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Library systems of the future

Edit: The presentation I gave to accompany this post is available on Slideshare

I was asked by Ben Showers of the JISC to write a ‘challenging and provocative vision’ for library management systems, for a joint JISC / SCONUL workshop. I was given a free hand with this - the only parameters were that the piece should be non more than a side of A4 paper in length, and that it should use 2020 as its target year for prediction. I think I ignored both of these restrictions, but I had fun and it did provoke some discussion….

Dramatis personae:

  • Alby, a young student & researcher in full time employment
  • Charlotte, a venerable librarian
  • Bob, Dan and Eva, semi-autonomous software agents

Following the unprecedented Conservative ‘walk-over’ election victory of 2015 and the subsequent consolidation in 2019, the landscape of higher-education in the UK is all but unrecognisable. The free market dominates the buying and selling of courses, and the provisioning of learning and research resources has, in the end, simply had to follow suit. Copyright has mostly been ‘fixed’ in the virtual world through a combination of an adjustment to more modest expectations of compensation for copyright holders, workable systems to control distribution, and global agreements allowing extradition and prosecution.

The student researcher (1)

Alby works, full time, as a software engineer. As part of his job, he is given some time to pursue research topics of interest to him and to his employer. His firm gives him a small budget to support this. In the evenings he studies part-time for the new Masters++ qualification. He is enrolled at three universities, visiting one of the these - the local George Osbourne University (GOU) - every Thursday evening. He finances all of this himself.

On Monday evening, when Alby gets home, he goes straight to his laptop and works through all the notes he has dictated into his smart phone during the day. He has become interested in the evolution of library systems and wants to register this interest on the Research Interest Grid (RIG). While recording notes into his phone, he has also published some of these into StreamingConscious, the latest social network to become popular with researchers, and has gained a few new connections from people with aligned interests, including a promising one with a subject librarian at GOU.

Alby then invokes his Foraging Agent, ‘Bob’. A license for Bob was given to him by a publisher, Coyote, which specialises in resources for software engineers, in return for sending him a steady stream of advertisements. Alby adopted Bob because he liked its interface, but he suspects it has in-built biases towards certain, commercial information sources. He believes that he compensates for this by carefully defining his research questions in Research Question Format (RQF) and filtering the results.

Bob runs constantly on Alby’s ‘slice’ - a portion of Personal Cloud (PC) infrastructure provided by a well-known supermarket chain. After a series of questions and answers, Bob is armed with three carefully RQF research questions, and a set of parameters, such as when to report back, and how much of Alby’s research budget to spend on a single transaction before asking him for approval. Bob has learned through observation how Alby likes to work. It knows him in a sense, enough to represent his interests when dealing with other agents. Alby then instructs Bob to begin searching, negotiating and shopping for answers, leads and recommendations, while he gets on with some reading. Alby has grown to trust Bob.

The Librarian

Charlotte is a subject librarian with many years’ experience (she tried to retire 3 year ago but has been forced to come back to work), specialising in software & systems engineering, and currently working for George Osbourne University. On Tuesday morning she checks the reports from her Listening Agents over breakfast. She controls several agents running on the library’s slice of the GOU cloud.

Bob, an agent representing someone called Alby has made contact, coincidentally, with two of her agents - one which represents GOU and which reports to her, and her own personal agent, Eva. Only yesterday, BirdSong (a social network monitoring agent) had suggested that she connect with @alby on StreamingConscious based on their mutual interest in the history of LMS systems. Charlotte’s interest in LMS systems is partly fuelled by nostalgia - she has been working with such systems for more than thirty years.

She sees that Dan, the GOU agent, has supplied Bob with material to which Alby is automatically entitled, and has automatically reserved two books from the local GOU collection for him. In so doing, Dan recommends to Charlotte the purchase of a newer edition of one of these textbooks.

Dan has also made a number of offers to Bob of more restricted material which can be supplied at a cost, including 3 inter-library-loans. Bob has accepted one of these paid-for items on Alby’s behalf and Charlotte is happy to see that it has also observed the protocol of explaining why it has not accepted the others. In one case, she sees that Bob was successful in bidding on eBay for a second-hand copy of a book which Dan had offered as an ILL. Bob has also made an offer to Dan for ownership of the book, once Alby has finished with it, in return for one free ILL. Dan needs Charlotte to approve this. However, she declines, knowing the book to be flawed, despite its 4 star popularity rating. Dan registers this decision, quietly blacklists the book against any future recommendation, and reports this decision to Bob.

Dan notes that Bob has also registered a second book on Alby’s personal virtual book-shelf and indicated a willingness to make this available to the GOU circulation agent for loan to other GOU students as part of the ‘Support Your Library’ protocol, in return for one free ILL token. Charlotte accepts this offer.

Charlotte instructs Dan to negotiate with Bob to arrange a meeting over coffee for Alby and herself. She does this partly because Eva has separately registered Alby’s interest on the RIG and it seems worthwhile meeting with Alby in person to discuss his research. She decides to investigate a couple of other suggestions thrown up by Dan in the meantime. She also notes that Dan has suggested a couple of other contacts to Bob - other people who are enrolled at GOU and whom Alby may wish to befriend on StreamingConscious - - as part of a strategy to reinforce the local GOU social network of students and researchers.

The student researcher (2)

Later on Tuesday morning, Alby wakes to find an interesting report from Bob waiting for him. He discovers he is the proud owner of a new book on LMS system design and is pleased to note that it has a four star rating - one star above the threshold he has set in Bob’s book-buying decision parameters.

Bob has, inevitably, also turned up a few offers of information and resources from the ‘invisible market’. He knows that if you have the right connections, you can get just about any book in ePub5 format. The penalties for possession of an illegally obtained, copyright resource are stiff however. Although it is not illegal, he is also a little wary of using Turpin, the global federation of Open Access papers and other resources, as he has been culturally conditioned to be suspicious of things which appear to be ‘free’.

He also finds a tentative appointment in his diary for coffee with @charlotte, the subject librarian with whom he connected yesterday on StreamingConscious. As he works close by the university, he accepts the appointment. He can pick up his reservations while he’s there.

Face to face, later that morning

Alby finally puts his pen down, and takes a swig of his coffee. He has been writing furiously for half an hour. Charlotte has just taken him on a whirlwind tour of the evolution of the LMS.

She has described how the library has learned, over the last decade, that client relationship management (CRM) is crucial to its mission. Adjusting to the new realities of social networking and global search, the LMS has become a distributed and loosely-coupled collection of processes, all designed to help connect people with resources and with each other.

Alby learns how the rapid introduction of semi-autonomous software agents into research practice took many by surprise. Although the concepts were not new, and much of the technology existed in one form or another, it took the confluence of a number of factors to finally introduce agent-mediated research:

  • the cultural acceptance of an ‘always online’ culture brought about through the ubiquity of smart phones, the prevalence of global social networks and move from the desktop to cloud-based processes
  • the utter complexity of negotiating through ‘permission stacks’ to determine whether or not an individual has the rights to access a given resource in a given context
  • the complexity of relationships between individuals and institutions

Charlotte explains how, from having been a destination for local researchers, the LMS has dissolved into the fabric of a vast, distributed network of research interests, library collections, national, private and open resources.

While the curation of local collections remains important, the facilitation of networking, and the handling of transactions, both social and financial, has taken over as the focus of the LMS. She points out that where once it was quite easy to point to the LMS - at least as a line in a budget sheet - it has become somewhat nebulous on recent years. The LMS has become the coffee-shop of cyberspace, where software agents meet to compare notes, register interests, make deals….

Taking a sip of her peppermint tea, Charlotte sighs as she remembers how simple it all once was.



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