Don’t Touch That Dial: Standardizing a Consortial Library System

Pulling in separate directions can be harmful.
“Plurality must never be posited without necessity.”
 — William of Ockham

The current generation of integrated library systems and discovery layers are so different than their predecessors, when it comes to the institutional structures responsible for implementing and maintaining them, the very characteristics that once made such projects a success may now well ensure their failure. Aside from the newfound ways in which shared systems no longer need to be configured separately, both the rapid development and consequential rampant imperfections of these products are challenging the pace of our organizational growth to keep up with that of technological innovations. Times change, and we must change with them.

The University of Wisconsin System is comprised of thirteen campuses, including two doctoral granting research universities, plus another thirteen two-year colleges. There are significant discrepancies between them, not just in size, but also relative funding levels, available library resources, and even the faculty status of librarians. Compared to other state and regional associations, we have minimal support for a centralized office. Aside from a strong interlibrary loan network within member libraries, there is no shared material collection development budget, and only a handful of electronic resources are consortially licensed.

Especially compared to neighboring Minnesota, higher education in Wisconsin is openly disdained by our government, despite its progressive history. The backdrop of budget cuts, furloughs, freezes, and turnover from early retirements needs to be taken into account with projects where an environment of camaraderie and solidarity is vital.

After a lengthy procurement process, followed by an even longer implementation timeline involving much blood, sweat, and tears, the UW libraries migrated to Alma (ILS) and Primo (discovery layer) in May of 2015. All bibliographic records, in what had been separate Voyager catalogs, were loaded into a single network zone. Governance committees were established to set rules and recommendations regarding the best choices for staff workflow and patron usability.

  • A cataloging policy was created with an emphasis on following standards and avoiding duplication.
  • Inroads were also made simplifying circulation policies by updating patron groups’ checkout durations, renewal limits, and fine structures to be more consistent.
  • Egalitarian interlibrary lending practices, namely allowing for books to be used by the entire UW community, have been slowly spreading as well.
  • Beyond local branding, the look, feel, and functionality of Primo sites remain somewhat different, depending on the apparently capricious preferences of individual campuses.

Most of us agree on the theoretical benefits to promoting uniform borrowing policies, consistent cataloging practices, and comparable end user interfaces. Unfortunately, far fewer are willing to relinquish a final say over local control. “You’re not the boss of me” is perhaps the best way to describe the sentiment that some librarians have about breaking ranks with our standardization efforts. The consensus in many discussions seems to be that everyone should do the same thing, but only as long as it’s how we already do it.

Several recommendations remain the equivalent of an unfunded and unenforceable mandate, calling in to question the purpose for the committees’ existence. And so we have fourteen differently-configured Alma and Primo instances within our purported one library system. Besides the resulting uneven experience this creates for librarians and users alike, there is no shortage of support issues due to these discrepancies. This is a case of how good intentions, when combined with a perfectionist disposition and believing you know best how to do things differently from the group, can bring down a system.

It is possible for a library building to modify their Internet connection so that the Google banner image is rendered slightly smaller, or otherwise alter the styling of external sites. Presumably, no libraries have thought to do this. Yet many of my colleagues’ kneejerk reactions to viewing a licensed library search engine (built on far more user and usability studies than we’ve done), out of the box with its default configuration, show a desire to put their mark on it by calling for adjustments to be made—not based on any particular evidence other than their design intuition or solely because “that’s not how it used to work.”

Unnecessary customizations are not only a waste of time, they may actually degrade the user experience and contribute to systemic failures. The Peter principle describes how a worker who performs adequately is continually promoted until they are no longer good at their job. Librarians seem to have an analogous penchant for tinkering with things until they break, not unlike a toddler completely dismantling a vacuum cleaner on the living room floor.

Alma and Primo are on what, in the library world at least, can be called an agile release cycle. Quarterly updates continually bring bug fixes and new features, while invariably introducing additional problems. Vendor support with these defects has been uneven. One time, our Google Scholar linking mechanism was rendered inoperative for several weeks. The last update accidentally changed the replacement cost entry for edited records to zero dollars. Major revisions to the Primo and Alma interfaces are also imminent.

Properly prioritizing limited development resources, given this situation, is crucial. Sweating the small stuff often isn’t worth it, as even seemingly low-hanging fruit can cause real headaches. We recently resolved an errant trailing space issue, for example, but only after spending a substantial number of hours on it.

Undermining these efforts to focus our attention on important matters is the needless strife and wastefulness caused by separatist thinking. When China tried to modernize, one of the problems was farmers tearing up new railroad tracks that crossed their land because it didn’t benefit them. Such provincial mentalities are counterproductive, and should not exist in a consortial environment. We have to jettison this mindset that politely “agreeing to disagree” and having each campus refusing to surrender sovereignty over every little configuration option is somehow preferable to taking proper advantage of our common mission and infrastructure.

These issues elicit a lot of crocodile tears, hyperbole, and toxic brinkmanship from those trying to get their way. It’s pointless bickering. We can instead focus only on what’s demonstrably best to alter, making warranted changes at the network level, and leaving the rest alone. To avoid the worst case scenario of a lack of cooperation within a library system, the proactive enactment of best practices and decisive enforcement of consortia-wide settings helps minimize technical errors and redundant efforts; avoids the paradox of choice amongst those with disparate customization philosophies; eliminates unsustainable variations merely based on arbitrary precedents or skeuomorphic design; and ensures our collective installations are as usable, future-proof, and efficiently run as possible, rather than an illustration of how “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.