All posts by afry

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.

Use it or lose it

I’d never even heard of a Math Emporium until six months ago.

For those of you in a similar boat, a Math Emporium is a large computer lab with associated tutoring and supplemental instruction space used to offer remedial and lower-level math instruction via online, self-paced modules. I am not qualified to speak to its pedagogical merits but have reason to believe it is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction (these reasons include the fact that, during the most recent round of non-tenure-track faculty layoffs at BGSU, the department that took the biggest hit was Math).

If a Math Emporium is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction, it is more space-intensive. We have been told BGSU’s developing Math Emporium requires a space large enough for a 180-seat computer lab dedicated for 13 hours a day to math instruction. Following the lead of the universities that have gone before us (including our neighbors at Kent and Cleveland State), the best space for such a facility is, naturally…library collection space.

We welcomed a Learning Commons into our library building two years ago, significantly cutting down space devoted to reference, periodicals and government documents. The partnership is imperfect: the Learning Commons group study spaces are not available to librarians or walk-in users, and no one can sit in their area without swiping their ID card and recording their activity in the space – a policy which, as it violates my professional ethics, prevented me from holding my office hours there this fall. I have collaborated with the Learning Commons, however. I have referred students to their writing tutors and taught joint instruction sessions with them. Their writing tutors also refer students to librarians at our reference desk.

I have trouble imagining the same kind of thing happening with the Math Emporium. I do not understand what connection remedial math instruction has to any part of the library’s mission as an academic unit – and I honestly don’t think anyone is prepared to pretend that there is one. The library is seen as a convenient place to house this kind of facility because, frankly, the people who make these decisions see most of our building as empty space. To them, space housing physical collections is space that is not being used.

During the summer, BGSU sets up incoming student advising in the library, and a group of student workers sits by the front entrance to direct traffic. I once overheard a parent ask one of them, “Is this entire floor of the library the learning commons?” He said, “Yes. Well, pretty much. The learning commons is most of this part over here; that part over there is just library storage.”

Just library storage? I told the student, “No – those are our books – all the materials we collect and make available for people to use to complete their coursework and research!” He clearly felt bad, and he quickly apologized and told me he loved libraries. But it seems like he thought the same thing our administrators do – that everything is online, our stacks are full of things no one uses, and if we cut the library’s footprint for physical collections in half, no one will miss the thousands of volumes that will, almost certainly, just be thrown away.

I bet that to many, and even to many of you, I sound like a Luddite, not wanting to get rid of “legacy print collections.” It’s not that I’m opposed to doing that. (I’m an e-resources librarian – remember that!) I would be especially willing to do that if that work was going to result in spaces that would support the programmatic needs of the library and that would showcase our remaining collections. If it would allow us to create the kind of student and faculty space that makes people want to discover and create knowledge. The kind of space where students could work with our collections (curate, engage, create). But we never made that investment in our own space. We don’t have any processes in place to support those kinds of uses. We’ve just been doing the same things with our collections for years and years and years, crowding more and more volumes into a smaller and smaller space, keeping things for posterity while ignoring the present, and now both are threatened.

I believe we should both try to manage legacy print collections in a way that makes space for new priorities as well as in a way that leverages their use in the broadest possible way. This is going to require a little more nimbleness on our part – more proactivity, more willingness to adopt non-normal procedures, more cooperation, and more imagination. A year ago, a new professor in the School of Art approached me about our library’s space: she wanted her students to engage with our collections, but our collection spaces were “so uninviting.” Nothing about how our books were shelved or presented encouraged the kind of engagement she envisioned. As reimagining our first floor space was under discussion even then, I suggested we pilot something with the School of Art. My dean said she would talk with Capital Planning “when they get to the point of imagining the new spaces on the first floor…I imagine it would involve a lot of stacks shifting to create what we would really like.”

I don’t think a large computer lab for remedial math instruction is what she had in mind when she mentioned creating “what we would really like,” but it looks like that’s what we well may end up with. Regardless, earlier this week, the library faculty passed a resolution stating that we believed the Math Emporium was a “bad fit for the academic mission of the library, and therefore a bad fit for the Jerome Library building.” We’ll see what happens. I think part of the problem was we let Capital Planning imagine new spaces on the first floor of the library instead of going ahead and doing it ourselves. If our collection spaces are not especially inviting, I don’t expect replacing them with a Math Emporium will make them more so. Not for people who need to engage, curate, discover and imagine. Not for anyone except a couple hundred students taking low-level math, and not, perhaps, even for them.

 

Promises, Promises

I’ve always been a big supporter of working with vendors. I love talking to my vendors, because I feel they know a lot about the industry and what other libraries are doing, and they get to talk to many librarians in my region more than I do. I always spend hours on the exhibit floor at ALA, meeting with my vendors and trying to learn more about the products we have or might acquire. I have always believed, on the advice of Lynn Wiley (my graduate assistant supervisor), that vendors are our partners – we can’t do what we do without the products and services they develop, and they can’t survive unless we are around to provide them with business and patrons.

But lately I’ve been feeling a little let down and, even, betrayed by my vendors, and am wondering if those who view vendors with mistrust and even as adversaries also have a point.

For example, the vendor of a product we just agreed to buy, partially because it would lock in pricing for a very desired development they told us was coming “later this year,” just told us that the development would not be available until next summer. A journal publisher recently raised the price of a package for our consortium by 1,900% (the consortium has let us know the state is dropping the package). We signed up for an ILS software upgrade which brought our entire ILS to a screeching halt for about a week when implemented and does not include some of the functionality we were promised (and partially bought it for). Functionality announced as approved for development in our ERM over two years ago has not even begun (at least, the beta, which was supposed to happen 18 months ago, has never been scheduled).

Our discovery system’s upgrade announced for this summer was delayed, then the preview was non-functional, and is now only partially functional; it will not be ready for implementation (in my mind) by the time fall semester starts due to a few serious design flaws, and is supposed to replace the old interface completely by January, forcing us into a mid-year change (which we try to avoid). Knowledgebase software upgrades by another vendor that were originally announced for June have been delayed to August and now, possibly, January, changing our review and potential adoption plans drastically, because we have decided that the way the product currently works is unacceptable and impossible for us to implement.

One vendor whose product we were trialing last fall pushed me too far and caused me to halt the trial. Another vendor, whose cold calls I had ignored (because we already had a similar product with lots of content overlap whose use was woefully low and which, indeed, we’ve cancelled), approached our university’s provost to sell the product instead. (I was going to chat with them about this at ALA this summer but, surprise, they weren’t even there.) I’ve asked direct questions of two other vendors repeatedly this summer (in person, in webinars, in email), been promised answers, have never received them (or only received partial answers), and have finally, months later, come to the conclusion I’ll never get them.

Perhaps I have been naïve and overly trusting of what my vendors tell me about development releases, when I should know to take them with a grain of salt. Perhaps I have put too much stock in what people in sales have said when I should know that developers and salespeople do not necessarily communicate closely or share information well. Perhaps some of these things are honest oversights rather than deliberate obfuscations – our vendors’ staff are overworked, just like I am, and their companies’ budgets are tight, just like my library’s. But I don’t feel like all of my vendors are partnering with me in good faith  – instead, I feel like some of them are just trying to sell me things.

What about you? Have any of you experienced similar situations recently with vendors? How did you handle them? Have you adopted any tactics to successfully ward off any of the experiences I’ve mentioned from occurring (or reoccurring)?

When we met with our ILS vendor about its upgrade (which we ended up purchasing more or less sight unseen, since no preview was available), the salesperson said, “It’s a trust relationship.” Really? Trust is earned. Some of my vendors are going to have to start working harder for mine.

Information wants to be free – but Viacom is holding it hostage

Last night during dinner I went to watch Tuesday’s Daily Show online, as I frequently do, only to be confronted with a bizarre pop-up ad about DirecTV (which seemed to have nothing to do with me, since I don’t have DirecTV, or, indeed, a TV at all) and a message saying that full episodes were not currently available online. I did a couple of Google searches trying to find out what was going on, but my roommate said, “It’s just a contract dispute – they’ll work it out in a couple of days. Let’s watch something on Netflix instead.”

Turns out this contract dispute – over how much DirecTV pays for Viacom content – has been dragging on for a while. Viacom evidently thought it might come to this, registering its Facebook propaganda page “WhenDirectvDrops” on June 15, weeks before the July 10 deadline. According to the Washington Post, Viacom wants DirecTV to pay 30% more for Viacom channels; DirecTV has refused; both sides are spinning the story – Viacom blaming DirecTV for “dropping” content, Direct TV claiming they are “protecting consumers” – hoping viewers will forget they are caught in a dispute between profitable corporate giants. While Viacom posted DirecTV’s customer service number on its Facebook page and in its ads, encouraging viewers to call and complain, DirecTV was telling its customers where they could watch the full episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show for free online – and Viacom responded by blocking the full episodes.

Why should you care? Because this is what can happen when information, software, and services are controlled by companies primarily interested in profit. Many libraries (including my own) saw something similar this week when Meebo, acquired last month by Google, reached its own drop-dead date yesterday. And don’t forget those big price increases for databases and e-journals – when one of our products changed publishers and increased in price by 100% we had no choice but to can it. It goes away if you don’t pay.

Hopefully my roommate is right – that these two megagiant corporations will “work it out in a couple of days” – because, with no real rights to content which is protected by laws that favor intellectual property owners over viewers, users, and readers, that is our only option. I’m not trying to argue that we have a right to watch Jersey Shore online for free, or ought to. (Tweeter Courtney Mattison told the Associated Press the dispute was “costing her a couple hours of reality TV per night” – and you could argue she is better off.) But Viacom could decide to keep free full episodes offline and force consumers without subscription cable to turn to paid online viewing services, other media providers could follow suit, and then we are that much closer to an information environment where the only way any content is available is through a pay-per-view license negotiated between the company and the end user because we have created the legal and technological structures that make this feasible, profitable, and, even, acceptable.

I recently discovered the beauty of the Kindle for iPad app – I can download a book right to my iPad and start reading it right then! no waiting! But, of course, the Kindle license agreement (which Amazon can change, but I can’t) allows Amazon the ability to pull back the content at any time – content that I am paying for but not purchasing. Now, I’m not likely to want to refer back to my copy of New Moon (Book 2 of the Twilight Saga) and might never miss it, but if the book was a textbook, and the giant textbook publisher got in a dispute with Amazon, and Amazon decided to hold all the books hostage until it got enough readers to call and complain…

This is old ground, of course. Is paying a little bit for access to electronic information for an unspecified amount of time good enough? Most of the time, it probably is, it might even be fair, and most people, including me, might be perfectly willing to do it. But the problem is that this model gives me no real rights to the information. It’s as if I had no stake in it, which, while that may be true for online streaming of Jersey Shore, is less true for my copy of the Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 and is definitely NOT true for the last album I “bought” on iTunes.

You might say, well, then, buy print if you want those rights. Buy CDs. Or check the DVD out of the library. But the reality is that physical media is not only often less attractive to users (I like reading books on my iPad, I’ve discovered), it’s also becoming less available (how many of you live in college towns without a bookstore?), and it’s only a matter of time before it’s not available at all. Libraries are ditching print for online, too. Universities are adopting electronic textbooks. And without any revisions to copyright law that protect the interests of information consumers, libraries and end users are both at the mercy of the publishers’ willingness to negotiate and/or keep the promises they make to never do what they reserve the right to do.

We operate on good faith with our vendors (“it’s a trust relationship,” a rep from Innovative once told me). But at ALA last month I heard Cody Hanson talking about the process of choosing a commercial discovery service for the University of Minnesota Libraries. He wasn’t able to disclose yet what that discovery service was, but he told the audience that these products are “as different as they are similar,” and what makes them so different are not just their features, but the business models and “nature” of their vendors. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but as I look at my library’s portfolio of e-products, where, by the end of this month, two-thirds of our subscription databases will come from just one vendor, I sure hope I can trust in that vendor’s good nature. Because there’s precious few other providers we can direct our patrons to, and I don’t really think that making a Facebook page and giving them an 800 number is going to be enough.

Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.

Working Together: Tips for Vendors

When I was in library school, Lynn Wiley (who was at that time head of interlibrary loan at UIUC) said something about library vendors that made a big impression on me. She said that vendors are our partners – we could not do what we do without the content and service products they provide, and they could not do what they do without us, either – we provide an audience, an infrastructure, and end-user education for them. Throughout my career, first as an interlibrary loan librarian and now as an electronic resources librarian, I have let this idea be a guiding principle for me. I sincerely try to take time to talk to my sales and service reps and respond when they contact me, and one of the major reasons I never miss an ALA is because I feel like it’s essential for me to spend time on the exhibit floor touching base with vendors and publishers to learn what’s new. I easily get 100 e mails a day because I try to sign up for every vendor update list I can – it’s my job to know about database upgrades, downtime, content changes, etc., and I try to be conscientious about passing that information on to my colleagues. I have learned so much about what’s going on in the information services industry, and – just as importantly – what’s going on with other libraries in my region and in the country from my vendor contacts, and I truly value my relationships with them.

I don’t know how many librarians approach their relationships with vendors this way, but I imagine lots of us do. However, some vendors make my job easier – others don’t. I try to remind myself that sales reps are working in the business world, not the world of academia, and they have MBAs and quotas and deadlines that are probably getting harder to meet as our budgets shrink. I try to be forgiving when I feel like they’re pestering me, and remind myself they’re just doing their jobs. But a recent trial has produced a sales rep who’s really trying my patience by calling once a week, pressuring me for a decision, and sending “follow-up” e mails to my department chair and even dean. I have tried to respond to her queries with helpful information about our process and where we are in it, but I’m finding myself hoping sincerely our collections librarians decide not to buy this product because I don’t want to end up in a long-term relationship with this vendor at all.

So as spring trial season begins, I would like to offer some tips for vendors who want to partner with librarians and make our jobs easier, because making my job easier is the best way to ensure my long-term good will and a mutually beneficial relationship.

  1. E mail is the best way to reach me. I have probably been sitting at my desk in my office by my phone less than a dozen hours in the last two weeks. Instead of in my office, I have been at the reference desk, in a million meetings, and doing research for a conference paper I’m presenting this month. In those dozen hours at my desk I was working hard in software I can’t access wirelessly or from home. Getting a phone call during that time from a vendor who wants to sell me something is just poor timing for the vendor. A lot of times when I’m at my desk I don’t even answer the phone unless the call is coming from someone on campus for this very reason. E mail me. I hate the phone, it’s a terrible way to reach me, I don’t necessarily get to check my voice mail every day, and I will respond to your e mail.
  2. Libraries are on an annual budget cycle. That’s right. We usually make major purchasing decisions twice a year – once at the end of the calendar year (because we love those end-of-the-year deals vendors offer) and once in the spring, before the fiscal year begins in July. We may trial your product at any time, but we are only likely to make a purchasing decision one of those two times. Thus, while vendors may feel pressure to get us to make a decision, we feel no pressure at all, because we know the money doesn’t exist until the new budget cycle starts and now, with all the cuts going on, budgets never even come out on schedule, so we’re always behind. Therefore the decision process is long, is often delayed, and will not happen until the last possible moment. I do not tell my colleagues in reference and collection development when we need to get something. They tell me. They set the schedule. No matter how often you call (or, preferably, e mail), that schedule will never be in my hands.
  3. Make sure I get information I need. I think vendors should start combining sales and service. Maybe some do. But I feel like sales reps who want to sell me something are always figuring out how to contact me, while service information like database updates or downtime or content changes – vitally important information that I need to receive – often doesn’t get to me, or isn’t released in a timely manner. I have signed up for every e mail list I can, and every time we purchase something new I make a point of contacting the vendor and asking to be added to the list of people to receive technical and content updates, but I still feel like I have trouble getting that information. Vendors: libraries are truly interested in service and content. If you provide me with great information about that in a timely way, I am way more likely to listen when you have something new to sell.
  4. Make my job easier. I want to promote your products. There is nothing I would like to see more than our usage statistics for databases rise. Send me posters, pens, binder clips. The latest update to the OCLC Perceptions survey tells us patrons notice in-library flyers and promotions. If you send them, I’ll put them up. If you send me information in e mail, I’ll forward it to my subject liaison colleagues. If we buy something new, offer an in-person training or webinar for our librarians – I’m likely to take advantage of it.
  5. Inform me! I want to know what other libraries are doing, and I want to know where you think information services are going. What trends are you noticing in use statistics, in patron queries, in research patterns? Vendors have rich data and wide contacts. If you share that kind of information with me, I’ll eat it up, I promise, and I’ll listen to you when you have something to tell me.

If any vendors are reading this they might be thinking, well, what’s in it for me? I hope they think that my good will and influence with my students and colleagues is reward enough, because I certainly don’t have direct purchasing decision-making and I am not a subject liaison and I can’t guarantee we’ll have any money any time soon. Which is another problem, perhaps, with the way e-resources librarians’ jobs are structured, and perhaps a topic for another post.