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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2014

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Vol. 34 No. 5 — June 2014
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN
Balancing the Management of Electronic and Print Resources
by Marshall Breeding

While the revamped workflows programmed into library services platforms provide one means to break away from counterproductive staffing patterns, other paths can also lead to a more balanced distribution of effort.
Libraries naturally strive to allocate their resources proportional with their overarching priorities. But accomplishing the proper balance is often easier said than done. While I don’t consider myself an expert in organizational matters, I am intrigued by how technology can either support or hinder the ability of an organization to carry out its work effectively. As I work with libraries of various types in all different parts of the world, I observe that many are caught in an undesirable operational state. The allocated staff time, talent, and effort has become misaligned with the character of their collections and services. Automation systems that no longer fit the operational realities contribute to the problem. The good news is, I also see lots of potential in new kinds of technology platforms that can enable libraries to be not only more flexible, but more efficient.

A Disconnect in Resource Allocation

One of the common areas of disconnect involves the allocation of personnel in technical services relative to the media and formats of library materials. Most academic libraries, for example, now acquire most of their new materials in electronic formats rather than print and emphasize subscriptions to scholarly articles over monographs. These libraries tend also to have active programs to develop digital collections. In many conversations I’ve had with academic librarians in the last year about the allocation of their collections budgets, most mention that 70% to 90% is devoted to electronic resources with the remainder to print materials.

In an ideal world, how a library divides its efforts in processing its new acquisitions would be roughly proportional to its collections budgets. In many cases, however, libraries’ staff report that they spend disproportional efforts in processing print materials. Some, in fact, continue to spend the majority of their time processing print materials even though this category represents a shrinking minority of their collections funds.

The Inertia of Legacy Systems

One of the obstacles standing in the way of some libraries’ ability to sync their workflow to high-level priorities lies in the legacy of the ILS. For almost 4 decades, the ILS has been the core automation system for libraries of all types. Its basic design was cast in the days when libraries dealt almost exclusively with print collections. Its design was fit for that purpose, and it was fairly comprehensive in its functionality relative to the kinds of materials collected by libraries then. It provided a bibliographic foundation ideal for describing monographs and serials at the title level. The circulation module of the ILS was designed to handle all the complex scenarios involved in lending physical materials.

ILSs provide an industrial-strength approach to resource management. They offer very detailed functionality for each of the major areas of work they address. Libraries have traditionally organized themselves in ways consistent with its major modules. A technical services department will have cataloging, acquisitions, and serials departments. Most libraries have a circulation department as part of their public services operations. These automation systems and organizational structures have shown tremendous inertia despite so much change in the general library environment.

Academic Libraries Embrace Electronic Collections

With the explosion of the web in the mid-1990s, scholarly publishers steered toward electronic journals; during the course of a decade, libraries shifted their subscriptions accordingly. Initially, electronic versions supplemented the print issues, but over time, libraries shifted almost entirely from print to electronic subscriptions. In many of the academic libraries that I visit, entire sections of the library that previously housed bound volumes of journals have been converted to other types of use. Many academic libraries report steep declines in both in-house circulation and interlibrary loans of physical collection items. (But this scenario differs considerably in public libraries in which circulation of print materials remains vigorous, with many reporting continued increases in annual transactions.)

The ILS, however, was not designed to handle the management of electronic subscriptions. Tasks such as tracking the license terms associated with each subscription, maintaining current information on what titles and date coverage apply to each of the aggregated content products, authentication details, and technical contact information didn’t fit well within the existing ILS modules. ILSs also did not have the means to fetch, store, and analyze usage statistics, which are critical in making decisions regarding the retention of any given digital subscription.

Proliferation of Tools for Electronic Resources

Given the inability to manage subscribed electronic resources efficiently within the ILS, many libraries turned to other tools. A genre of electronic resource management systems emerged in the mid-2000s, including Verde from Ex Libris Group, Meridian from Endeavor Information Systems, Millennium from Innovative, and E-Resource Management System (later 360 Resource Manager) from Serials Solutions. Some libraries created their own local electronic resource management systems. Despite the reality that academic libraries were investing heavily in electronic content, this new genre of commercial and locally built tools designed to manage them failed to flourish. Meridian was discontinued following Endeavor’s acquisition by Ex Libris in November 2006. Verde has attracted only 231 sales since its introduction, and 360 Resource Manager is used in only 272 libraries. Relative to the number of academic libraries and the strategic investments they make in electronic resources, these numbers seem incredibly small. In comparison, there are many tens of thousands of ILSs in place in academic libraries worldwide.

I observe that most libraries manage their electronic resources informally, using desktop tools such as spreadsheets or, at best, local databases, with data storage on individual computers or in personal accounts. While pragmatic, this informal approach does not provide the same level of systematic control over the various electronic components of the library’s collection as compared to those supported by an ILS. Additionally, it does not provide broad access to usage statistics and analysis that could be applied to making more data-driven decisions about collection development.

OpenURL-based link resolvers, metasearch platforms, and index-based discovery services emerged over time to facilitate full access to electronic resources by library patrons. However, these additional components result in quite a complex array of applications for a typical academic library to manage.

Workflow Challenges

While most libraries have seen dramatic increases in resources residing outside the ILS and correspondingly dramatic decreases in the numbers of materials covered by the ILS, most of their established staffing patterns have persisted. The combination of using the ILS as a very sophisticated, industrial-strength business application for processing print materials alongside more lightweight and informal methods for managing electronic resources can easily result in an allocation of staff resources inversely proportional to collection fund spending. And in many cases, it has.

The combination of using the ILS for managing print with a separate system (or systems) to manage electronic resources has not been a successful model of automation. The sparse number of full-fledged electronic resource management systems implemented, as stated previously, demonstrates not only a lack of acceptance of these products, but it also speaks to the inherent difficulties in managing print and electronic resources on separate platforms. The bifurcated approach results in considerable redundancy in effort and the need to reconcile or sync two or more systems.

Comprehensive Resource Management

Recent years have seen the emergence of a new genre of products that I call library services platforms, which differ in many important ways from the ILSs that previously dominated the library scene. These new products—including OCLC WorldShare Management Services, Ex Libris Alma, Sierra, Intota, and the open source Kuali OLE Project—each, to at least a certain extent, break away from the ILS model of automation. Most, if not all, are based on new technology architectures.

One of the key characteristics of these library services platforms lies in their orientation toward a more comprehensive model of resource management. These new products aim to provide support for managing many different types of library materials. They accommodate within the same system the metadata and business rules associated with both print and electronic materials. One set of workflows would be available for processing the purchase of a physical item that the library would own and add to its circulating collection. Other workflows would handle acquiring electronic subscriptions and the related license terms and content aggregation issues.

Bringing the functionality associated with multiple material types into a single application provides several benefits. It eliminates the inherent redundancies in storing the related descriptive metadata and business transactions that would apply to separately managed systems. Bringing all of these data together makes it much easier to create reports, to perform analyses, and to more efficiently provide access to library patrons.

The model of comprehensive resource management also provides greater flexibility for the personnel who describe and process materials. Instead of having one group trained on using the ILS to process print materials and another group specialized in managing electronic resources using entirely separate applications, all of the personnel perform their work on the same platform. While some scenarios might lend themselves to the same individuals working with all types of materials, others may continue to designate groups that specialize in specific material types. With either scenario, having a common platform vastly improves the flexibility in assigning work relative to daily demands.

While the revamped workflows programmed into library services platforms provide one means to break away from counterproductive staffing patterns, other paths can also lead to a more balanced distribution of effort. The legacy ILS isn’t the only culprit in causing the problem, and the library services platforms are not the only solution. While it’s better to have a technology infrastructure that’s well-matched to a library’s strategic priorities, many may not be able to make the investments needed to make drastic changes in the short term. But whether it’s through the implementation of a new library services platform or by readjusting the way that the library works with existing systems, libraries need to balance how they manage electronic and print resources.


Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.
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