Future of the ILS Symposium: building our community and a business case

Posted on Fri 17 November 2006 in Libraries

I headed down to Windsor early on Tuesday morning for the Future of the ILS Symposium hosted by the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor. It was a good thing I decided to take the 12 hours of bus + train approach to getting there, as Sudbury's airport was completely shut down due to fog. Despite the fogginess of my own brain after that trip, I managed to make it out to the welcoming reception where Dr. Ross Paul, the president of the University of Windsor (and formerly the president of Laurentian University when I was but an undergrad student there), gave a warm and mercifully short welcome address. It looked like about 75 people made it to the reception, and more like 85 or 90 for the symposium the next day.

If you haven't already, I strongly suggest glancing through Peter Binkley's ultra-concise round-up of the symposium as well as Ryan Eby's summary to get the flavour of the event. I'll put the two unique pieces that I have to offer -- answers to my questions about the I18N support that Evergreen is capable of, and Beth Jefferson's impromptu and impressive demo of the wireframe mockups for BiblioCommons -- here, along with my micro-summary. Ah, and Art pointed to Amanda Etches-Johnson's blog for impressively complete notes from the sessions and discussion panel.

Art Rhyno gave an excellent opening talk on the state of the ILS that came to the conclusion that, if we as the library community want to try to address some of the problems we're facing with the ILS today using our own tools and know-how, the "barn-building" approach is a better fit for our relatively small community with specialized needs than the "bazaar" approach of more general open-source projects. The barn-building tradition of rural communities gives participants a chance to work collectively, share knowledge, and build expertise in the community as they complete project after project. I think this really set the tone: in informal discussions and panel discussions throughout the day, directors were asking "what can we do to move this forward?" and techie types like Peter Murray (despite his assistant director status) were saying "don't let tactical problems consume all of our time; raise the priority of focusing on strategic issues; and let us continue to come together via events and communication channels like code4lib, Access, and this symposium to build that community and expertise".

When asked what we wanted to get out of the day, Art suggested metrics, Eric Lease Morgan suggested a "Windsor manifesto", and I was hankering for a business case to decide whether to continue with a commercial ILS or adopt an open-source ILS like Evergreen. I think Art and I were in the same ballpark (albeit without Ty Cobb); you need metrics for a business case, and they can't simply be "we pay $XXX for annual support, and open-source is free!". You have to take into account how many staff you require for supporting and customizing the commercial ILS vs. an open-source ILS, but that's relatively easy. Measuring patron satisfaction is getting into the harder realm.

What's arguably hardest are the soft metrics for the business case: take human resources concerns. Staff might be afraid that all of the investment that they've put into learning vendor X's cataloging interface will be thrown away with a migration to a different ILS, but if enough libraries adopt that other ILS then staff actually have a more valuable, more portable skill. And if that ILS can be freely deployed by library school students eager to get some hands-on experience, and the install is incredibly easy because it's a preconfigured VMWare image, then libraries gain by being able to hire co-ops or new librarians who already come with useful skill sets. I don't see the traditional vendors satisfying this model today; I can't even tinker with our commercial ILS at home during the evening because I don't want to pay the thousands of dollars that would be required for a test version of that ILS.

So guess what ILS I've been working on creating a simple VMWare image of? If you said "Evergreen", you guessed right!

Anyways, I think most of us need to go through the exercise of building a business case. The time is right for starting serious conversations about where we're going to go in the next couple of years. It doesn't make sense that we should all have to go off and build our business cases in private; there's an awful lot of criteria that we should be able to share, even if we don't want to share numbers. Hopefully we'll continue this discussion, perhaps over at that Future of the ILS blog.