Managing E-Resources For Users, 100%

I returned to electronic resources librarianship – and full-time work – 16 months ago in a brand-new e-resources coordinator position at an academic library. The catch? It was in public services.

Not many e-resources librarians live among the folks in reference and instruction – link resolvers, proxy servers, A-Z lists, COUNTER compliance, and ERMs usually keep us pretty close to our colleagues in acquisitions, serials and IT. Public services librarians, who spend their days building relationships with teaching faculty, performing classroom instruction, and juggling reference questions don’t have time to worry about the circuitous, detailed process involved in e-resources acquisitions and maintenance. Likewise, technical services and technology staff don’t necessarily see the daily impact their work and decisions have on users. Feeling caught in the middle, my transition was difficult. As a public services librarian, I got to do things like teach and work reference in a way most e-resources librarians don’t. But I also had limited opportunities to connect with my colleagues on the technical side, leaving me out of the decision making loop at crucial points.

Despite its necessary involvement in technical processing, I feel that electronic resources librarianship is actually very well suited to being located in public services. My previous e-resources position, at a small college, meant I managed e-resources from a public services position because we all did public services, and our close contact with students, faculty and each other helped us stay focused on making decisions that we thought were good for users even if for collections they were only good enough. How did that affect my approach to e-resources management? For one, I didn’t get into our systems from the back-end – I used the front end, the way our students did, and still do. I didn’t care at all how our records were constructed and linked in the ILS – in fact, most of our e-resources weren’t in the ILS at all, because that’s not how our users found them. Instead, I cared about how items were labeled and displayed so people could understand what they were and what they did. I was never preoccupied with usage statistics but more interested in promoting use. Those concerns were at the forefront of my mind because they were on the minds of the people I interacted with most often – other reference and instruction librarians.

Early job ads for e-resources librarians emphasized public services skills like reference and instruction (Fisher 2003: “the position title of Electronic Resources Librarian has been pre-empted by the public service sector of the profession”); over the years, these changed to emphasize more specialized technical skills – licensing, web development and customization (Albitz & Shelburne 2007). Why the shift? My guess is that early e-resources required a lot of instruction to use, even for other librarians (I remember trying to use Infotrac as a frustrated undergraduate in 1998 – a lot of librarian intervention was required before I got it), and public services librarians became the early adopters of a lot of the first online resources. But as CD-ROM databases were replaced by more and more online journals (and the platforms to search these in aggregate), we tried to mainstream them into existing workflows. Only these workflows, created to acquire print objects and hold on to them forever, have proven difficult to adapt.

At the Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference in Austin, Texas, last February, Rick Lugg of R2 Consulting talked about how models for approaching e-resources management have changed. First there was the “hub,” or expert model, in which one person in an organization was the point person for all the specialized processes and expertise required for e-resources management. This worked for small collections, but, as e-resources encompassed more and more of libraries’ content and budgets and became our most-used resources, the lack of scalability of this model demanded another approach. The next management model has tried to place e-resources into traditional workflows. This is the model most of us still try to adhere to, and is, in my opinion, another reason most e-resources work has come to rest in technical services. As one of my colleagues explained, many librarians whose jobs previously revolved around print materials feel it is essential that they have some responsibility for electronic materials; otherwise, what would their jobs become? Thus, selection and licensing of e-resources at my institution has stayed with collection development, acquisitions has handled processing, serials has handled e-journals, and IT has worked on access issues.

Rick, however, also suggested a model for the future in which libraries push much of the technical work associated with e-resources management up the food chain to consortia and collectives, freeing local librarians to deal more with acquiring, synthesizing and communicating information about virtual materials. Some libraries are further along this model than others: in Ohio, OhioLINK (for a long time the gold standard for library consortia, in my opinion) handles licensing, acquisition, payment, and sometimes even search interface customization for many of our e-resources, though not all: about a third are still processed locally, meaning that staff and workflows for all aspects of e-resources management must be maintained locally. Smaller consortia can absorb more of the work: the  California Digital Library, for example, is focused on just the 10 UCs, which have more in common (from programs to missions to administrative systems) than the 89 OhioLINK libraries. I am interested in seeing what models the enormous new LYRASIS will adopt – it is well positioned to fulfill Rick’s prediction for the future of e-resources management, though I imagine its challenges in doing so will prove to be as huge as the collective itself.

For someone in a public services e-resources position like mine, tracking information about e- resources and the issues that affect every stage of their lifecycles (from technology developments to budget pressures, staff changes, and trends in user behavior) was an important, if not the most important, part of my work. This is supported by Joan Conger & Bonnie Tijerina’s assessment of e-resources management in “Collaborative Library-wide Partnerships: Managing Electronic Resources Through Learning and Adaptation” (in Collins & Carr 2008). The dynamic process of managing e-resources “requires effective incorporation of information from a rich array of sources,” they write (97). The information it is important to pursue is most often stored in experiences – of vendors, library professionals, and patrons. To get to this contextual information, they say, librarians must keep current, particularly with users. They suggest “usability tests, library advisory groups, focus groups, direct observation,” as well as informal assessment to learn new things about user behavior (99). They also remind their readers that it is important to communicate what you learn.

Interfacing between the user experience and the information required to improve it proved to be the part of my job best suited to my location in public services, and in my first year at Bowling Green I focused on user issues. I participated in web and OPAC redesign projects, resource re-description, customization, usability testing, and training. I also made an effort to stay informed: I read (Don’t Make Me Think!, Studying Students, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want), I talked to vendors, I attended conferences and sat in on webinars.  But no matter how much e mail I sent, how many meetings I attended, or how many blogs and wikis I used, I couldn’t seem to find a way to merge the information I had together with the information from my colleagues so that together we could make our management of e-resources more effective for users. I discovered, during this period, that it’s not enough to recognize that lots of people are involved in making e-resources available; it’s also about having a seat at the right tables so you can advocate for these materials and their users, and, in my library at least, I was sitting at the wrong table.

After a retirement incentive program was completed last fiscal year, our technical services department found itself down five people, two of them faculty librarians. Library-wide, we discussed reorganization, and a number of staff changed locations, but I was the only one who actually changed departments: officially, my position is now split, and I am now 51% technical services – no longer with reference and instruction, for the first time in my career.

I’m excited about this change – everyone involved thought it would be best for the library and collections. Many of my new tech services colleagues started their careers in reference, so a focus on the patron is embedded in all of their approaches to processing, cataloging and collection management. But I also feel a little like I’ve given up a good fight. Why did I have to move to technical services? I know the answer is because that’s where a lot of e-resources work is still located. The model we had been trying, while I am convinced it is viable and know it worked at my previous job, wasn’t scalable for a large academic library with broadly distributed functions. Not yet. However, while my location has changed, it’s promising that my job description retains many of my public services functions. I will still work reference, teach, work on public web interfaces, and participate in usability efforts. These things may officially only be 49% of my job now, but I still want everything I do to be for users, 100%.

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

7 thoughts on “Managing E-Resources For Users, 100%

  1. What an intriguing analysis. The sorting of librarians into public and technical seems increasingly odd to me, when technical work mingles with learning and research support constantly, yet to separate print and electronic also makes no sense. I’m glad you have found the right table to sit at but still have a public role.

  2. I’ve worked at two libraries that parse electronic resources work in very different ways. Thankfully, at my current library, departmental distinctions are pretty fluid. I’m in technical services, but I serve on the reference desk, participate in some collection development functions, have a hand in the website, and so on. As you emphasize, the important thing is that you keep your eye on the users.

  3. Finding question, here. You referenced _Don’t Make Me Think!, Studying Students, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want_, but when searching for that, I’ve come across only _Don’t make me think! A common sense approach to web usability_ by Krug. I haven’t been able to verify the first title at all – can you provide a link, or more information about it? Thanks!

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