5 Reasons Why Library Vendors Still Suck

John Hubbard
6 min readDec 29, 2021

“Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.”
—Daniel 5:27

It’s dangerous to go alone. We can’t do everything ourselves. I don’t deal directly with server back ups, for example, no sooner than does our Business Officer store the money for my library’s budget in dollar bills under their mattress. Making use of existing infrastructure, even when it’s outsourced by collaborating with a commercial enterprise, is potentially a lot more beneficial than clinging to an “I alone can fix it” kind of mentality. However, blindly trusting in companies to provide us what’s in our best interests can prove to be just as foolish, as the following situations illustrate.

1. Missing and Bungled Features in Production Systems

There are so many of these to choose from, but let me focus here on just one: an online new books shelf. Continually discovering new publications in one’s areas of interest is a fairly integral part of any researcher’s activities. You would therefore think that offering the ability to search for new records would be built in to all library catalogs.

Yet our old OPAC, Voyager, was missing this feature. Whenever we suggested such a thing be created, it was pointed out that the unofficial “New Books List” script could instead do just that. This was a program written by a librarian customer, on their own time and expense, that was therefore unsupported. So when we came across a conflict with how the code interacted with our local security certificate, the vendor was all too eager to let us know it wasn’t their problem.

Fast forward to the days of discovery layers. Primo was also launched without this feature. We put up with that for many years, “embracing the beta” as it were, until a post-search results limit for new records was finally created (in late 2016, over a decade since the product’s conception).

Earlier this month, a fellow librarian noticed something strange about how it worked on the current platform, observing that the three limitations of what are titled by default “New From Last Week,” “New From Last Month,” and “New From Last 3 Month” [sic] are for some reason mutually exclusive.

This is working as intended, believe it or not. Straight from the support representative’s mouth, here’s how they programmed these search limits:

  • last week is defined as create_date = [NOW-(minus)7DAYS TO NOW]
  • last month is defined as create_date = [NOW-30DAYS TO NOW-7DAYS]
  • last three months is defined as create_date = [NOW-90DAYS TO NOW-30DAYS]

So, if you have a record that was entered into the system four days ago, for example, it will not show up for someone who selects the “Last Month” limit.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to what I imagine the developer’s train of thought who programmed the function to work this way was. And while I don’t believe this was done either with malicious intent, it remains an example of what is clearly a rather stark level of ignorance about what the typical end user would expect a label of “Last Month” to denote.

Dealing with these sorts of fuck-ups can be exhausting. Again, this is only one case. We’re paying vendors big bucks to develop products, conduct their own testing, and provide interfaces that should have better usability out of the box, without us having to tinker with every little configuration option.

2. Co-opting the Open Access Movement

“Embrace, extend, and extinguish” is a phrase Microsoft made famous. It describes the company’s competitive tactic of deliberately snuffing out innovations, in favor of their own proprietary services, by at first feigning to play along with them.

Publishers, likewise, which have made their billions in profits largely by selling the works of authors (and reviewers) back to their own parent institutions, are understandably threatened by efforts to make such scholarship more freely available.

And so we have the predatory practice of commercial publishers offering up a flavor of what they have the audacity to call “Open Access,” which is in fact anything but — by nature of it involving upwards of thousands of dollars being raked in for “Article Processing Charges” (APCs) assessed against those authors privileged and gullible enough to pay for them.

It’s not so much double dipping as it is the same old pre-Internet profit model and infrastructure. Library vendors are also happy to sell you paid versions of free software and regularly take over other organizations that once supported Open Access.

3. Consolidations by Holdings Companies Stifles Innovation

There used to be a good half-dozen or so reference manager software programs available, then EndNote bought them all out, leading to about a decade of stagnation in the citation manager marketplace, until RefWorks came along, followed by other web-based equivalents.

A similar situation is now occurring with academic publishing and integrated library systems as a whole, as the charts of the “History of Mergers and Acquisitions in the Library Technology Industry” compiled by Marshall Breeding so disturbingly depict.

Whenever a transformative feature comes along, usually championed by some start-up (SerialsSolutions, Useful Utilities, bepress, Mendeley, and soon to be LibKey, I reckon) it seems inevitable that a larger company will buy them out and then let their product wither on the vine. This is only good for the stockholders who are driving those practices.

LibKey Link fills the much needed demand for improving the connections between library discovery layers and various content platforms. This type of functionality should of course be baked into any discovery layer. Primo just came out with an analogous feature called “Quicklinks.” However, it for now only suspiciously works with certain other vendors.

4. Advocating for Surveillance Capitalism

Mark Zuckerberg made his fortune not from the users of Facebook, at least not directly, but by monetizing their personal data. With some minor exceptions (there is a pending lawsuit brought by HUD for the discriminatory way in which Facebook allowed for targeted real estate ads to be sold, for instance), that’s exactly how many Internet businesses turn a profit now.

It’s no wonder then that library vendors want a piece of that action. They do, after all, have a slew of researcher behaviors within their grasp, and are pushing for increasingly invasive technologies to gobble up more and more patron data.

In recent years, library vendors have marketed their tracking data to government entities, while also pushing for the dubious practice of collecting personalized “learning analytics.” There has been a related growth in educational technology around the unjustified presumption of guilt required for profiting from the intellectual property of students, and similarly employing the use of online proctoring software. What’s next? Screening job applicants based on their facial features?

5. Chilling Effects and Other Shady Tactics

“I’d like to speak to the manager,” was effectively the response of the Association of American Publishers to a librarian mentioning Sci-Hub during a conference panel. Publishers have also sued librarians for voicing disparaging opinions about them, sued libraries for exercising Fair Use, sued archives for practicing the Right of First Sale, and even sued governments for attempting to reign in their price gouging.

The strategy behind these legal actions is all too clear: quell any further dissent so that these companies can pursue their practices unchecked. Look around in the discourse and you’ll also find no shortage of political astroturfing and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, another one of Microsoft’s tactics) being sown by corporate shills intended to undermine to anyone advocating, “We should improve things somewhat.”

This complicity is what keeps these problems from being addressed, let alone fixed. Unless we hold vendors accountable for their shortcomings, advocate for our patron’s privacy rights, and refuse to underwrite unfair pricing models, there’s no one to blame but ourselves for the prevalent existence of defective, overpriced, and otherwise immoral products which we’ve chosen to pay for.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis