Why history and messaging are important: thinking about III and Sierra

Over the past few months, I’ve fielded a lot of questions from colleagues at libraries either looking for or starting the process of selecting a new ILS system.  It’s a good time for it – as all the major vendors in the ILS space are shopping new systems and currently trying to court customers from their competitors.  And while I have only ever worked at libraries that are III systems, working with MarcEdit has given me the opportunity to work with libraries, and migrate libraries, from many different systems.

When I get these questions and talk to folks, I think that they are often disappointed that I don’t have a pat answer – I don’t think that there is one right system out there for libraries.  With this new crop of offerings, each have different pain points, and honestly, figuring out what are your points of tolerance really go a long way to determining which system is likely going to be the best fit.  Of course, even with that information, the right choice for an institution, may not be the “right” choice…and this is where I’ve been thinking about III.

While at Oregon State University, I made no secret that I thought that the business-model (Ala carte) and system design (closed box) of the past regime were bad for libraries in general, but especially bad for our library.  And over the years, much of the work that we did in the library was to figure out ways to minimize our reliance on the ILS as a public facing system, and essentially write it out of our infrastructure.  Now, that was not always something that could be easily, or elegantly done, but nearly every project that required access to data from the ILS started with the question of, how can we get the data out of the system so we can do something with it.

I know that my experience isn’t unique.  There is a reason why Millennium has long been a punch-line in the library development community – which is why it is interesting to me to watch how Innovative’s new management and the library community, react to Sierra – and the impact that history and reputation can become one of those pain points.

I guess for full disclosure, moving to The Ohio State University Libraries, I found myself back at an Innovative library (and one working through a migration to Sierra).  This was a bit of u-turn, since Oregon State University, as part of the Orbis/Cascades Alliance, was migrating to ExLibris’s Alma product.  So, I’d already started to make the mental shift to begin working with and getting to know the ExLibris community.  But, I find myself back in the III fold and again find myself thinking about how the ILS fits into the overall library’s infrastructure.

However, after taking a year-long sabbatical from the III community, one of the things that has struck me about the current discussions that I hear around Sierra and I think, underlines one of the major challenges that III’s new management is going to face, moving into the future.

Since rejoining the III community, the most common thing that I hear when people discuss Sierra is that its basically just a spiffed up version of Millennium.  I heard this when we looked at it as part of the Orbis/Cascades Alliance and I hear it now talking to folks in OhioLink thinking about their current migrations.  The problem with this sentiment is that I honestly think that this isn’t a fair statement.  I won’t get into all the reasons why, but I think that it’s not quite fair because it glosses over some of the important work that has been done in Sierra.  Unfortunately for III, that important work isn’t work that users or staff will see, but rather happened at the fundamental system level.  By moving away from their legacy web server and database and simply adopting apache and postgres, III has given III libraries a reliable way to read their metadata.  For the first time, in a long-time, I’m looking at the ILS as a place where I may actually be able to mine data from, rather than simply as a something I would generally ignore.

The problem I see for Innovative’s management at this point, is two fold:

  1. They have a messaging problem.  III wants to talk about the leap forward that they made with Sierra, but the really interesting stuff that would make those gains easy to see (things like Read/Write API access) don’t exist at this point.  Right now, all the improvements are hidden from view, and honestly, unless they provide some reasons for people to care, they will be changes made for a small niche group of people willing to work with postgres (or at least, willing to replicate postgres and index the data into a tool like solr for better response time and flexibility for report writing), and the current sentiment around Sierra will be the reality (regardless of if it is true or not).
  2. Secondly, III has a trust problem.  III’s previous regime had a tendency to overly fragment their system, to the point that the running joke was that if you wanted to do something interesting with the software, you had to buy x and the question was how many zeros would it cost.  III’s ala carte pricing works for a lot of people (I think, I mean, it must, for someone) – but I think that they need to re-evaluate what is part of the core system.  The API for example, this needs to be part of the core system.  Likewise, given a history of unfulfilled promises around API development, III needs to do this development in the open.  Right now, I’ve been hearing about the API development for 2 years, yet the community is still waiting for some kind of document highlighting what will be included.  I’d argue, more of this work needs to be done in the public.

What I’ll be interested in, especially now that I’m back at a III library, is how they work to manage these challenges.  III currently serves a lot of libraries – but I don’t think that these challenges can be understated.  In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken to 8 libraries, all currently Innovative, all seriously looking to migrate to something else.  In talking about their pain points, it’s clear that these libraries have started to wonder how much longer they can trust and wait for III to make the necessary changes to allow III libraries to re-engage with their ILS systems.

At the same time, I’m hopeful, maybe more so than I’ve been  in a very long time.  I’ve spoken with many of the new leaders at III and I think that they understand the problem.  I’m also seeing movement towards collaborations that simply wouldn’t have been possible under the previous management – so it will be really interesting to see how this turns out.  It will definitely be something worth watching,


  1. I always pointed to III as a major force in catalyzing my foundations and enthusiasm for the open source market space and it’s been one of the few positive things that came out of my working with that dysfunctional environment (from the back end point of view). I even joked / but mostly seriously suggested that I would never work in an III shop again having had a taste for the freedom, technical advancement and community engagement that came with my previous employer’s move to Evergreen.

    But alas, I’ve switched jobs and now find myself in a freshly upgraded Millennium-to-Sierra environment. I too have had similar shifts in thought about III, but it’s usually momentary until I realize that the Kook-Aid I’m drinking is not tasting just right. There are indeed positive changes, but fundamentally we’re still waiting on the promise. I’m hopeful, but critical about how well they can pull themselves out out of their extreme (imho) pay per use everything business model.

    A former colleague (“GMC”) had a very interesting quote that resonated with me in the context of III:

    Interesting, for certain definitions of the word, this notion of an API as something that gets bolted on after the fact, not something that exists in some form from the get-go.”

    And that sums it up for many users I’ve talked to.

  2. I agree that the comment “Sierra is that its basically just a spiffed up version of Millennium” is not really a fair one. As a Sierra library there are all sorts of things we can do (and are doing) that we couldn’t before as a result to the fundamental changes at the system level.

    However as well as the messaging and trust problem, the other problem is at the library level – any library that acquires Sierra needs also to have staff with the skills to understand the value and usefullness of these changes to the Library context – and not all places do.

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