of individuals to global companies with hundreds of employees. Some have a business model based on software license fees while we’re now seeing several that provide services surrounding open source software. An increasing number of library-oriented tech companies favor delivering their products through software-as-a-service.  I don’t presume that any of the models are necessarily superior to the others—there are differences in the relative advantages and disadvantages of each one.

Regardless of the business model involved, it’s the business transitions that seem to affect libraries the most.  Mergers and acquisitions can wreak havoc on a library’s automation strategies. Given so many other pressing priorities, having to replace an ILS that lost out on the business front can be incredibly disruptive for library’s staff and patrons. For better or worse, the history of library automation has seen a continual flux of products that enter and exit as a result of business transitions. Libraries need to be as informed as possible so that they can anticipate changes and make wise choices when selecting organizations that will help set their technological course. While no one’s crystal ball is clear, an important part of the equation should be the available information on how a given organization fits within the overall industry.

In terms of mergers, acquisitions, and other business transitions, the library automation industry has been especially quiet since 2008, but some new rumblings have begun. In this month’s issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we take an in-depth look at the business transition at Polaris Library Systems. At Polaris, management has gained ownership from the investment firm that held the company since its founding. We’ll also examine how Ex Libris has made a few shifts involving some of its independent distributors to wholly owned subsidiaries.  Both of these changes reinforce the continuity of the companies involved, averting disruptive transitions. On the open source front, PTFS’s attempted acquisition of LibLime leaves some questions unsettled and reminds us that involvement with open source ILS products also comes with the need to understand the business issues.


Comments (1)

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