Posted by guestblogger on September 20th, 2010
About this Guest Post
Ken Chad is CEO of Ken Chad Consulting which has the mission of helping to ‘make libraries more effective’ through better and more imaginative use of technology. His consulting work has been wide ranging. He has worked with academic and public libraries and with various government and sector organisations in the UK and internationally. His published articles and conference contributions have focused on the strategic impact on libraries of technology driven change. Ken can be contacted at Ken@kenchadconsulting.com.
The library technology market: a case for an open ‘conversation’
Over the years a number of resources including books, articles and websites have been available to help libraries get the best from the opportunities offered by technology. For example back in the 1980s Juliet Leeves published ‘Library Systems: a buyer’s guide’. Each April, in Library Journal, Marshall Breeding publishes a review of the library automation marketplace. His ‘Library Technology Guides’ website is also an invaluable resource despite its US bias. In the UK the ‘eGovernment Register’, maintained by the London Borough of Brent, published a listing of local authority systems (including some library related ones) on their (now defunct) website. UCISA does a similar job for Higher Education (HE) through its ‘Corporate Information System’ (CIS) annual survey.
However all these resources are ‘closed’ to some degree. They are also very incomplete as far as library technology is concerned. The eGovernment register ceased in June this year and passed the baton to the SOCITM application software index. However this is currently even more closed with very restricted access and editing rights. Marshall Breeding says that he is ‘solely responsible for all content’ on the Library Technology Guides web site ‘and for any errors it may contain’.
It seemed to me that it would be possible create something more comprehensive, accurate and useful by taking a very open and inclusive approach: something that harnessed the capabilities and goodwill of the library community. I had read David Weinberger’s marketing book ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto‘ some years ago and I think his notion back in 1999 that ‘markets are ‘conversations’ rings true more than a decade later. ‘Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter’. Perhaps then we could enhance the quality of the technology ‘conversation’ in the library domain. Maybe being ‘smarter’ could take, at least some of, the cost and ‘friction’ out of the market and make it easier for everyone. Moreover it seemed to me everyone could benefit from this open and inclusive approach, not least in having the content freely available for anyone to re-use.
I started with simple lists of who had what Library Management System (LMS – or Integrated Library System (ILS) in American parlance). The truth was that working in the library software business for over 20 years I actually knew most of it by heart! My job was made easier, for HE at least, because I had been closely involved in the much cited JISC/SCONUL ‘LMS study’, which is a great source for data and analysis. During the work on the study vendors were very open and helpful about giving me their customer lists and information about their business and strategies. SCONUL were enthusiastic about getting more value out of the study by putting it online in a more interactive format than a PDF. I persuaded them that a wiki was a simple, inexpensive and effective tool to help in that goal. It would also allow the community itself to keep the information and analysis current. A further possibility was to expand on the original study’s coverage which was very focussed on the LMS. The Higher Education Library Technology wiki was born.
The underlying wiki technology (Wikispaces) is very easy and inexpensive to set up and maintain and we soon had a good part of the SCONUL LMS study uploaded. We chose Wikispaces too because, after some serious evaluation, we judged it easier to maintain and edit that alternatives such a MediaWiki (the platform for Wikipedia). We knew the proportion of active contributions would be small. That is a fact of ‘Web 2.0’ life. I knew about Jacob Nielsen’s ‘90-9-1 Rule’ for large scale online communities and social networks. He argues 90% of users are ‘lurkers’, 9% of users contribute intermittently and only 1% of users are heavy contributors. With this in mind we didn’t want to make the task of contributors harder than absolutely necessary. It was uncertain if our small-scale community would fare worse in terms of contributors. In fact it’s been about the same but with a higher proportion of ‘intermittent’ contributors. I also had in my mind a comment, I believe attributed to one of the founders of Flickr, to the effect that an important factor in building critical mass and success was putting tremendous effort early on to encourage and support their contributors. We believe that’s important and our role in Ken Chad Consulting as ‘wikimaster’ is all about enabling things and keeping up the momentum. It’s most certainly not about control. We haven’t had a single case of spamming or abuse. (Though of course we have tools to deal with them). We also know that sometimes it takes time for resources to get embedded in the community’s consciousness. The wikimaster has an important sustaining role.
As well as a Library Technology wiki for HE we’ve created one for local government public libraries. Clearly there is overlap but there are significant differences too. For example HELibTech has much more emphasis on the management of e-resources. We felt that the audiences would differ significantly and this has been the case. This leads me into another point. We have an inclusive view of our audience. We welcome contributions from librarians, and vendors-and indeed anyone with an interest. Just sign up and get started.
Finally how valuable are these wikis to the communities they are designed to serve? Feedback so far has been good. For example when SCONUL held a ‘community event’ about its recent study into the feasibility and business case for shared services they created an entry on HELibTech. We saw a significant rise in traffic, some of which has been sustained. Clearly though with communities based around a market of around 180-200 institutions in UK HE and public libraries respectively, we are not expecting a huge audience. Both wikis have a small but growing number of ‘members’ and, as the community of ‘lurkers’ grows, so does the number of contributors. Finally an important factor in determining value is to realise this is an equation. Using modern tools we can deliver valuable services effectively and cheaply to relatively small communities. All the time Web 2.0 tools are getting better and (mostly) less expensive. Costs are often less a factor of the purchase price than the cost of maintaining the service. Enabling the community to keep the content up-to-date is much less expensive than a printed annual guide, survey or ‘closed’ website that incurs heavy editorial and production costs. We think it’s more accurate too. Feel free to join in the ‘conversation’….