Selective Perceptions (on Ebooks and the New Resource Management)

I went to a packed panel at Midwinter sponsored by the ALCTS Collection Management and Development Section called “Is Selection Dead?” Rick Anderson (University of Utah), Steve Bosch (University of Arizona), Nancy Gibbs (Duke University) and Reeta Sinha (YBP) all concluded (with varying levels of acceptance) that, yeah, it is. (For an excellent summary of their comments and the Q&A that followed, see Josh Hadro’s report in Library Journal.) They confronted the audience with the big issues, but the audience’s questions reflected where we’re at on the ground – our discomfort with leaving preservation to vendors and Google, our frustration with changing patterns of research, our unwillingness to discard our professional traditions, and our enduring belief in that perfect source.

Anderson pointed out that now, between Google Books and HathiTrust and other, similar megasites dedicated to digitized content, we’re getting closer and closer to what he’s defined as libraries’ “unattainable ideal” – to make it possible for patrons to find every piece of information and be able to obtain it right when they find it. There’s no need to select when it’s so easy to access and append content, and when information about content (as well as harvesting and ingesting that information) is cheap or free.

Besides, no one thinks about starting information searches with local library collections anymore. Cathy De Rosa emphasized this in her presentation of the 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey at Midwinter on Saturday. Instead, we start with Google or something like it – something global, sometimes (but not necessarily) focused on a particular facet of the world of information (Amazon.com, IMDB, Wikipedia). Bosch called this “network level discovery,” and showed us a graph of the top-used internet sites: no .edu or library-related site (including WorldCat.org) even comes close to the network traffic of sites like Google and Yahoo!.

I do this, too: when I’m looking for something, my first action is to open a browser and do a keyword search of a huge, free database of information. Then I drill down to specific items I want to locate: things in my local library, or in a database which requires me to authenticate if I want access. I do this both because it’s easy and because it works: if I started with my library catalog I’d be confronted with arcane database software that fails miserably when asked to provide reasonable results for known items and topical searches alike.

If this makes us uncomfortable, we should remember that we as librarians have had a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with local collections for years now: we have advocated for bigger and more from database vendors (Gilbert 2010) and encouraged our users to go beyond our local collections with statewide resource sharing and interlibrary loan (“fuzzy walls,” Anderson called them). Many of us have started cutting local collecting to rely on shared content when possible, too.

There are good economic reasons behind this, and not just related to the skyrocketing costs of materials. Cut budgets mean less for books but less for people, too. Sinha pointed out that librarians who do collection development are often assigned half a dozen or more departments, some in which they have no expertise whatever, on top of being expected to work reference, do instruction, and, in many academic libraries, pursue their own research agendas. Such librarians are merely guessing what to buy, said Anderson, and, in many cases, guessing wrong. Big deals and approval plans began the end of selection, Bosch said; patron-driven acquisitions and print-on-demand will kill it entirely.

Anderson, Bosch and Gibbs said they still do some kind of collection gatekeeping, where librarians choose subject areas and other parameters for ebook metadata, create approval plan profiles, and evaluate packages even if they don’t evaluate individual titles (Nancy Gibbs called this “pre-selection”). So selection isn’t completely dead, but only areas like Special Collections will continue to engage in traditional selection, according to Gibbs.

One of the big surprises from this panel for me was that the big research libraries have already embraced electronic as the preferred format not just for journals, now, but for books. Meaning if a faculty member or selector asks that a title be added to the library’s collection, these libraries automatically buy the ebook if that format is available, unless the print book is specifically requested. Some libraries even require selectors to submit written justifications if they request a title in print.

The 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey shows that even more people equate libraries with books now than in 2005, and I asked the panelists what implications this has for our transition to primarily electronic content. I was told that “Ebooks are books, too” and that students don’t really read books anyway – they “interrogate” them, like databases, so having them electronically is actually better. The only way to do a full-text search of a print book is to read the whole thing, Bosch said. Anderson, in his presentation, said that we need to move towards ebooks as quickly as possible, despite their drawbacks. In response to my question, he said that the Perceptions survey was recording exactly that – perceptions. People want to see books when they walk in to libraries, but a lot of the volumes they see are reference books and bound journals, not the kind of books they might actually use.

So instead of selection or collection we’re moving to what Bosch called “resource management” – managing metadata and authentication for delivery at the point of discovery. After the panel, a colleague pointed out that this approach to library collections really only works for certain kinds of institutions and certain kinds of library users. I suspect she’s right – that it only works for people with a certain type of academic information need who are used to formulating sophisticated searches for specific information. Others still need physical browsing and the safeguards against information overload that local collecting can provide.

When I got back from Midwinter I talked to a friend of mine, a graduate student, about the shift to ebooks. His response was, hey, I love books, but things change. Books haven’t been around forever. He’s right: the idea that we can’t adapt to ebooks or that something inherent will be lost without physical volumes is absurd. But he doesn’t have an ereader and has no intention of buying one. The reality is that for most people, for most collections, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to support the wholesale transition to ebooks, “resource management” and delivery at the point of discovery. Our catalogs don’t adequately support online browsing, and ebook platforms don’t support the kind of engagement with texts that people need: the ability to annotate, share, and hoard or the ability to print when it’s desired. Keyword searching is not the same as skimming or flipping. And sometimes when I have a book I don’t want to interrogate it – I simply want to read.

How Much Is Enough?

I’ve been hearing more and more, recently, about people dropping out of service and professional development opportunities because they cannot secure funding from their institutions to attend. A member of a statewide committee I am on said this fall her continued membership would be contingent on her institution’s ability to pay for her travel to the meetings (since this is Ohio, that only ever involves driving, and her institution is only 25 miles away from where meetings are held). My ALA committee recently accepted a proposal for a panelist at a Midwinter discussion forum, but the panelist just e mailed me to say her institution would not provide her with funding to go, and were there any funding opportunities for her? I asked a coworker just this morning if she was going to Midwinter or not and she said no, and that the reason she wasn’t was because of funding. “Our travel stipend only pays for most of a trip to Chicago,” she said.

Well, she’s right about that: my official faculty stipend is $500 a year (though after you add in the extras it can be as much as $1500). And professional travel is not cheap. Someone planning to go to Midwinter next month can expect to spend well over $1,000: $165 for registration, $129/night (plus 12.5% tax) for the cheapest hotel on the official list, $71 per diem for meals (according to the U.S. General Services Administration). My flight from Ohio cost $405, airport transportation via the Super Shuttle in San Diego is $16 round trip, and airport parking back home is $10/day.

I find conferences energizing. At them I get great ideas, stay on top of what’s going on in the field and always meet interesting people. I learn lots, sleep little, and talk talk talk. But what are our institutions’ obligations to pay for this kind of professional development? What’s the payoff to them when we attend? A tight-fisted fiscal officer would point out that service can be done locally and research can be presented through publications rather than presentations. To learn new things, people can take webinars from the comfort of their own offices. And, while librarians who do national service and presentation may see it come back to them in the form of slight pay increases, it’s not enough to offset the cost of the travel itself. I don’t attend national conferences merely for my own benefit (do I?). Are we really supposed to do this just for the love of it? While no administrator has ever come out and asked me to quantify the institutional benefits of my professional development, is it really only a matter of time?

I asked if ALA had any funds to tap into for my committee’s speaker, and the answer was that “there is a long-standing ALA policy against providing stipends to librarians.” I’m sure the reasoning is that librarians should support the work of the organization and the development of our professional colleagues, but, facing financial pressures and funding shortfalls, it seems like many librarians are opting out.

According to my calculations, I spent over $1800 of my own money attending conferences and meetings this calendar year after all my reimbursements (which were well over $1500 due to a generous conference scholarship and part of the pot of travel money not used by my tenured colleagues). For me, it’s money well spent, but it’s also a lot of money, and I know it’s a lot more than many can afford. I don’t think our institutions are trying to send the message that professional development is not important, but I wonder if more and more of the rising cost of conference attendance has been shifting to the individual over the last decade and, with the economy being what it is, we’ve reached a kind of breaking point. Is conference attendance going down? I looked at the attendance for several conferences over the past few years, and it’s inconclusive: NASIG attendance has gone down, but ALA attendance has fluctuated and ER&L conference attendance is up. But I know ALA sections are worried about declining participation in committees and have been promoting virtual participation. Is this the answer?

It seems like the strategy of self-funding conference attendance, on top of membership and section fees, is not viable for the long term, though I’m not sure what the answer is – giving more breaks to presenters and other participants, upping virtual opportunities, or consolidating our opportunities so we get the most bang for our conference dollars.

Like many, my take-home pay is going down on January 1. But my rent isn’t going down, and neither is my student loan payment or the price of gas or any number of other essentials, so I am going to have to find other places in my personal budget to cut back. I’m not sitting out San Diego, but I wonder how many of my ALA committee members will make it.

Experience vs. Reality

Last week I was at the ARLIS/NA Midstates Chapter fall meeting, graciously hosted by Chapter president Rebecca Price and the University of Michigan Libraries. In a panel discussion, Ray Silverman (director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan) and Jennifer Gustafson (Practicum Coordinator for the School of Library & Information Science at Wayne State University) talked about the relationship between the digital and the real and its impact on museums as well as libraries.

Museums, they said, are getting away from the object and moving towards the experience, and they discussed The Henry Ford (no longer the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) as an example. There, a $32 admission fee provides access to a range of experiences, from riding in a Model T to playing historic baseball.

Libraries, however, are also moving this direction. A great divestiture of physical collections is underway in the wake of our shift to the electronic and in preparation for – what? Several librarians at the conference discussed the wholesale de-accessioning of visual resources collections, something that has been underway for years now. Tony White, director of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University, talked about the demise of the branch library and how he fears his library (now that it has absorbed the Visual Resources Center) may not be freestanding for much longer. Price brought up the de-duping proposal being discussed by the CICs: it begins with journals, but ends, we imagine, with thinner and more mobile physical collections, cooperatively owned, and research libraries whose floors of stacks have been transformed into flexible learning commons designed to hold the experiences of different audiences – first-year students, graduate students, faculty.

This is not only going on in the ARL libraries of the world – in my own mid-sized academic library we recently closed a branch (our science library) and have undertaken, along with other Ohio academic libraries, a massive deduping project, beginning with journals.

And what about roles? Silverman pointed out that as museums shift to providing experiences, curators actually become more like librarians, who have traditionally been less focused on collecting objects (though collect we do) and more on helping people. And White predicts that librarians’ roles as collection specialists will become a thing of the past as consolidated collections require less distributed expertise. Several weeks ago I blogged about this very future for electronic resources, though the reality on the ground right now makes it seem rather distant.

Ironically, Silverman predicted a “re-discovery of the real” – that the object itself will become more important than it’s ever been. But “the books are going,” as Price said. For libraries, what form will that object take when the books are gone? Will we create experiences with our special collections? Prize the digital object instead of the physical? Remember, for many, libraries’ brand is still books, and some people still want them, just like some museum-goers still want art. It would be awful to re-discover this reality only after the books are gone.

Technical Drudgery Revisited

On October 7, NISO sponsored a workshop in Chicago called “E-Resource Management: From Start to Finish (and Back Again).” In the opening keynote, Norm Medeiros of the Tri-Colleges (Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore) asked what value electronic resource management (ERM) systems bring to libraries. His answer? Not much, yet.

If what your library needs most is a data warehouse for e-resources information, Medeiros said, you should not purchase an ERM. An Access database or other homegrown solution will work just as well, with less cost in both dollars and staff time and expertise for implementation. He said that libraries with large, distributed staffs, decentralized environments and the need to manage higher-level tasks or functions need these tools most – but that they are mostly failing at those very functions for those very libraries.

Medeiros listed functions he wanted ERMs to perform, most of which involve being able to re-use data with flexibility and fluidity to eliminate the need for duplicative systems and “technical drudgery”: he thinks ERMs should allow for global updating, incorporate a knowledgebase, be interoperable with other systems, and store data and generate reports. He stressed that managing workflow and communication are the biggest e-resource management challenges and no existing ERMs really meet them effectively.

For a while now I’ve thought that OCLC’s interlibrary loan software ILLiad would make a great model for an ERM. It combines a knowledgebase (patron data and lending library information as well as WorldCat bibliographic data) and data tracking and reporting (statistics about requests, patrons and expenditures) with a web-based workflow management portal that allows staff to see at a glance the status of all the library’s active borrowing and lending requests. Staff in different physical locations have access to all the data they need. Each task in the process – from the submission of a request, to searching, copyright clearance, requesting, re-requesting, and fulfillment or cancellation, with all the capability to communicate with patrons, staff and other libraries in between – is defined, and as one process is completed, the software automatically pushes the request on to the next step in the workflow. Libraries have ILL down to a science, and, even without ILLiad, libraries don’t lose requests, can be reasonably sure of responding to them within a certain time frame, and can measure and predict their costs and workloads with accuracy.

Why does interlibrary loan work so efficiently while electronic resources management is still such a mess? Are e-resources really that much more complicated? Think of all the variables involved in an interlibrary loan request – a patron, a source (database, bibliography), local ILS’s, borrowing libraries, lending libraries, student workers, consortia, scanning software, legal issues (copyright, licensing), the postal service, language barriers… And let’s not forget – much of the work now involves digital objects, not paper: interlibrary loan departments, while they still deal with physical objects, have successfully migrated to working in an electronic environment with electronic resources when possible. What have we figured out about ILL that we can’t seem to about databases?

I keep coming back to that idea of a knowledgebase. We have them for e-journals, but, for databases, every library is still creating its own. Vendor contact information (especially support websites and e mail addresses), information on where and how to download usage statistics, information about MARC record availability, customization options, etc., should come with the system – I shouldn’t have to enter it into my ERM the first place or update it ever. Such a knowledgebase should also include information about databases – titles, descriptions and urls. There should be no need for every library to separately maintain urls to all our EBSCO databases, for crying out loud. We don’t do this for e-journals – why are we doing it for databases?

The same thing goes for data sharing. This summer I looked at all the ARL libraries’ websites to find out how they were managing public displays of their databases (A-Z lists, subject lists, and full resource records). Most libraries use homegrown systems to generate the webpages that contain this information, not vendor-supplied ERMs, though many of the same libraries have purchased ERMs. Exporting data in a shareable format from most vendor software requires complicated workarounds which even then don’t guarantee it can be used where it’s needed. Most libraries maintain double sets of data about their e-resources because they lack systems that allow data to be used and re-used as necessary.

Why are we stuck in this place with e-resources management while resource sharing is light years ahead? Maybe because creating a patron- and library-ready knowledgebase of databases would require competing vendors to work together (gasp) when what they really want to do is each create their own products to get a piece of the library automation pie. Resource sharing works because libraries believe in working together. As long as libraries keep feeding Audrey II, we’re never going to get the collaboration from vendors we need. And even though OCLC has been accused of anticompetitive business practices, you still have to admit that the system libraries have created through OCLC for resource sharing is one of the best and most cooperative things we have.

Lately I’ve been engaging in a lot of the “technical drudgery” Medeiros decried, entering all the administrative information about our databases and their vendors into the data warehouse that is our ERM, mostly because I’ve discovered I’m spending way too much time trying to track this information down when I need it. I have admin info in there, stats info, vendor info, database info, tutorial info – you name it. I’d be happy to send it to anyone who wants to re-code it into XML so we can re-deploy it and everyone can use it. But you’d have to get it out of my ERM first.

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%.