What Are the Larger Implications of ProQuest’s Acquisition of Ex Libris?
Today brings news of a major consolidation in the library vendor marketplace, with ProQuest acquiring Ex Libris. This is just the latest of an intense round of acquisitions in the vendor/intermediary marketplace and in addition to some thoughts on this particular deal it is a good moment to reflect more broadly on what is taking place.
ProQuest operates a content platform, which includes many types of content from journals and books to newspapers and special collections. Based in part on an earlier acquisition of Serials Solutions, it also provides various library-licensed tools and services such as a citation manager, a link resolver, and a discovery service. Most recently, it had acquired Coutts, the book vendor.
Ex Libris provides integrated library systems (ILS), which provide much of the management infrastructure for library collections, as well as a discovery system. Its legacy systems have been in use at many research libraries, and its new offering, a “cloud-hosted” system called Alma, appears to be selling well into the academic library marketplace.
The lines between content platforms like those operated by ProQuest and EBSCO and the library systems providers like Ex Libris and OCLC has been blurring in recent years.
The counterexample is OCLC, which divested itself of its content platform some years ago, helping it to establish the neutrality of its library systems and discovery offerings. This neutrality was a major talking point of Ex Libris as well, for similar reasons.
But there has been a broad shift among content platforms, not only aggregators but also publishers like Elsevier and Nature, to invest in tools and systems. This is a strategic consequence not only of the scholarly open access movement but also the basic economic models towards unbundling that appear to be emerging on the internet across a variety of content types.
In this context, ProQuest and EBSCO have been investing in the services and tools that librarians use in managing collections and that they provide undergraduates to discover and utilize library collections.
For ProQuest, some of its key services today include the book vendor Coutts (acquired contemporaneously with EBSCO’s acquisition of YBP), its Summon indexed discovery service, a knowledge base and link resolver, and the RefWorks/Flow citation and PDF management tool, among others.
There is some product overlap between ProQuest, which had begun to build a proto-ILS in Intota, and the Alma system. But the most substantial business overlaps are for discovery services and knowledge base / link resolver systems. Summon and Primo Central both are building enormous content indices and the user interfaces needed for libraries to offer full-collections search on their homepage and potentially a variety of other discovery services in the future. Both companies work to populate the knowledge bases designed to power, among other services, their 360 Link and SFX link resolvers. Marshall Breeding has speculated that one area of obvious synergy is in creating the underlying discovery indices and knowledge bases, no small undertakings and a significant duplication of effort, even if they choose to retain separate interface offerings under the two brands.
With respect to the indexed discovery services, this acquisition will reduce from four to three the number of companies that operate an indexed discovery service, with EBSCO and OCLC being the other two. While there has been additional progress in adding functionality to the discovery services since their introduction some years ago, it is unclear if they have made a substantial contribution to increase the library’s role as a discovery starting-point. Certainly, investments have yet to be made to realize the full potential of a central content index, including current awareness and personalization. Libraries must hope that this consolidation will make possible greater investment in these tools even if that is not always the effect of a merger.
What this deal tells us perhaps most clearly of all is that ProQuest believes there is a future in the ILS. This is not so obvious an assumption as many librarians might believe. The ILS has proven to be a decreasingly “integrated” solution unable to serve libraries’ needs to manage the substantial growth in digital collections, the new forms of demand-driven and shared acquisition, and the need to think collaboratively about print collections management. At most academic libraries, the ILS is providing management functions for a declining share of library expenditures and collections. As a consequence, it might not be illogical for a company with its eyes on the library systems market to imagine being able to “leapfrog” over serving print collections altogether and building a systems environment for an e-only future.
Savvy observers been watching both EBSCO and ProQuest very closely in this regard, since both have an extensive portfolio of library systems but until this point neither has had the suite of functionalities necessary to manage a print collection that constitute the traditional ILS. With ProQuest making the decision to make this acquisition, it will be absolutely fascinating to see what this may mean for EBSCO. In the academic libraries space, the other main ILS vendor is Innovative, which is pushing libraries towards its Sierra cloud system. Innovative does not operate its own discovery service but rather relies on a partnership with EBSCO, making this relationship especially interesting to watch.
Modularity, Seamlessness, and Data
There has been much discussion about modularity in systems architecture and openness in data exchanges. But as we see strategic integration to a very small number of firms offering library systems and integrated content platforms, some libraries will look for contractual assurances that they can rely strategically on openness and modularity in designing their systems and content environments.
On the other hand, deeper connections between a variety of content and systems could bring real advantages to researchers. After all, modularity has been responsible in no small measure for some of the stumbling blocks that users experience while seeking to access information resources. And, recognizing the privacy implications, more integration would allow more extensive data to be gathered about usage patterns and user practices, potentially allowing for improved service development and personalization.
Ultimately, for some smaller libraries, several companies, not least ProQuest, are developing the potential to offer what could amount to a nearly completely outsourced digital library solution. Were this to develop, such libraries could be positioned to invest instead in other vital roles, but there could also be less rosy scenarios, to be sure. This is perhaps the most significant, and potentially troubling, development for the library profession, and for many academic libraries, in these acquisitions and the potential for their integration over time.
Over time, we should expect the ProQuest acquisition of Ex Libris to offer a variety of synergies not only on the business side but potentially to library customers and researchers as well. Customers and partners of the content platforms and library systems vendors should not be surprised to see further strategic partnerships if not outright consolidation.