Understanding the impact of open and distributed computing

This post is the second post for the LITA Top Technology Trends Panel at ALA Midwinter.
Trend – Understanding the impact of open and distributed computing on libraries and information services

I identified this trend as ‘open and distributed’ because it appears that there is a mix of trends circling around cloud computing, open source software, e-science, digital humanities, and open data that all point to a shift in how libraries define and provide services. Although still in it’s early stages, distributed computing models have already seen widespread adoption in libraries and are positioning our organizations to change how we approach service development and management, how we engage with our patrons, and how we allocate our resources. These trends are examples of the new types of services that libraries are being call on to support including collaboration, IT enhanced sharing and socialization, research and IT development.

Although a key challenge to delivering on these needs is finding ways to combine open and cloud-based systems, there are numerous opportunities for organizations to benefit from the work of others, to develop and distribute innovative IT services, and to enable the library to change how they allocate resources for these services. Some of what libraries are doing in this area does not apply to everyone but I wanted to focus on three ‘right now’ things that libraries of all sizes are doing to begin moving their organization and services to distributed platforms.

First, libraries are beginning to utilize plug-in architectures and software frameworks to streamline development and deliver new services on more platforms. The framework / plug-in approach yields positive outcomes not only in streamlined development but also in distributed maintenance, development with ‘built-in’ features supporting multiple platforms and encouraging good standards-based practice and encourages development of systems that are capable of interoperability with other systems, databases and content. Development frameworks are not particularly new but the growing popularity of end to end platforms such as django, jQuery and Ruby on Rails are making it easier to develop customized web applications with built-in functionality. Other frameworks such as jQtouch provide information organizations with easy-to-use frameworks for delivering services on mobile platforms. Content management systems including drupal and WordPress support plug-in architectures that allow the use of internal and external frameworks to extend system functionality. The Extensible Catalog project is a good example of a library project using this direction as is the work being done in other open source digital library and discovery systems (e.g. Omeka, Vufind, Blacklight).

While these frameworks often simplify development, they can make deployment and hosting more difficult. To address this need a number of systems such as Google Apps Engine and Heroku combine development frameworks and hosting support to create an environment in which these services are easier to deploy and manage. The outcome of a move to these types of platforms away from base level programming approaches are enabling libraries to deploy more complex services at a faster pace and with a more distributed management approach.

Second, distributed computing enables libraries to reconsider the management of their IT. Tasks that used to require extensive technical background are now easily done by librarians who are also experts in other areas. This approach distributes workflows across a larger part of the organization and enhances digital access to information. Library research guides such as LibGuides or Library alaCarte, CMS based websites and application administration for key library systems are now easily done in part due to the adoption of distributed and open solutions. This means that librarians can implement and manage services more easily but also means that they have a need to learn new skills (both systems and reference librarians) to support these systems and to seek new IT solutions.

This trend is not limited to librarians. A number of fields are beginning to incorporate information and technology training as part of the discipline. For example the American Medical Informatics Association 10 X 10 program for example seeks to train health care professionals in informatics, an area that looks at this expanding need for information technology literacies across a discipline. As IT solutions become an embedded part of every job librarians are faced with both training and supporting these professionals but also in redefining what it means to be a librarian. A movement within academic and research focused librarianship is the E-Science movement. The ARL E-science report completed in 2010 showed that E-science services such as data curation, digital notebooks and research support are growing areas of support in libraries but that distribution of these services were typically only supported at larger institutions. At Wake Forest we have seen requests for services including software development for course related applications or models, translation of traditional instructional activities to online contexts, and development or support of systems geared towards content sharing and social networking among researchers and students.

Third, libraries can begin adopting distributed systems by moving from large capital investment to service subscriptions for their IT needs. This is not always as easy or feasible choice but by moving away from large investment in IT to a budget for capacity approach, libraries position themselves to allocate IT resources as needed. Taking this approach requires a firm understanding of the issues involved with adopting cloud-based solutions but presents libraries with new opportunities to better manage their resource allocation. It is easy to see that these trends are likely to require more staff expertise greater access to IT systems – meaning wider sharing of IT and service knowledge among librarians. It may also require organizations to re-define their comfort level with where their IT infrastructure is located, what types of systems they are comfortable managing or outsourcing, and will require information professionals to be willing to change how they work.

There is real possibility that in doing this libraries will find Software-as-a-Solution (SAAS) solutions that far exceed the features offered by locally managed options and will need to re-define what their core services are and how they need to support them. A proactive approach for managing this change can include 1) identification or resource intensive applications that would be good candidates for third-party management, 2) defining your key services and what impact a distributed computing approach would have on those services and 3) identifying new services (e.g. e-science and digital humanities) that could be delivered if your library had more staff and IT resources available.

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