Emma Boettcher Unseated a Jeopardy Mega-Champion. Here’s the Next-Generation Library System She’s Working On.

When Emma Boettcher returned to her job as a librarian at the University of Chicago after appearing on Jeopardy, her colleagues brought in a cake decorated like the iconic game show’s board to celebrate.

The 27-year-old librarian had unseated James Holzhauer, one of the highest-grossing Jeopardy contestants of all time, and won nearly $100,000. And as a result, she had become a celebrity, complete with an origin story that included writing her graduate thesis about analyzing Jeopardy clues for patterns.

Now it was time to get back to her day job, part of which involves helping build an open-source library services platform that manages physical and digital collections—which could help future researchers, whether they’re preparing for their own Jeopardy bid or more serious scholarship.

The project is called FOLIO, and it’s an international effort to build open-source, “next-generation” software to handle the back-end work of organizing library collections, like helping patrons check out books and managing digital holdings. Boettcher spends about half of her job at the University of Chicago as a product manager for a piece of the project, and the rest of her time as a user experience librarian at the university.

FOLIO has been in the works since 2015, and it has been quietly growing with the help of at least a dozen college and university libraries. While much of its functions are in the category of “boring but important”—like keeping track of the millions of books a place like the University of Chicago library owns—the software aims to be the central nervous system for major libraries around the world. It wants to replace commercial systems that libraries currently pay for. And its leaders say it could speed scholarly discoveries, since in the long run it could better unify the many digital databases that libraries subscribe to.

Today’s library management systems were built “for a world of managing books and journals,” says Elisabeth Long, associate university librarian for information technology and digital scholarship at the University of Chicago libraries, “and that is not what libraries are about anymore.”

These days the bulk of library budgets are spent not on physical books, but on subscriptions to databases of electronic journals, books and other materials. And Long says that since today’s library systems evolved over time, they don’t always do a great job uniting the many online services that libraries now offer, which can leave users hunting around on library websites looking for the right database to search.

The vision of FOLIO is to start from scratch, which could mean that a library search could one day automatically guide patrons to the best resource, or automatically search across nearly all of a library’s databases.

“To me this has the potential down the road to just transform what we’re able to do with our catalog,” says Long.

One goal of the project is for librarians to gain more control of the systems they rely on.

“A big draw for us is that it is an open-source product,” says Paula Sullenger, associate dean for information resources at Texas A&M University, which is also participating in the FOLIO project. “We are really devoted to open source where possible. We would rather put our money into dev efforts rather than paying a commercial vendor.”

Cost is another factor. The small market for digital library systems has seen consolidation in recent years, leaving major libraries few choices, says Marshall Breeding, an independent library consultant. And there is concern that prices could rise in the future. “It is healthy for the library-tech industry to have another competitor in this space,” he adds.

But even though the FOLIO software itself will be free, most of the universities don’t expect much cost savings in the short term, since many libraries will end up paying companies to help them migrate to the new system and maintain it, says Sullenger.

While librarians have big hopes for the system in the long term, they say the first step is simply designing a system that is robust, since it is so complex and mission-critical for libraries.

“For the first year or two we’re basically hoping that users don’t notice the difference” because it works just as well as ever, says Sullenger.

Origin Story

FOLIO continues a dream that has been pursued before. An effort called Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE) was under development for about eight years, largely with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, before it was abandoned after the Kuali organization switched from nonprofit to for-profit status, says Breeding.

The FOLIO project took up the cause but decided to start over with the software code.

Even though the FOLIO software is open-source, it is supported by a for-profit company, EBSCO. The company is making a bet that it can do better by offering services to support libraries using FOLIO than it can in building its own proprietary system to compete with major players like ExLibris.

An early version of the FOLIO software has been released, but no one is using it yet beyond testing, says Long, of the University of Chicago. “It is not yet ready for prime time,” she adds. “We have been aiming for next summer as an implementation time. We really need a fully functioning system before we would be able to implement.”

The hope is that libraries will jump on board once they are convinced that it is stable. As Sullenger, of Texas A&M, put it: “If we have a few libraries that successfully run it for a year or so, we’re confident that it’s going to take off.”

Would the system help Boettcher prepare for Jeopardy better? The celebrity librarian declined EdSurge’s request for an interview.

She told The Chicago Tribune that part of her secret was simply practicing the game at home. For five years she tracked her scores in a notebook and developed a strategy of going for high-value clues early and betting big on Daily Doubles, just as the champion she bested had done.

“It’s been remarkable as a fan to have watched his run,” she told the Tribune. “James is such a great player. And for me, it would have been an honor to have played him regardless of how the game had turned out. It’s been nice having watched the show for so long and to feel like I’ve kind of made my mark on the ‘Jeopardy!’ history in that way.”

Correction: This piece originally described FOLIO as a nationwide effort. The project has international partners as well. The article has been corrected, and a list of partner libraries can be found here.

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