Welcome to E-resourceful

E-resourceful is a blog containing news, resource updates, and general discussion on matters relating to the management of e-resources of all types.  As a professional working in this area for fifteen years, I have seen many changes over this time and this blog will attempt to both reflect on those and gather information from a variety of sources to publicize material, enhance discussions on listservs, and present items of news and interest to those working within this fast-changing area.

I welcome your participation and thank you for taking the time to visit this blog.


At last, a post!

I last posted to this blog in June 2014, at which time events in the day job became so intensive that I didn’t have any time at all to reflect on what was going on out in the world.  So, if you’ve missed me, I’m back.  If you haven’t missed me, I’m back and in 2015 I hope to be writing here just that little bit more regularly.

My remit in the day job is now far more than simply that of an e-resources professional (although after fifteen years in that game, it will always have my heart).  I now lead on e-resources, book acquisitions, journal management, repository management, cataloguing and metadata, and, totally unlooked for but an area I find I rather like, systems and technology.

As a senior manager in Library services at a teaching institution I have been quite sanguine this week about our standing in the recent REF 2014 results.  We have five areas where our research makes any impact at all, and it is towards the lower reaches of the list, but that’s fine.  We aspire to do better, we aim to bring in the money for the coffers that we need to take the University forward as a viable and attractive proposition to students.

My university is by no means a ‘bad’ university, and it is not just the loyalty of an employee that makes me say it.  I think we have a lot to offer, and over these past few months I have become incredibly proud of our Library services and my colleagues who have worked hard (through adverse times, this year, to be sure) to not just tread water, but to make things happen.

On the e-resources side I am building up expertise in a new team who if nothing else, show willing.  I don’t have the resource to play with that I had in previous posts, but I do have the ability (and the right) to make things happen.  I can enable our purchase of resources, our delivery of service, and our increased professionalism.  That’s a source of personal pride, and one which is quite energising as we approach a brave new year.

Where does this leave this blog?

It will remain ‘eresourceful’ but will also wander into areas.  All opinions, shortcomings, and views of the world are my own, not my employers.  I still retain a healthy skepticism and a mischievous cynicism about what’s going on in the world.  My maxim would be – and I advise my team to do the same – always question why something is as it is, and if you can change or influence it, then do.  The profession of the librarian is now a challenging one, and nowhere more so than in academia, it seems, where we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are serving a public, our customers, and that whatever we do in the background is for their benefit.

Eresourceful will flourish in 2015, I hope, and I most certainly have my mojo back.

I wish you a peaceful Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Promoting resources which look ‘free’ to end-users

Libraries traditionally sink large amounts of money into the provision of electronic resources for the benefit of their customers, but those customers don’t always understand that. To them, if the resources look ‘free’, then they will not appreciate the amount of financial and administrative intervention that has gone into making those resources available.

Some institutions simply use branding as a way to remind people that the resource is ‘provided by the University of X’. That is, if the customer looks up to the top-left corner and sees the legend printed there, saying so. A logo might be better, reinforcing the link between the e-book, e-journal or database being consulted, and the fact that someone has set it up and probably paid a large amount of money for it.

There’s also the question of authentication. The smarter versions of LMS cannot be locked down to dumb terminals (which were often described as ‘catalogue-only) and so need more stringent authentication to stop walk-ins and guests having access to resources where licenses do not permit such access. This is where Shibboleth and EZProxy can come into play, rather than simply adding a vanilla URL which has been set up for IP recognition. But setting up Shibboleth or EZProxy links takes work, is sometimes a little hard to roll out to other services (especially where work is being duplicated on a website, a VLE, an e-guide …). Off-site these links can be a minefield as the customer might have little or no guidance to help them navigate to the paid content – the very content that they probably thought was free, when they were on-site.

Younger customers and those with extensive technical knowledge see pay-walls and authentication as a boundary, and even if we try to bring in seamless single sign-on, it rarely works out that way. We can brand such authentication systems but if they fail to make a connection, involve too many clicks, or become unfit for purpose, then we are not doing the customer a service.

Resourcing and value for money

Value for money and how this might be demonstrated is very much on my mind.

When looking at e-journals providers often supply usage data at the search or download level which can be indicative of whether the ‘cost per use’ or ‘cost per download’ comes to a total which makes sense. But one must also consider the audience of each individual journal – a rule from library school I remember is that some areas of teaching or research might have very small numbers of interested readers, yet still be ‘core’ in their field.

E-books which are purchased on subscription models can also be assessed in the same way, while those purchased outright can be assessed as to their usefulness and relevance to a collection as a whole. We should not be afraid to retire or ‘weed’ e-books simply because they were purchased in the past, especially when there are platform fees involved which might impact on our budgets.

Print resources, however, are more difficult to assess in terms of their value. They take up space on shelves and have associated costs relating to processing, repair, cataloguing, shelving, and circulation. A collection development policy may discuss areas relating to the condition of the stock when considering disposal, or relevance to current teaching or research disciplines. An item which was high value when purchased may not retain its value through the years, unless it is historically significant or rare in some way.

Many libraries have used the ‘date of last loan’ acid test when looking to withdraw stock; often items which have not circulated for 5-10 years may be candidates for replacement by more relevant books. The ‘condition’ survey is more problematic – poor condition books (which are no longer candidates for repair) may be bound, with the associated costs, or they may need to be replaced by new copies of the same title. A print book in excellent condition may not be of any interest to the customer who frequents the library, while the book falling apart may be in constant demand. Especial care must be taken with regard to reference copies which do not have associated loan data.

How are print books assessed for their scarcity, especially when they have become out of print? Items recommended for reading lists may be impossible to obtain, or only in substandard, second-hand copies, which themselves become candidates for disposal very quickly. This is where the e-book may, in time, be able to make inroads into a collection and provide a new revenue stream for publishers: after all, with journals the back numbers have been very profitable to their suppliers in digital format.

The print journal must also be constantly assessed for value for money. A teaching collection may, where funds provide, support a move to e-format where the title is available in both print and digital types, leaving trade or current awareness titles as the only ones retained in print. Historical print issues should be regularly weeded if there is evidence they are not used (often referred to as ‘the dust test’) or are no longer relevant. We cannot afford to be sentimental about our collections just because we might have spent money on them in the past; rather, consider them as seasonal wardrobes which should be periodically refreshed. In this case, to provide more space for group study or silent revision, or for a planned movement of stock between sites or subject areas.

In my last institution, an objective had been set to reduce the collection across the board, print books and journals, in order to support a move to a new library. We had participated from an fairly early stage in the UK Research Reserve project which allowed print journals to be offered to a British Library-led project for shared storage of low use titles, with donating libraries receiving financial support in lieu of their donation (although in practice there were high costs involved in terms of the administration of the donations and their subsequent disposal or retention as dictated by the UKRR team). Where print books are concerned, there is no such initiative at the moment, although various scenarios were at one point under exploration.

Subject librarians are key to the decision making process and the process of evaluating resources for value for money should be a partnership between them, technical services staff involved in acquisitions, serials and e-resources management, and academics across the institution. Academics know the key titles in their fields (and where budgets are tight, many institutions invoke the ‘one in, one out’ principle where any new request must be accompanied by a matching cancellation). Where print and e are managed separately, there can be little consistent evaluation of resources. It is important for print serials staff and e-resources staff to work together to establish which titles are available in each format, and where any savings may be accrued; the same with print acquisitions and e-book staff, especially where titles may be available from different suppliers.

We are in a changing world with regard to resources – our customers may well be vocal in shaping our policies and strategies (at last year’s UKSG, for example, a postgraduate student claimed he was now ‘entirely digital’ but in becoming free of paper he appeared to be free of the library too) in order for us to survive. It is true that publishers are now experimenting with ‘bite size’ book publications in both print and e formats, but it is unclear whether these will replace the traditional reading list model of set texts and chapters. And what is clear is that we must demonstrate that in embracing these new publishing models and opportunities we must save money and associated resourcing issues at the same time.

Changing e-resource platforms

I did intend to blog about e-resource platforms in January, so here’s a slightly belated update!

One of the events which makes an e-resource manager’s heart sink is the announcement either that a supplier is updating their platform, or that they are effectively ‘moving house’ to a brand new platform.

2013 ended with the relaunch of the Royal College of Nursing’s new platform (and their pricing policy, which has caused a minor stir on discussion lists), the news that Maney have decided to pull their titles from aggregrator Ingenta and instead move to Metapress and their own platform, the move of Informs titles to the Atypon platform, and the much-publicised and welcome reboot of the Box of Broadcasts. These were joined in early 2014 by the new Web of Science (which has thrown out the ‘Knowledge’ tag and gone back to a name known from old), a new release of Ovid SP, and the news that Emerald’s platform will be slowly changing over the next few months. We are also waiting for the date when the British Education Index is removed from Proquest and relaunched in its new EBSCO home.

Let’s look at the implications of this:

1. Link resolvers will need to be updated. This relies on the publisher to let the resolver supplier know of the change including any new URLs, and to send through details of any database changes which will need to be created within these systems. This also includes details of titles to be removed from existing databases (not always as simple as it sounds as there may be redirects or some overlap in content in both old and new homes). And let us not forget, once something is in your link resolver you need to be able to find time to test it and ensure everything is working OK.

2. Authentication methods need to be set up on the new or improved site so that access is seamless. If the old site was accessible via Shibboleth or EZProxy, then the new one should be too. Subscribers should be migrated across so that user metrics or IP ranges are in place on the new site. The one thing which seems to fail in these changes is the authentication when surely this should be the first thing to be checked and passed before platform launch. Generally speaking an end user will put convenience and consistency over what we used to refer to as ‘bells and whistles’ i.e. the look and feel of a new site. If you can’t access something, the platform is just another pretty picture around the content.

3. User guides, workbooks, slides and training materials will need to be updated. This takes time – if a new platform is changing significantly it is sometimes wise to allow a sneak peek (as Mintel and Passport GMID did a few years ago) so that trainers can plan for minor or major changes.

4. There’s rarely or ever a fanfare of publicity on these occasions. So a plea to publishers, put something on your old sites to warn/inform people of the changes. BoB was very good on the publicity front, and the new site is worth the wait, and we did know about the planned move of Maney from Ingenta, but sometimes you need to know where to look and your end users (not librarians) just don’t read the listservs!

Putting a robust workflow in place to capture any changes (we use a mix of shared mailbox, spreadsheet and alerting) will lessen any additional tasks which come alongside a platform change; however I would always recommend taking the pragmatic approach of ‘well, if it goes wrong, we can fix it’ rather than impersonating the ostrich and hoping for the best.

I wish any publisher well who sets out to update their service and make it more accessible and engaging to the end user – just a bit of thought about how it will impact on those who pay for your products would always be appreciated. Gold stars to those who do this well, and may there be many more of you.

What’s coming up on eresourceful

Happy New Year!

It’s my aim to publish 1-2 posts a month on this blog during 2014. One of those posts will look at a particular e-resource – its good and bad points, the history behind it, how it has found its place in the market. The other one of the regular posts will be taking a new or discussion list item as a springboard. The great days of the discussion list have passed, I think – they used to be places where people could discuss issues of importance to them in a honest dialogue between all interested parties, but they’ve gone more quiet over the years. This blog will attempt to bring some points of discussion together (with a leaning towards e-resource matters, but not exclusively).

There may be a third post per month if I feel inspired. And as ever, my opinions here are my own and not necessarily those of anyone currently or previously acting as my employer.

See you soon.

E-resources matters of 2013

This year was very much one where Open Access came to the forefront, mainly thanks to the continuing effects of the Finch report. Research-intensive universities were given money to spend on Gold OA publishing, and smaller teaching universities, with their REF 2014 scores in mind, had to start thinking about how to bring OA to the attention of their academics.

In terms of e-resources the effect was two-fold. First, a high number of purely OA journals continue to be born and grow, even in already saturated fields. Whether they are all of good quality is debatable, and there were a couple of issues around plagarism or a lack of peer review which might make an author pause when it comes to smaller, unknown serial publishers. The second effect of this OA explosion was in terms of serial pricing, especially for titles in ‘big deals’ which had become either hybrid or totally OA. The ‘who pays’ and ‘why’ questions have never been more pertinent, and 2014 will be a year – I think – where historic pricing models may finally bite the dust.

From an administration point of view, licensing remains a minefield, especially post-cancellation access and entitlements. Easy to interpret a clause which states that you retain access to the years you have paid for, but it needs exemplary record-keeping on the part of the subscriber to be able to prove that entitlement sometimes. Agents records usually go back six years, publishers records often less. Changes of LMS systems can lose the continuity which can prove you had a subscription – title changes and transfers can complicate the picture. Even long-standing ‘big deals’ can cause problems if there has been a change of negotiating agent, or if the original paperwork is lacking. I would argue that the ‘off switch’ should not be employed quite so freely as it is where licensing seems to ensure post-cancellation access, and some publishers are certainly better at dealing with this issue than others.

Pricing policies continue to cause concern in the e-field. Those of us with long memories can remember the introduction of tiered pricing based on institutional size, which came in over a decade ago, with a justification that a larger institution in terms of student body, or an institution with high usage figures, should pay more than their smaller or low usage peers. You may not agree with this thesis when you consider the outlay in providing the end product on subscription is exactly the same, but e-journals have always been the money-spinners their print cousins were not. I remain intrigued at how journals are priced, but there never seems to be an easy answer.

2014 will also, I feel, be a turning point for hosting fees, that is where a subscriber pays to access a service on a third-party platform rather than saving content to their own servers. What is a ‘fair’ level for a charge for hosting, and should this be imposed across the board or on a case-by-case basis?

Finally, will there ever be a time when publisher platforms have any resemblance to each other in terms of usability? There have been many innovations whereby platforms have been developed to showcase a product, or integrate various features which may been seen to be an improvement (what we in the 1990s called ‘bells and whistles’). What we don’t have, yet, is a simple system relating to authentication, with a core terminology which makes a system easy to access and use. Attempts have been made to make ‘Shibboleth’ easy to use in the UK, but if you are away from your home institution, even logging in can be a puzzle few can master. Merging book and journal content on a platform might seem a great step forward, but unless you make your content easy to navigate, the content is as good as lost.

Feel free to share your high and low points of the e-resource year …

The meaningful KPI

The Key Performance Indicator (or KPI) is something we have all been aware of as information professionals for several years. They serve not only to quantify our processes and the services we provide to our customer base, but also provide meaningful data, in context, to prove how we have moved from one point to another over a period of time.

For some libraries, this is recorded in a ‘You said, we did’ form of communication; for others it is in the form of percentages or periods of time (we met our published opening hours 100% of the time; 90% of our books were back on subject floors within an hour of being returned; we answer enquiries satisfactorily within 4 working days).

But what IS the ‘meaningful KPI’? At the moment departmental KPIs have become a core focus of work at my institution, as we all strive to provide the best service possible (= an excellent customer experience) and also to make the best use of our staffing resource and their time (and prove it). That’s a tall order. We all tend to balance the positive over the negative (like the old song, accentuate the positive), when what we should be doing is looking at our services in a dispassionate way.

A KPI that times any delay from unpacking an item of shelf-ready stock to making it available for customers is useful (and maybe even interesting), but it becomes meaningful when we start to look at what the figure is telling us. A starting point might be the proportion of stock which falls into this category (shelf-ready). Another may be what amount of staff intervention it takes from out of the box to shelf (receipting? classifying? cataloguing?), what staff resource we have available for each, and what our in-house KPIs are for each stage of the work.

A KPI that promises that no one will queue for more than five minutes at a physical helpdesk is only meaningful if it is set aside other factors such as the depth of enquiries dealt with at that desk (are they really all 5 minutes or less?) and other services such as telephone and email enquiries. At the start of our careers, how many of us were told that if the telephone rings when you are dealing with an enquirer, you ask the person in front of you to wait? (Or, conversely, if you are dealing with a telephone call, you deal with the person in front of you and leave your original enquirer on hold!). We’ve moved on quite a bit but it is not quite a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

KPIs can be dismissed as an irrelevance or something that is only of interest to senior management. However, I think that measuring our performance at every level and at every stage of our processes, which doesn’t mean doing five-bar gates of what we are receipting or collecting numbers for the sake of it, is a valuable tool to our armoury. And if we are doing the job right, we should be meeting our targets, and publicising the fact that in meeting those targets we are providing the best possible service, and one which our staff should be proud of delivering.