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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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The Impertinence of Impermanence
Volume 38, Number 2 - March/April 2014

We’d like to believe that resources will always be there. Several recent developments make it clear that permanence is not the norm. Most egregiously, when the U.S. government shut down last October, information professionals around the world scrambled to find substitute sources. You didn’t have to live in the U.S. or be its citizen to be affected by U.S. government agencies taking their websites offline.

Government websites don’t disappear only when the government shuts down. Politics, security issues, money, and lack of interest also play a role. To many information professionals, the sudden removal of important websites is just rude, smacking of impertinence.

Resource impermanence is not a government exclusive. I was researching an individual and found a treasure trove of information at one of her relative’s websites. Luckily, I captured most of it, because when I revisited the site, the owner had not renewed his domain name and the site was gone—along with valuable data unique to that site.

Nor is this limited to electronic information. Cultural artifacts disappear forever when libraries are destroyed. Public records disappear when courthouses burn. Scientific knowledge disappears when governments close agency libraries. Preservation through digitization and microfilming helps but is not the complete answer to resource destruction.

The culture of impermanence pervades both the free internet and our subscription-based services. Take link rot. It’s not a new problem—librarians have been writing and worrying about it for at least 15 years. However, recent studies about half the links at the U.S. Supreme Court being broken and the extreme degradation through time of links to scholarly articles referenced in bibliographies reinforce the need for solutions.

Information can disappear from aggregated databases that count libraries as their primary customer base due to licensing restrictions, ownership changes, and format transformations. It’s the duty of the information professional to regularly read content updates, both adds and drops, from vendors.

Corporate strategic initiatives can also put information out of reach for information professionals. It’s still there, but due to price increases, library budgets won’t stretch to acquire access. Factiva subscribers, for example, were disheartened to discover last year that the new strategy from Dow Jones was to force them to subscribe to DJX, whether they wanted or needed access to the additional information. Being told that they had no options was an unpopular message.

As Online Searcher went to press, we were delighted to learn that several architects of the DJX strategy no longer work for Dow Jones and the possibility of stand-alone subscriptions to Factiva being reinstated is very real. Kudos to Dow Jones for walking away from a policy most information professionals found extremely impertinent. Putting unreasonable demands on libraries and refusing to be flexible when negotiating are unlikely to endear vendors to customers.

Information professionals should recognize the impermanence of resources and be prepared to find alternatives. Keep an ongoing list of possible substitutions. Capture what you can. Remember impermanence when negotiating. Our mission, to the extent it’s possible, is to be impervious to the impertinence of impermanence.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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