FOLIO: Challenging the Status Quo Through Community-Based Development

In response to competitive industry pressures,The FOLIO project was initiated as a community collaboration between libraries, vendors and developers to build an open source library services platform (LSP) to compete with existing players.

The library information technology services sector provides solutions that help libraries manage their daily operations. The largest industry players are Ex Libris, Innovative Interfaces, Inc. (III) and SirsiDynix with additional competition from smaller players that specialize in specific geographies and library types[1]. The current industry dynamics are the result of a wave of consolidation that took place over the past decade and created an opportunity for a new type of product to enter the market.

Recent Library Journal surveys of libraries indicate that ~43% of academic libraries reported themselves as somewhat or completely dissatisfied with their current Integrated Library System (ILS) or Library Services Platform (LSP), which represents a significant increase from 28% of libraries who were surveyed a year prior[2]. Existing systems are expensive, complex, and recent consolidation has left customers with limited alternatives to consider.

The Future of Libraries is Open (FOLIO) Project was started to develop a new ILS/LSP system that would be cloud-ready, multi-tenant, scalable and built around an open knowledge base. The system would be supportive of linked open data and capable of both electronic and print resource management[3]. The project was initially spearheaded by the Open Library Foundation and Index Data. With such monumental goals, Index’s and OLF’s limited experience in ILS development and their limited capital budgets presented a significant hurdle to overcome.

Understanding that accomplishing this goal would address known customer pain points and thus open up a large commercial opportunity, OLF decided to employ a community-based development approach to leverage the capabilities and knowledge of existing players in the ecosystem. The initial announcement of FOLIO in 2016 described the project as a collaborative effort amongst libraries, vendors, developers and other related entities to leverage open source technology and a community-based effort to redefine how libraries operate and build a pathway towards changing the library experience in the future. Initial FOLIO partners included EBSCO Information Services (who continues to provide the majority of the project’s funding) ByWater Solutions, SirsiDynix, Frontside, Stacks, Global Open Knowledge base (GOKb) and Qulto.

While this differs slightly from a pure play open innovation approach, the combined expertise from ecosystem participants should allow for a product to be developed while avoiding the pitfalls associated with building a product without incorporating feedback from users[4]. Pursuing this path also allows OLF to compete with the significantly larger players in the space who have had multiple decade head starts despite not being as well capitalized. OLF initially hoped to release its product to the market by 2018, but that timing has already slipped to 2019 for when a beta product will be launched with select partners.

While early signs seems promising, significant questions remain around the long-term efficiency of this chosen method.  As prominent industry expert, Carl Grant, highlighted, building an ILS from scratch is a complex task that historically has taken established players many years to get right[5]. Currently, it appears that OLF is relying on part-time developer capacity from participating libraries who can spare resources. One suggestion I might make to management to address this would be to cast a broader net to leverage the skills of developers from unrelated fields, a technique that was tremendously successful for InnoCentive, whose participants found success solving problems that they themselves had weak ties to[6].

The other key factor that needs to be considered is the mechanism that will align incentives and motivate each of the participating groups. It is clear why libraries have jumped on board as they view open-sourced systems as the most flexible products that can fulfill their needs, however the same cannot be said for the vendors and developers. To be successful in the long-term, OLF will need collective buy-in from these groups and as of now they seem to have received it through funding and partnership commitments.

With the competitive landscape continually evolving, the industry awaits the full-scale launch of the FOLIO project. Will the arrival of FOLIO dethrone established industry players with this new product development approach or will existing players further cement their positions? Will this development approach be able to contend with the fact that the competition continues to invest in their respective products? Will OLF and its partners be able to remain flexible and adjust priorities as the marketplace does?


[1] ‘Company Profiles’ (2016) Library Journal, 141(6), pp. 42–44. ;(Accessed: November 10, 2018)

[2] Matt Enis, “Open Future | Library Systems Landscape 2017”, Library Journal,; (Accessed November 10, 2018)

[3] “Introducing FOLIO — A new collaboration bringing libraries, service providers and developers together to speed innovation and redefine the future of library automation” FOLIO Press Release (Boston, MA, June 24, 2016)

[4] Karim R. Lakhani and Jill A. Panetta, “The Principles of Distributed Innovation”; Innovations (Summer 2007)

[5] Carl Grant, “FOLIO, acronym for “Future of Libraries Is Open”? I’d suggest: “Fantasy of Librarians Inflamed by Organizations”, Thoughts from Carl Grant,; (Accessed November 10, 2018)

[6] Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”, (2006),; (Accessed November 10, 2018)


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Student comments on FOLIO: Challenging the Status Quo Through Community-Based Development

  1. I found this article very relevant. We are back in school and had to leverage various academic resources in order to write our TOM Challenge. I’m curious whether there is any dissatisfaction with the current Integrated Library System (ILS) or Library Services Platform (LSP) used by our library. I think increased competition or the threat of increased competition, something that FOLIO creates, improves overall quality of service. This stands even if FOLIO does not ultimately succeed in the shifting landscape.

  2. I’m curious how for-profit entities providing library IT services (Ex Libris, Innovative Interfaces, etc.) will be able to compete with an open-source technology like FOLIO. It’s interesting to see how, in the world of web browsers, there’s a mix of open-source tech (e.g., Firefox) and closed (e.g., Microsoft Edge) in use. The common factor there, however, is that all of the options are free. If Ex Libris currently charges for its technology but FOLIO decides not to, will anyone pay a premium for the non-open source solution?

  3. Open source innovation in the public sector suggests that collaborators will contribute to a project to resolve their independent pain points, creating a collective solution with a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” benefit. What I wonder most about this project is if the incremental benefit and competitive advantage over existing solutions is enough to attract developer talent — e.g., are the pain points that you describe burdensome enough to current users that systems managers will dedicate resources to this effort. I might consider outsourcing some of the rote development work to computer science students at universities and even high schools across the U.S. through exercise-based, modular work pieces overseen by regional volunteer “managers.” It would provide both a learning opportunity and a means to accomplish some of the more basic tasks of development, freeing the principal contributors to focus on setting direction.

  4. Interesting article. I wonder what factors have led to the success of other open source projects employing open innovation such as Wikipedia or Linux. I feel like those projects had different intrinsic benefits for people to spend time working on them, so I am curious what needs to be done to incent or motivate people to get this project done, as it is struggling to get across the finish line.

  5. What an interesting application for open innovation. It makes a lot of sense to allow for specialized input in this space in order to create a superior product. I’m curious of the business model behind this effort and how quickly libraries will be willing to transfer to a new platform. Depending on the resources of the library, it seems like the incumbent product would be quite sticky. Per your last question, I would think the nimble potential of a crowd sourced technology like this would have a great competitive advantage to adjust to marketplace demands and trends – it will be interesting to see.

  6. In the larger context of open source innovation, this article makes a strong case for exploring the application of crowd sourcing in areas that were traditionally considered too complex to disrupt through crowd sourcing. With Library Service Platforms – like other professionally used platforms (e.g., CRM-platforms) – designing developing all parts in a harmonized effort by one entity and then pushing updates to fix emerging problems after implementation has been a standard. Non-individualized solutions have led to many problems, e.g. low data quality and low functionality. This open source project has the potential of disrupting traditional providers through offering superior, customized functionalities to its users.

  7. This seems like a great space for open source innovation. People who are using these libraries are typically highly educated and attuned to the issues facing them when using products for research. Academics, heavy library resource users, are increasingly required to learn how to code in traditionally non-technical areas (for example, accountants and political scientists needing to learn natural language processing to do research), and allowing these people to contribute to the systems that allow them to succeed as academics seems like a natural step, and one that many users would aid in developing. We have seen user tools develop over the past few years that help save time (e.g. automated citations), but I am sure that opening up coding to many users would produce innovative solutions to finding information that are less obvious, and perhaps more helpful/impactful.

  8. The Future of Libraries is Open (FOLIO) Project clearly demonstrates the potential of using opensource innovation an area that is incredibly relevant to engage the public. The strength of this project is its ability to galvanize all key stakeholder “the right ecosystem” to make this project successful. Understanding that there is a sustainability issues in regards to part-time software engineers, I’m curious to learn more your thoughts on how to mitigate the risks to ensure that sustainability of this effort.

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