Transparency in Library Vendors

I recently completed our “big” project of the semester for IST 667, which was a paper and presentation comparing 2 ILSes from the perspective of a fictional library of our choosing as if we were preparing to do an RFP. My group looked at Polaris and Ex Libris’s Voyager from the POV of a small community college library with close ties to the public library system. Of the two other groups (it was a very small class), one also did Polaris/Voyager and the other did Polaris/Symphony (a SirsiDynix system). [The prevalence of Polaris was due to the experimental collaboration between them and SU’s iSchool; our class was provided with a sandbox Polaris system to play with so that we could have hands-on interaction with an ILS.]

The main theme of all of our presentations was how opaque the vendors’ websites are. Polaris provided far more information than did Ex Libris, but it still falls short of the kind of information you’d want to have when planning a massive, massive purchase that you’ll likely be stuck with for many years. Specific features were vague; prices were nonexistent. We discussed this in class, and the reasons seemed to come down to:

  1. Specificity of the system. Each library wants or needs something slightly different, which will affect the cost. (1b, there may be some haggling over the price, affected by point 2, that further prevents comparison between libraries… besides the whole non-disclosure thing.)
  2. Interpersonal relations. Maybe the vendor likes or dislikes you or your library or your contact is nice or a jerk kind-of- thing.

Which I can understand, to a certain extent, and of course the whole purpose of the RFPs is to obtain this missing information. But…

It still seems like there should be a simple little form on their websites in which you could check off certain features and enter some numbers and have it automatically spit out a rough estimate for you. It’s not as if scripting the form would be difficult. It’s not as if the concept of a disclaimer noting that the resultant price is an estimate, not a guarantee, is unheard of. When you buy a car there are all kinds of extras you can get, but you’ll still see right up front that the car starts at $17,000 and have a ballpark figure for the total. (And then you can haggle with the salesman.) When I was shopping for laptops, I went through various iterations of configurations on HP’s website, picking out different options. You have info on the base price of the laptop, and each feature you select adds or subtracts a clearly-stated amount from that price.

Now, in the course of finishing up my IST 618 policy paper on DRM-protected content in libraries, I found myself needing further information on Freegal. It has the emptiest, most useless webpage I’ve come across in a while. I search a little more and come up with Sarah Houghton-Jan’s recent post denouncing the service (as well as a slightly older one). Again there’s the same lack of transparency, the extreme expense, the lack of easily-accessible information.

Consider that libraries are supposed to be all about accessing information and content. Contrast with the lack thereof from the auxiliary library industries. Does the universe require a cosmic balance in information transparency to function?

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