The Future of Libraries is Open

woman at Goodell Library Card Catalog, 1961
Woman using card catalog in Goodell Library, ca. 1961, Courtesy Special Collections & University Archives. Photographer: Dick Fish Company, Inc. (Northampton, Mass.) 

The very last library catalog card was printed on October 1, 2015, in Dublin, Ohio.

That's home to the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a cooperative that created the first-ever online library catalog in 1971. A century and a half earlier, cataloguers collectively hurrahed when they adopted this important new technology that let users know what libraries had in the stacks. In place of instantly-stale printed books listing their holdings, they would use cards—one for each item!—imprinted with title, author, and shelf location. The card catalog allowed for real-time updating, and access to anyone able to thumb through the long drawers.

Long before the last card was printed, digital means of documenting a library’s holdings had taken over. Yet libraries like UMass Amherst currently use a patchwork of products to keep bibliographic data up to date throughout a network of systems and in shared catalogs such as the Five Colleges library catalog. UMass, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and Smith colleges share both print and e-resources but purchase the digital materials separately. To be shared across the consortium, an item’s data must be entered in multiple places, which is time consuming and leaves greater room for human error. The quest for the next card catalog moment is underway—to collect in a single digital platform everything available to a user. 

UMass Amherst librarians are on the front lines of this revolution. With Five Colleges partners, UMass is among the first set of early adopters—and adapters—using and developing a new open source library services platform called FOLIO. Orchestrated by the Open Library Environment, FOLIO is a global library collaboration community focused on open solutions for libraries. The Five Colleges Consortium is working with EBSCO, one of the largest providers of digital library content in the world, to develop and beta test the implementation and hosting services for FOLIO.



Kat Berry quote from text

“FOLIO is a revolutionary way of approaching library systems,” says Kat Berry, who, as Discovery and Resource Management Systems Coordinator, leads a cross-library team to implement and test-drive FOLIO over the next 18 months. She explains that the overarching trend in library systems is to move from siloed models (like separate catalogs) to unified library systems. Until now, the only unified systems available, primarily Ex Libris’s product Alma, are proprietary: customers take existing information and procedures and adapt it to the product. Period.

Because FOLIO is open source, “if we don’t like how something is configured, we can, in theory, build an app that would go onto the platform and do what we want it to do,” says Berry. Designing and building FOLIO as a community, UMass Amherst and the other Five Colleges libraries will benefit by integrating the consortium’s unique needs into the core applications that will make up the system. “This puts a lot of power back into the hands of the libraries,” says Berry. “Instead of having to adapt to a company’s product that may not meet our needs, we can be proactive to make adjustments to ensure that our staff have the tools they need to provide the experience our patrons desire.”

Libraries love acronyms, and FOLIO is a playful one. The name of the new digital platform stands for the “Future of Libraries Is Open,” yet “folio” traditionally refers to paper: a leaf of a manuscript, a set or folder of papers, or a book of a larger size. EBSCO has initiated FOLIO beta partnerships with three entities—Five Colleges, University of Alabama, and Chalmers University in Sweden—with an eye to adding more. It helps that some of the biggest commercial customers, like Five Colleges and UMass Amherst, are part of the beta community. As the leading provider of electronic journals and books for libraries, EBSCO manages the subscriptions for more than 57,000 e-journals. Therefore, while the end product will be open source, “it’s one reason we are a good partner for this,” explains Berry. “They already hold a lot of our information from the digital materials we license from them, so they can use and test it.”

steve bischoff quote from textUMass Amherst Libraries Associate Dean for Library Technology Steven Bischof says the Five Colleges Consortium views FOLIO as a new way for libraries to innovate. “It presents a vision for the future of libraries, and as a beta partner we will be able to ensure that it’s a service for libraries of all shapes and sizes that are looking toward a future based on open source technology.”

Berry says it’s also a great opportunity to rethink how physical collections might have their data structured differently to improve discovery. And it’s a good chance to do some general housekeeping; across the Libraries, teams are cleaning up “dirty data”—information that is inaccurate—in the Five Colleges catalog.

This fall, the partners began mapping out the process for the changes ahead, and by January, data migration and testing begin. Training happens next summer, with a projected flip-the-switch date of late fall 2019. Until then, UMass and Five Colleges will run two systems concurrently, while working out the bugs in FOLIO. When it is finally unveiled, users will get a fresh interface for their searches and an improved set of results, thanks to an open source system and the community of determined librarians creating it. —Carol Connare

Online extras: Video of last catalog card being filed at UMass Amherst, Goodell Library, February 25, 1994