Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2008

Rethinking Resource Sharing: Interoperability

Gail Wanner
MLIS, Market Manager, Resource Sharing, SirsiDynix

Interoperability is a basic premise of software today and it is especially critical in resource sharing. Although mashups and widgets are common in the Internet world, there are still many challenges for interoperation between libraries. Partner libraries may use completely different local circulation systems and interlibrary loan or resource sharing systems, yet they expect to interoperate seamlessly. The Rethinking Resource Sharing Interoperability Group was formed in 2004 to identify issues relating to interoperability and to offer solutions.

The group's first task was to identify existing interoperability issues. They compiled a lengthy list of specific problems that could be roughly categorized as problems between standards, problems within standards, or problems between library and commercial standards. Choosing a starting point for solving these problems was a daunting task, and, after much deliberation and discussion, the group decided to concentrate on providing a seamless and immediate method for library users and non-users to find library resources. The entire focus of the Rethinking Resource Sharing Initiative (RRSI) was to focus on users rather than behind-the-scenes staff operations, so this seemed like a logical approach. It also tied in with the recently published OCLC study that indicated that most people begin searches for published materials from an Internet browser rather than a library's Web site.

By putting together a proof of concept for a revolutionary Get-It service, the group demonstrated that it is possible for libraries to become more visible in an Internet environment. In this model, a person would download a browser plug-in which would detect the presence of an ISBN or other selected match point on a Web page and dynamically build a list of libraries and commercial resources and their terms for obtaining the item from each resource. Since the Rethinking group has no resources to complete and market such a product, OCLC is in the process of obtaining an open source license for this prototype so that it can be posted as a starting point for libraries or other entities who want to offer services based on this model.

Currently, the group has begun a discovery-to-delivery “landscape” to identify processes or standards used for resource sharing. Many members believed that this effort would uncover significant holes in workflows. To our surprise, instead of gaps there appear to be tangles of competing standards that have been implemented unevenly by various library types and in certain regions. The group has also assigned preliminary weighting to various methods, showing which are successfully used and broadly adopted. The next level of investigation will be to create scenarios that depict how specific types of requests can be accomplished, in an effort to pinpoint consistency, or a lack thereof.

Figure 2 illustrates the current state of the overview landscape. The group is also exploding each segment into more detailed diagrams to allow closer examination of workflows and standards. Note that the key at the bottom explains the conventions used to indicate whether methods are standards or proprietary, usage, and the current potential for success. Once completed, this landscape will be shared with standards groups and other organizations as an educational tool.

Much remains to be done in the interoperability arena. As new standards and technologies emerge, new efforts will be needed to tie them together with today's systems. Although we might wish that all libraries would adopt a single set of practices, the reality is that libraries will continue to use a wide variety of systems and standards due to workflow, policy, and financial limitations. Our challenge in the Rethinking Resource Sharing Interoperability Group is to encourage interoperability and cooperation wherever possible. For more information or to participate in this effort, go to the RRS Web site or contact Gail Wanner.