I have been following a thread on the VuFind-Tech list regarding the project’s endorsement of Jangle to provide the basis of the ILS plugin architecture for that project. It’s not an explicit mandate, just a pragmatic decision that if work is going in to creating a plugin for VuFind, it would make more sense (from an open source economics point of view) if that plugin was useful to more projects than just VuFind. More users, more interest, more community, more support.
The skepticism of Jangle is understandable and expected. After all, it’s a very unorthodox approach to library data, seemingly eschewing other library initiatives and, at the surface, seems to be wholly funded by a single vendor‘s support.
And, certainly, Jangle may fail. Just like any other project. Just like VuFind. Just like Evergreen. Any new innovative project brings risk. More important than the direct reward of any of these initiatives succeeding is the disruption they bring to the status quo. Instead of what they directly bring to the table, what do they change about how we view the world?
Let’s start with Evergreen. Five years ago I sat in a conference room at Emory’s main library while Brad LaJeunesse and Jason Etheridge (this predated PINES hiring Mike Rylander and Bill Erickson) told us that they were ditching Unicorn and building their own system. I, like the others in the room, Selden Deemer, Martin Halbert, smiled and nodded and when they left I (Mr. Library Technology Polyanna) turned to the others and said that I liked their moxie, but it was never going to work. Koha was the only precedent at the time, and, frankly, it seemed like a toy.
Now where are we? Most of the public libraries in Georgia using Evergreen, a large contingency from British Columbia migrating, and a handful of academic libraries either live or working towards migration. Well, I sure was wrong.
The more significant repercussion of PINES going live with Evergreen was that it cast into doubt our assumptions of how our relationship with our integrated library system needed to work. Rather than the library waiting for their vendor to provide whatever functionality they need or want, they can instead, implement it themselves. While it’s unrealistic for every library to migrate to Evergreen or Koha, these projects have brought to light the lack of transparency and cooperation in the ILS marketplace.
Similarly, projects like VuFind, Blacklight and fac-back-opac prove that by pulling some off-the-shelf non-library-specific applications and cleverly using existing web services (like covers from Amazon) that we can cheaply and quickly create the kinds of interfaces we have been begging from our vendors for years. It is unlikely that all of these initiatives will succeed, and the casualties will more likely be the result of the technology stack they are built upon rather than any lack of functionality, the fact that they all appeared around the same time and answer roughly the same question, shows that we can pool our resources and build some pretty neat things.
To be fair, the real risk taker in this arena was NC State. They spent the money on Endeca and rolled out the interface that wound up changing the way we looked at the OPAC. The reward of NCSU’s entrepreneurialism is that we now have projects like VuFind and its ilk. Very few libraries can afford to be directly rewarded by NC State’s catalog implementation, but with every library that signs on with Encore or Primo, III and Ex Libris owe that sale to a handful of people in Raleigh. You would not be able to download and play with VuFind if NC State libraries had worried too much about failure.
Which then brings me to Jangle. The decision to build the spec on the Atom Publishing Protocol has definitely been the single most criticism of the project (once we removed the confusing, outdated wiki pages about Jangle being an Rails application), but there has been little dialogue as to why it wouldn’t work (actually, none). The purpose of Jangle is to provide an API for roughly 95% of your local development needs with regards to your library services. There will be edge cases, for sure, and Jangle might not cover them. At this point, it’s hard to tell. What is easier to tell, however, is that dwelling on the edge cases does absolutely nothing to address the majority of needs. Also, the edge cases are mainly library-internal-specific problems (like circulation rules). A campus or municipal IT person doesn’t particularly care about these specifics when trying to integrate the library into courseware or some e-government portal. They just want a simple way to get the data.
This doesn’t mean that Jangle is solely relegated to simple tasks, however. It just is capable of scaling down to simple use cases. And that’s where I hope Jangle causes disruption whether or not it is ultimately the technology that succeeds. By leveraging popular non-library-specific web standards it will make the job of the systems librarian or the external developer easier, whether it’s via AtomPub or some other commonly deployed protocol.