Ex Libris, Alma and Open Data
This guest post is written by Carl Grant, chief librarian at Ex Libris and past president of Ex Libris North America, in answer to some questions that Adrian Pohl, coordinator of the OKFN Working Group on Open bibliographic Data, posed in the beginning of July in response to Ex Libris’ announcement of an “Expert Advisory Group for Open Data”. It is cross-posted on the OKFN blog and openbiblio.net.
The Ex Libris announcement in June 2011 that we were forming an “Expert Advisory Group for Open Data” has generated much discussion and an equal number of questions. Many of the questions bring to light the ever-present tensions and dynamics that exist between the various sectors and advocates of open data and systems. It also raises ongoing questions about how the goals of openness can be reasonably and properly achieved and in what timeframe? Particularly when it involves companies, products and data structures that have roots in proprietary environments.
For those who are not part of the Ex Libris community, allow me to define some of the Ex Libris terminology involved in this discussion:
- Alma. The Ex Libris next generation, cloud-based, library management service package that supports the entire suite of library operations—selection, acquisition, metadata management, digitization, and fulfillment—for the full spectrum of library materials.
- Community Zone: A major component of Alma that includes the Community Catalog (bibliographic records) and the Central Knowledgebase and Global Authorities Catalog. This zone is where customers may contribute content to the Community Catalog and in so doing, agree to allow users to share, edit, copy and redistribute the contributed records that are linked to their inventory.
- Community Catalog: The bibliographic record portion of the Community Zone.
- Community Zone Advisory Group: A group of independent experts and Alma early adopters advising Ex Libris on policies regarding the Community Catalog.
Taking into consideration the many emails and conversations we’ve had around the topic, this original set of questions seems to have shared interest:
These are good questions so let’s work our way through this list.
Q: What is this working group actually about? About open licensing, open formats, open vocabularies, open source software or all of them?
We’ve said to the group, that we’ll leave it to them to determine if the group will need to exist beyond the time this original task charge is completed. We fully expect that we will have similar groups, if not this same one, advise us on other data that we plan to place in the Community Zone in the future.
Q: Does the working group only cover openness inside Ex Libris’ future metadata management system, e.g. openness between paying members in a closed ecosystem, or will it address openness of the service within a web-wide context?
A: A more complicated question because it is really two interlaced questions. First it is asking if the data is open? Second, it is asking if the system is open?
We are most assuredly making the bibliographic metadata open and the answer to the next question provides more detail on how we’re approaching this.
As for the systems holding the data, we are planning on being open, but this is a place where we clearly must wait until this new system is up and running well for our paying customers before we open the Community Catalog up to others. Even then, we’ll want to closely monitor the impact on bandwidth, compute cycles and data to determine any costs associated with this use and how to best proceed and participate in making the Community Catalog open to larger communities on a web-wide context.
The goal is to work with our customers and the community to set achievable goals that move us down that path while factoring practicality into ideology. However, in the first deployment, our primary constituents will be institutions who have adopted Alma.
Q: Will Ex Libris push towards real open data for the Alma community zone? That would mean 1.) Using open (web) standards like HTTP, HTML and RDF as data model etc. 2.) Conforming to the Principles on Open Bibliographic Data by open licensing, 3.) providing APIs and the possibility to download data dumps.
Open standards and data formats are core to our design of Alma. They serve as our mechanisms of data exchange and the basis of our data structures when appropriate. Not all standards will be the basis of our internal functionality, however. For example, we’re building the infrastructure for RDF as a data exchange mechanism, but it does not fundamentally underpin our data structure, just as MARC21 binary format is not the root of our bibliographic record structure. When appropriate and possible, we are implementing these standards for data exchange based on libraries’ needs.
We are currently examining the open licenses to determine if we can utilize them given the other data we’d planned for the Community Zone. Currently, our Alma agreements include language that largely replicates the key terms of the Creative Commons PDDL license for customer-contributed records in the Community Catalog.
We will be providing API’s and plan to support downloads, but again, as we move forward, we plan to do this in a phased approach so that we can monitor infrastructure and human resource demands associated with the adoption. As noted above, our first priority will be providing service to our existing Alma users. This means that in the first release, providing Alma institutions with full access to their own data (in the form of API’s and data dumps) is where we’re focusing our attention.
In the final analysis, we feel our approach is really quite supportive of librarianship and quite open. We’re balancing the competing needs of our stakeholders, but it is important to note that Ex Libris is not artificially implementing restrictions that limit open data. Once libraries join the Alma community, there are no limits on their ability to manage their own projects or collaboration. Where we have the resources, we’re helping promote this open approach. We’ll be allocating our resources to provide best-in-class service to our customers and, at the same time, in a closely monitored and managed approach, continuing to expand access to larger communities.
We think all of this combined is a powerful statement about how proprietary and open approaches can beneficially co-exist and thus will help to move libraries forward in substantive ways.