In a recently published editorial in ITAL, Services and User Context in the Era of Webscale Discovery, Mark Dehmlow writes:
A major issue that continues to confound me is the lack of fully integrated request and delivery services that many discovery systems lack. Of course, all of them implement full text linking to every online article that they can create a link to, but as the sphere of scholarly data stretches beyond just articles, library print collections and delivery services have continued to be neglected primarily because implementing those services in an intuitively integrated way, beyond the “link to your old OPAC” methodology, remains a complex task. My main concern with this deficit is that there is a significant amount of scholarly material only available in print and to focus primarily on
electronic access limits the ability of our users to perform comprehensive research and reduces access to significant resources and services that libraries provide.
The open source Umlaut software (for which I am principal developer) has been aiming to fill this gap for over 7 years now, aiming to provide an aggregated and integrated path to delivery and access cross-cutting library departments, systems and services, accross the entire library business.
To be sure, Umlaut is not a magic bullet. It’s more a platform to design the best solution you can in your actually existing infrastructure. To make the most of Umlaut requires local developer time and creativity to figure out how you can use it to tie together your various systems and services as seamlessly as possible. And a typical lack of good integration API in much of our existing (proprietary) infrastructure is an added challenge, generally increasing cost/time of developing a good solution. But Umlaut is designed to be a platform supporting local solutions to integrating delivery, access, and specific item services — giving you the common skeleton on which you can hang your custom local functionality.
I agree with Dehmlow (and others I know I’ve read essays from but can’t find now) that the ‘last mile’ of access and delivery ought to be a priority for libraries — among other reasons, because access and delivery of the mountains of content we still have that is not both online and freely available, is something that we uniquely provide to our patrons, with much less ‘competition’ than for search and discovery services. If our services aren’t good, our patrons don’t have other options (such as Google) to get (eg) printed monographs for their research (without just buying them).
And, at this stage in the development of our technological infrastructures, this is not something that a proprietary vendor-provided open-the-box-and-turn-it-on solution is going to be able to do well. Integrated access/delivery necesarily involves cross-cutting multiple pieces of local enterprise software (catalog, ILL, local identity/SSO, and that’s just the start) and policies (can you request locally held books to be delivered to your office? Does it depend on who you are and where the book is?). It requires custom local policy and integraiton logic. It’s not going to be feasible/economical for a vendor to provide one-size-fits software that actually works well in this arena. So I’m not as
At least, until your entire library enterprise infrastructure comes from one vendor and consists of an actually integrated single-business cloud platform. This does seem to be where the industry is heading and what, for instance, OCLC, Ex Libris, and Serials Solutions are trying to provide. I know some of these vendors are trying to provide integrated ‘last mile’ services taking advantage of the consolidated integrated cloud infrastructure they provide — although it’s seldom highlighted as an advantage in their marketting, perhaps because most library customers aren’t yet seeing what an advantage it is, what a stumbling point this is for our patrons — where we should be uniquely distinguishing ourselves as able to provide seamless delivery/access, we’re instead just again showing our patrons our ability to provide them with a disjointed, inefficient, frustrating, confusing, experience.
In the meantime, there’s Umlaut, to help you try to stich together a pleasant and fast delivery/access experience. It hasn’t received quite as much attention in the academic library world as I would hope — I think that’s in part because administrative decision makers have not realized the importance and benefits of improving our ‘last mile’ services, and certainly standing up an Umlaut at your institution does take some local development resources. However, in addition to my place of work, NYU and Vanderbilt have been using Umlaut for a while. Recently, I’ve heard of potential interest from several other large research university libraries. I am hoping that at some point there will be sufficient critical mass of library developers using Umlaut that we can use the platform to take the ‘last mile’ to even greater levels of convenience and integration for our users than I’ve had the resources to do with Umlaut so far.