The problem with the "ILS Bill of Rights"

There are a few recent posts on the State of the ILS and a suggested libraries' ILS Customer "Bill of Rights" and a whole new list essentially devoted to the same problem. I think these are well-meaning but futile and a little naive.

First - we have a Bill of Rights. See the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. This problem, which is correctly articulated in these and similar posts as a very real problem indeed, is, however, not so important that we must conflate the themes of Free Speech and Read-Only-RDBMS-Queries.

Second - we get to negotiate a contract. We get to agree to terms. The vendor offers what you ask for, and you agree to terms, and you receive a product, and you have an ongoing support contract. Here are all the things that can go wrong there:

  • You don't get to set the terms
  • The vendor doesn't offer you what you ask for
  • You don't agree to terms
  • You don't receive the product you agreed to
  • Your ongoing support contract is breached somehow

Among the many rights we have as citizens and, more to the point, as representatives of corporate entities (the libraries I mean) is that if any of the first three things that can go wrong does go wrong, you can choose NOT TO BUY THE FREAKIN' PRODUCT. And if either of the last two items that can go wrong go wrong, YOU CAN SUE THE BASTAGES.

Have these things gone wrong for you and your library?

Did you not buy the product?

Did you sue?

These are our options:

  • Buy a system. Negotiate the best terms you can. Enforce contracts.
  • Buy a system. Live with it, happy or no.
  • Hire people to build you a system. Negotiate the best terms you can. Enforce contracts.
  • Hire people to build you a system. Live with it, happy or no.
  • Install something Free-as-in-Speech. Negotiate support as best you can and enforce contracts.
  • Install something Free-as-in-Speech. Live with it, happy or no.

That's it. Those are the options. "A-List"-In-Our-Dinky-Subculture-BiblioBloggers May Kvetch Daily but an entire marketful of suppliers used to clients who accept subpar products and who don't play hardball and who don't sue over breaches of contract is not going to suddenly implement your favorite APIs overnight. A few responsive vendors appear to be moving that way, to their credit. The others could care less and understand that it's cheaper to have its representatives express unpleasant surprise at user group meetings. Oooh, intimidating, eh? (There's another possibility, too, but I'll just leave it at "cf. Hanlon's Razor".)

Have you watched the mainstream U.S. news lately? It pretty much works the same way.

If you don't believe you are in a position to hire a handful of capable developers to build something that does most of what you want, take ten minutes and try this demo. Show it to your boss. Show it to your students. Show it to your biblioblogger pals. Then, think: you can have this *now*. Really. I have it on my machine.

And the best part is - you don't have to hire somebody to write it. Like I said, you can have it, now, just like me. You just need to hire somebody to run it. If you want more features, you can hire somebody to build those. If you want your disappointed-with-their-ILS-too librarian pals to be able to do something similar, make sure the people you hire work to make their additions fit with the original stuff and the original developers and the whole thing will get better and your pals only have to hire more people to implement the marginally-shrinking-in-scope additional features *they* want.

Or, you could just hire a good lawyer.

Seriously - the smart, responsive vendors will quickly figure out that they'll be wise to just adopt the free bits and merge them into their product lines and contribute some back to the core codebase because it will make their customers happy and it will make their customers pay them a lot for their other products and for service contracts and hell, nobody sues over breach of contract anyway, right?

I've only been a librarian for about ten years, and I don't really work with ILS/OPACs much myself, so maybe there are untold war stories big and small alike that I just don't know. The one case I know of where a library had the chutzpah to stand up and say "no, this isn't good enough, we don't want it, give us our money back because it doesn't match what we agreed to" pretty much worked... they were apparently right, as the product went nowhere after that. That was all it took. Now it's mildly amusing to see tote bags from that old product... I think the Librarians-Who-Know make a point of wearing them as a symbol of our law-given Right To Enforce Contracts. And they *can* wear them because, yknow, it's essentially protected speech.

We have the freedoms we need. Complaining publicly might get you trackback cred but it won't make your ILS better.

If you don't know a good lawyer, I can suggest a few smart coders you might want to hire. Seriously.


Two great tastes that go great together

While there's some criticism going back and forth here, I can't help but see a strong concordance between this post and Blyberg's ILS Bill of Rights: both are an attempt to educate potential customers. Blyberg wants customers to know what to ask/look for in evaluating products, Dchud wants those customers to know how free markets work.

The rub comes from the fact that many people don't feel libraries and ILS vendors exist in a free market, and Dchud is hopping mad that those people don't realize that vendors won't compete like it's a free market until their customers start exercising some free-market sensibility (as suggested above).

Don't Like Your Options? Take Control of Your Destiny

There is a line of thinking that is continues to resonate with me and with others I share this with: as libraries, we have lost control over our destiny. In the context of that link, it is having lost control because there a no longer deeply skilled technology departments in all but the most very above average library. So we are left to buy from a closely intertwined set of vendors and hope for the best. I'm eager to hear Andrew Pace's take on "the library technology business and business side of library technology" but my gut is telling me that this is the mostly likely ordering of possibilities that will bring to bear hundreds of years of professional experience in a world disrupted by new communication modalities now coming to bear:

  1. Install something Free-as-in-Speech.
  2. Hire people to build you a system.
  3. Buy a system.