v32#2 ATG Interviews Patrick Burns and Mike Richins

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

Burns is Dean of Libraries and VP of Information Technology, Colorado State University and Richins is Director of Product Management, RapidILL, Ex Libris

by Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) 

and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain) 

ATG:  We understand that RapidILL developed from a response to the flood that devastated the Colorado State University library collection more than 30 years ago to become a service that currently serves 330 institutions.  Sounds like quite a story, can you tell us about it?

Patrick Burns

PB:  Yes, I was here at the time, but was a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, so was not intimately involved.  But it is indeed quite a story.  Most of the Library’s journals, and much of its print collection, were destroyed in the flood.  Nevertheless, CSU faculty and researchers needed access to journal articles in support of their research and education.  RapidILL was a service where CSU library users initiated a request for a particular journal article, and local libraries supplied a scanned copy of the article from their collection.  RapidILL maintains a database of collections by individual member library and routes the request to an appropriate library, preserving copyright and load-balancing routing requests.  It expanded over two decades well beyond the initial participants.  It is an exceptional service. 

Mike Richins

MR:  The 1997 flood in Fort Collins happened just a couple of weeks before the start of fall semester.  At the time, the library had just moved over a half million bound journal volumes to the basement, which flooded.  This entire collection was water-damaged, requiring us to think creatively about serving the needs of our community.  One of the wonderful aspects about the resource sharing community is that there is no shortage of people who want to help.  Several partner institutions came to our aid and said they were willing to provide journal article requests to CSU patrons, and that they would fulfill these requests very quickly.  CSU provided these libraries with additional scanners and funds for student budget to support this effort.  We then developed the technical infrastructure and processes that became the first incarnation of RapidILL.  The service provided an online form for request submissions, and handled automatic routing to lenders based on a central holdings database that we developed.  This service worked very well, so well, in fact, that we decided to enhance the service after a couple of years to support interlibrary loan activity between all of these institutions.  

Fast-forward a couple of years, and word about RapidILL was getting out to other libraries which became interested in this new advanced and highly automated resource sharing system.  The RapidILL community has grown steadily since then and have added a book chapter and a returnable component along the way to diversity our services.  Currently, RapidILL serves libraries in North America, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan.

While the flood was disastrous in many ways, we were able, with the help of many in the library community, to develop a solution that has enhanced resource sharing for many academic institutions and has served the needs of countless library patrons.

ATG:  As RapidILL expanded, what was the relationship between it and CSU ILL service?  Did one become part of the other?  Or did they function as seperate units? 

PB:  RapidILL was always a project contained inside CSU libraries, through its inception and its expansion over time.  CSU ILL was and is a separate unit at CSU and stayed the same throughout Rapid’s expansion.  They functioned as separate units, and the relationship did not change over time.

MR:  Although the ILL department was a separate unit, RapidILL relied on the wonderful staff in the CSU ILL department to assist with various projects, test new development and provide advice that was invaluable to the growth and success of RapidILL.  In particular, Cristi MacWaters, the ILL Department Head, was critical to bridging the gap between all the possibilities of what RapidILL could be and what made sense to develop in terms of practical application in an actual high-volume resource sharing environment.

ATG:  And did CSU continue to use other bibliographic utilities like OCLC in addition to RapidILL?  At its peak times, how many ILLs did the RapidILL community fill?

PB:  Librarians use a wide variety of tools to obtain content requested by our users, OCLC and others too.  Peak annual ILLs ranged from fifty to seventy thousand per year, reasonably balanced between lends and borrows.

MR:  I’ll follow up on Pat’s answer to note that RapidILL integrates with, complements and enhances the myriad of tools and services librarians use to manage resource sharing.  Libraries that use RapidILL successfully are those that leverage the system to fulfill as many of their ILL requests as possible and work to ensure that their processes and workflows are optimized for RapidILL borrowing and lending.

ATG:  What do each of you think makes RapidILL successful?  Is there something RapidILL brings to the table that make your services unique?  Have there been any innovative technical solutions pioneered by RapidILL?

PB:  RapidILL is so successful because of the values and collegiality of its participating members.  I’ll let Mike answer the rest of this question.

MR:  Developing RapidILL was an opportunity to look at resource sharing in new ways.  The driving factor in our approach was to automate the interlibrary loan workflow as much as possible, which was certainly unique at the time.  As a collaborative effort with the libraries involved, we determined that minimizing the time required for staff to handle requests would make the greatest impact and result in a more efficient process overall. 

A huge part of this is the RapidILL holdings database which is comprised of the journal and book holdings of each Rapid member.  The idea is to have not just a representative set of holdings for each library but a dynamic database that allows us to automatically route requests to libraries that can actually fill a request based on their local lending policies.  Libraries are able to choose the collections they would like to open to Rapid partners, and the Rapid system matches requests to lenders down to the journal volume level, so the fill rate in Rapid is very high for a resource sharing system.

RapidILL also load-levels the routing of requests to ensure equitable lending between members.  The time zones of the borrowing library and potential lending libraries are also taken into consideration so that we are routing requests to lenders that are in a position to fulfill requests sooner.  The time zone awareness has become an increasingly critical component of RapidILL as we continue to grow internationally.

Another important aspect of RapidILL is that we have developed it to be vendor neutral.  RapidILL integrates with all major interlibrary loan management systems and delivery platforms, bridging resource sharing between libraries using different solutions.

The most significant reason RapidILL has been and will continue to be successful is the Rapid library community that we have worked with to develop and grow the service.  While the technology is important, it is the passion, dedication and forward-thinking resource sharing professionals involved that really make Rapid flourish.  To be involved in Rapid is to commit to a very high level of interlibrary loan services.  We are extremely fortunate to work with so many wonderful people in the interlibrary loan community and having the opportunity to collaboratively and creatively interact with Rapid members is the most fulfilling part of what I do.

ATG:  It sounds like RapidILL, being vendor neutral, actually intergrates with competitors like OCLC, correct?  How does that work?  Are special software and licenses required?

PB:  I’ll let Mike answer this technical question.

MR:  It is important for RapidILL to integrate successfully with many different ILL management platforms and systems as the RapidILL community uses a wide range of solutions.  We are very flexible in this regard and have worked closely with a number of vendors to ensure dynamic integration whether through APIs, ISO communications or other standards.  

ATG:  Now that RapidILL is owned by a private company, how will you maintain the level of librarian commitment and camaraderie that has contributed to your success?  Will librarians from CSU and other RAPID members play any role in advising the new management under Ex Libris?  

PB:  We fully expect to use and benefit from RapidILL as we have in the past, except now as a subscriber.  Ex Libris can answer the question about user groups and advice from users.

MR:  We have always developed based on user input and collaboration, and it will be no different as part of Ex Libris.  In fact, we only see this process becoming more transparent and successful as we’ll have more resources and time than we’ve had available in the past to work collaboratively.  Ex Libris has a wonderful and involved user community, and we’ll be participating in upcoming events such as the ELUNA (the international user community for Ex Libris customers in the Americas) annual meeting.  As the resource sharing landscape evolves over the next few years we plan to be consistently and dynamically engaged with resource sharing professionals to make sure we are positioning RapidILL to meet the needs of our users.

ATG:  In June of 2019,  Ex Libris acquired RapidILL.  How did the deal come about?  Aside from financial considerations, what made the offer attractive to you all?  In short, why Ex Libris?

PB:  Ex Libris was seeking to expand its document delivery capabilities and approached us to explore if we were possibly interested in a sale.  This occurred at a time when we had already been considering the future of RapidILL and planning for several development cycles that would have taken us years to complete with current and anticipated levels of funding from the Members.  We (mostly me, to start with) had concluded that with such funding, we were unable to progress far enough and fast enough with the planned development cycle — RapidILL development was unsustainable.  Simply, RapidILL needed a much larger, faster infusion of resources, and this necessitated transition to a new environment in a large, professional company.  We even hired an analyst to come in and review RapidILL, and this confirmed our opinions. 

We had and have very good relations with Ex Libris.  It was clear to us Ex Libris had the best ILS, Alma, that was seeing the greatest penetration in higher ed, and we felt that the best place for RapidILL to be was as part of an ILS, and we wanted it to be the best ILS on the market.  In conversations with Ex Libris, we also developed a healthy respect and appreciation for their vision and leadership, and trusted them to take RapidILL where we thought it needed to go.  Finally, Ex Libris definitely had the resources necessary to take RapidILL on a needed, accelerated development cycle.

MR:  From my perspective, Ex Libris provides us with opportunities to grow and develop that we didn’t have at Colorado State University.  We always had wonderful support and flexibility to evolve Rapid at CSU, and being within an academic environment meant we were part of an ecosystem that sustained Rapid’s momentum in a organic and meaningful way.  However, over the past couple of years, we started experiencing pain points in the areas of budget and staffing that were preventing us from pursuing some of the projects we were interested in.  While the academic environment was ideal for a service that supported 100-200 libraries, a larger Rapid membership presents us with new challenges.

These challenges will be met with the support of Ex Libris.  We now benefit from additional resources, a better support management platform, and the additional knowledge provided by Ex Libris staff, such as their expertise in cloud services.  These benefits will continue to strengthen as we further integrate and develop working relationships with our new Ex Libris colleagues.

The primary goals for RapidILL under Ex Libris are to continue to grow the community, accelerate RapidILL development to better support our offerings, and to identify new opportunities for additional services.  We are already taking advantage of the international presence of Ex Libris to present the benefits of RapidILL in areas of the world that we never had a chance to before.  Along with the potential to strengthen library resource sharing in new areas of the globe, the current Rapid membership will benefit from the unique collections provided by these new partner libraries.  Connecting libraries at this scale and enriching the international library community is very exciting.

ATG:  It sounds like there were a number of factors that made Ex Libris an attractive buyer.  But how has the acquisition affected the costs of RapidILL services to its actual members?  What has the membership response been to RapidILL under Ex Libris?  Have you seen any fluctuation in the number of members?  Have you seen any international growth?

PB:  This is an Ex Libris question, so over to Mike.  But, I will say that after the acquisition, things need to stabilize in Ex Libris as RapidILL is absorbed therein, then we expect to see better integration/development, and then we should track membership.  This will take some time to tell.

MR:  A primary goal of RapidILL has always been to provide cost-savings to members through the reciprocal lending commitment and automated and streamlined workflows that lead to reduced staff time needed for request processing.  We want the RapidILL community to experience excellent and fast resource sharing services and also to benefit from RapidILL from a cost perspective.  RapidILL will continue to be an affordable and cost-effective solution under Ex Libris.

Membership response to the acquisition has been very positive, and there is an obvious interest from the community to see what we are able to accomplish with RapidILL under the Ex Libris umbrella.  Since July, we’ve had a number of libraries join the RapidILL community, including international institutions, and we anticipate significant growth during 2020.  As part of our plans for future growth, we are working to introduce RapidILL to new areas of the world and to contribute to resource sharing activities in new communities.

ATG:  What was it about RapidILL that appealed to Ex Libris?  How do you think it fits into their product portfolio?  What makes you both think that this arrangement with Ex Libris will work?

PB:  RapidILL was and is a very high-quality service and recognized as such by Ex Libris.  They realized they had a gap in the area of their document delivery capabilities and came seeking the best document sharing service available, RapidILL. 

MR:  It quickly became clear when talking with Ex Libris that they are very serious about providing options to libraries interested in new and dynamic ways to approach resource sharing.  We are in a period of time where there is significant interest in re-evaluating the potential of the future of interlibrary loan.  What isn’t working?  What could be working better?  Are the current tools and processes successful, or are they actually limiting our abilities to serve our communities?  How do we ensure that libraries maintain the ability to successfully share resources when using disparate systems?

These are questions and concerns that RapidILL has successfully engaged with and found solutions for since the beginning.  We found that many of the approaches, thoughts and ideas we had about the future of resource sharing were in alignment with Ex Libris, and they saw that our engagement with these issues was complementary to their goals and ideas for new development.  Along with the potential to work with us to continue to grow RapidILL, Ex Libris recognized that our expertise in resource sharing (should this be hyphenated even when it is not an adjective?).  It is used quite a bit would be a beneficial component to their new activities and directions in this space. 

ATG:  Now that RapidILL is an Ex Libris product, does CSU have any financial responsibility for the service?  What support will CSU provide to maintain the service?  How does this new arrangement impact staffing, facilities, equipment, etc.?

PB:  No, Ex Libris totally owns the product now.  No further impact to CSU.

MR:  The RapidILL acquisition was not just limited to the RapidILL intellectual property, technology and services but also included the RapidILL staff.  The Rapid team have all migrated and are now Ex Libris employees.  While we have moved out of our offices at CSU library, we have not gone that far!  Ex Libris has provided us with office space in Fort Collins so we have not had to relocate from beautiful Colorado.  Over the past few months since the acquisition, we have worked on moving our servers and technologies from CSU to the Ex Libris Cloud Environment.  This was a huge project that gave us the opportunity to work closely with many new colleagues at Ex Libris.  The migration was very successful and helped us establish relationships with many people at Ex Libris that I believe will lead to fruitful collaborations and future projects.

ATG:  On a personal level, how are you both navigating the relationship with Ex Libris so far? 

PB:  I stayed involved through the transaction and transition.  When that all went well, I then stepped out of the way.

MR:  It has been an eventful first few months as an Ex Libris employee!  I’ve had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with many people in the Ex Libris organization.  RapidILL has always had a customer-centric approach, and I’ve found that this is mirrored in the ways that Ex Libris interacts with their user communities.  That we are in such alignment has been affirming to me, and I’m looking forward to more in-depth discussions about how RapidILL can potentially interact with and support the suite of Ex Libris offerings.

ATG:  Mr. Richins, has the new arrangement created any training challenges for the library staff?  Can you describe the relationship between the library staff and the staff at Ex Libris?  Who is responsible for what?

MR:  The expectations going into the acquisition were that the RapidILL team would continue to do what we have been doing at CSU in terms of day to day job responsibilities.  This allowed for a smooth transition, both from an operational standpoint and from a RapidILL community standpoint.  Because RapidILL is so community-focused, it was important for us to reassure our users that they are still able to interact with the RapidILL team the same way they are accustomed to, which is highly collaborative and very responsive.

From an organizational standpoint, RapidILL is now part of Ex Libris Resource Sharing Solutions, which is managed by the Resource Sharing Solutions VP, Sharona Sagi.  I report to Sharona, and manage the RapidILL team which consists of:  Greg Eslick, Director of Rapid Technology, Sam Friedman, Senior Technical Support Analyst, and Mike Morrison, Senior Software Engineer.

While we are a small team, as part of Ex Libris we are now always collaborating with staff in other departments, whether it is to enhance and augment RapidILL support, working on new development, or engaging in marketing/promotional efforts.  One of the challenges is that many of our work colleagues are outside of the U.S., which can sometimes require creative meeting scheduling due to time zone differences! 

ATG:  More specifically, how have these changes impacted RapidILL’s relationship with the CSU library staff, particulatly the current interlibrary loan librarians?  What’s it like having them as customers rather than colleagues?

PB:  This is also a Mike question.  I can only assume that the friendship is enduring, and that personal and professional relationships will not suffer.

MR:  The RapidILL team has always appreciated and enjoyed working closely with the many colleagues we’ve had over the years at CSU libraries.  There are so many wonderful memories looking back over the years that RapidILL was part of the University.  This is, of course, especially true with our friends in the ILL department.  It is strange to consider that we are, technically, no longer members of the CSU community, but I think we’ll always feel a connection to the University and to the library in particular.  And we do plan on continuing a collaborative relationship with the ILL department — I’m excited to see how we can work with them moving forward.

ATG:  Dean Burns, you were quoted in the press release announcing the deal that “together, Ex Libris and RapidILL will be able to develop advanced resource-sharing solutions and greatly expand the reach of RapidILL.”  What advanced solutions were you referring to?  How far will that reach extend?  Do you intend to compete with OCLC nationally? 

PB:  I’ll refer you to Mike who had outlined the next development project, project “Bedrock,” in a lot of detail, and who also had analyses of the two projects beyond BedrockEx Libris’ Alma is in so many Libraries, and we viewed integration with Alma as an opportunity to greatly expand the reach of RapidILL to many more libraries.  Insofar as competing with OCLC, I’ll refer you to Ex Libris, as they are wholly responsible for product directions going forward.

MR:  Over the two years prior to the acquisition, we spent quite a bit of time considering the future of resource sharing and RapidILL’s place in it.  We decided to move forward with Project Bedrock after feedback from the community showed that there was interest in what RapidILL could do in the space of ILL request management.  The initial goals for Bedrock were to provide a patron-facing interface for placing and managing loan requests to support our returnables service, and to give ILL staff a very streamlined, customizable and current solution to work with these requests.  The additional projects that Dr. Burns refers to were simply further enhancements to Bedrock that would have supported additional features.  We eventually realized that our limited resources under CSU would have prevented a successful rollout and adoption of Bedrock.  As part of Ex Libris, we are able to apply the knowledge we gained working on the project to future Ex Libris development and offerings.  We are now in a position to see some of the ideas and features we planned for Bedrock realized in a sustainable and scalable solution.

With the widespread adoption of Alma, there is a significant opportunity for RapidILL to be used by libraries that were either not aware of RapidILL, or that were not using an ILL platform that integrates with the Rapid system.  Now that RapidILL functionality is integrated into Alma, it is extremely easy for an Alma user to implement RapidILL.  The workflows are simple, which allows libraries to use RapidILL effectively from day one.  We’ve had many users ask for Alma-RapidILL integration over the past few years, so it is exciting to finally present it as an option.

In terms of our place in the market from a competitive standpoint, our goal is to provide solutions that work extremely well and that integrate, as needed, into other existing resource sharing platforms.  Providing options for our users is key, and while some of our services overlap with other offerings in this space, we are devoted to facilitating highly-effective interlibrary loan activities, whether it is directly through Ex Libris solutions or excellent integration with other systems.

ATG:  How do each of you see RapidILL evolving and adjusting to meet the future needs of the institutions you serve?  And can you talk about RapidILL’s plans for growth and expansion?

PB:  This is my personal preference and should not be construed as Ex Libris’ direction.  Personally, I would like to see a cradle-to-grave document sharing and delivery service well and seamlessly integrated into an ILS.

MR:  The next few years will see significant changes for library resource sharing.  The acquisition has positioned RapidILL to successfully advance and develop in this climate, ensuring that we will have the resources to continue what we have been doing for years but with a renewed focus and acceleration.  RapidILL will continue to be an open system in that we will always support interoperability standards.  We look forward to working with the library community and partner vendors to enhance functionality with current platforms and to bring RapidILL services to new interlibrary loan solutions.

There is an increasing importance in connecting international library collections and getting material in the hands of distant patrons, some who are half-way around the globe.  2020 will see RapidILL expand to new countries which will enrich the collective holdings of the Rapid community while providing us with the opportunity to serve new institutions.

The RapidILL team is also working closely with colleagues in Ex Libris on Rapido, a new next generation discovery-to-delivery platform.  Rapido will provide an exceptional user experience for obtaining materials from other libraries and which will also support streamlined and advanced workflows for library staff.  Utilizing a shared holdings index, Rapido will facilitate physical and digital resource sharing among groups of libraries, based partly on the RapidILL pod concept.  Libraries will be able to set a variety of lending policies for the material they expose for sharing, from loan periods to expected turnaround time.  Using these behind-the-scenes settings, Rapido will present users with easy to understand options for obtaining material, while providing transparency in relation to borrowing terms and how soon they can expect to receive their requested items.  We look forward to sharing more details about this new and exciting offering in the coming months! 

ATG:  Dean Burns and Mr. Richins, we want to thank you both for taking time from your busy schedules to talk to us.  We learned a lot about the RapidILL service as well as your unique collaboration with Ex Libris. 

PB:  You are very welcome; I hope this is what you want and need.

MR:  My pleasure, thanks so much.  

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