"Real-World" Products and Academic
by Barbara Quint
As a columnist for two publications my beloved "Searcher's
Voice" and only slightly less beloved "Up Front with
bq" column in Information Today newsmagazine I
have to decide what topics and approaches suit each
publication, what audiences I mean to address. Without
such clear distinctions, if only in my own mind, my
writing life would become even more of a challenge.
Normally I aim my "UpFront" column at information
industry professionals, telling them what they need
to hear even when they might not wish to hear it. When
I speak in Searcher, I speak to the other side
of the transaction, to the consumer. I often wonder
whether my industry colleagues don't worry more about
the perils they might face in response to this magazine's
chatter than the other's.
In this month of March, which "blows in like a lion," both
columns in both publications will address the same
issue campus-only marketing of information products
and services. The issue arose as I was working on an
infotoday.com NewsBreak that discussed two quick reference
online services one tapping some 150 reasonably
authoritative sources for a free, open Web service
and the other tapping over 165 somewhat more authoritative
sources for a service primarily licensed to academic
libraries. The problem is that research confirmed that
the latter product was completely unavailable to individuals
and not marketed with any vigor to non-academic libraries,
except for some public libraries.
Off and on for several years, I have lambasted information
vendors that target the academic library market, criticizing
the blind folly of failing to take advantage of the
unique opportunity to capture the attention of the
future knowledge workers of the world by promoting
(or at least informing) students of off-campus product
routes to products used on-campus. Most of these urgings,
of course, have appeared in my Information Today column.
But let's look at the matter from the consumer's angle,
from the viewpoint of academic librarians budgeting
their limited resources and making decisions on which
products to license and which to pass by.
Speaking of limited resources, let's not forget that
in an end-user world, even on-campus, it's not just
money that librarians invest. It's time and energy
for training, promotion, coaching, Web/intranet design
work, etc. We all know that the Great God Google already
has hegemony over the minds of students and faculty
alike. Library-initiated databases must compete for
second place against a competitor that regularly dowses
research ardor (and integrity?) with result sets numbered
in the millions. We have to have products that can
prove their value in every way possible if we want
them to draw the students away from GGG.
One of the ways an information product must prove
its worth, it seems to me, is to have a life after
graduation, to constitute a real-world product, not
one that floats away on the same breeze that carries
away the final bars of "Pomp and Circumstance" at commencement
exercises. When students go for job interviews and
the interviewers ask them what skills they might bring,
commenting on their ability to search effectively online
would have more impact if the databases they name are
ones the interviewers have heard of or might wish they
had heard of. Telling people you can search systems
that they could not get for love or money doesn't make
a lot of sense. Vendors who offer no off-campus routes
to their information seem to contradict with
their inaction any claims for their data's importance.
If the information is so good, so vital, so essential,
so deserving of the academic librarian's attention
and expenditure, then it should be good enough for
a post-graduation afterlife.
Bottom line, academic databases are curricular tools.
No one expects term papers or other curricular exercises
to produce precedent-shattering original research.
For undergraduate programs, academic librarians want
the databases they license to teach students how to
search well, how to evaluate content, how to know when
to reach beyond the open Web and when to stay within
it in essence, how all kinds of information
can serve them in their future lives. To these ends,
academic librarians expend their limited funds, limited
staff time, and limited access to campus networks.
For these ends, I believe, academic librarians must
add a category of questions to their decision-making
checklist, a category that investigates the off-campus
reality factors for databases.
What are some of those factors? Clearly any product
that has no off-campus existence at all must be suspect,
definitely if the librarians can find competitively
priced or even free resources that come close to the
same quality. If the product can substitute for other
expenses, e.g., a publisher supplying full digital
libraries or an aggregator with a digital archive that
replaces an existing microform expense, that might
be acceptable. However, I would think such a decision
would require a guarantee of perpetual access. In other
words, once a librarian has paid for a year's worth
of publications at substantially the same rates as
print subscriptions, they should have access to what
they have bought, even if they later decide to cancel
subscriptions to more of the same. Perhaps faculty
members and/or postgraduate students require a campus-only
product. If so, perhaps departmental budgets should
be tapped for the additional funds to license sources
extraneous to curricular needs.
Sometimes it's not so much a matter of the content
as the channel delivering it. For example, ProQuest
has a long-standing co-marketing relationship with
Factiva that assigns responsibility to ProQuest for
marketing Factiva.com to academic and public libraries.
This year, it expanded the relationship to the global
level. As part of the arrangement, ProQuest supplies
the bulk of its online periodical aggregations (not
its historical newspapers, however) to Factiva's Publications
Library. If academic librarians take a Factiva.com
package from the ProQuest sales representative instead
of one of ProQuest's own products, they could ensure
that the patrons using the data would see the connection
to a "real-world" service.
Invisibility can also plague certain channels. Thomson
Gale has a history of being the "king of slice-and-dice." Thomson
Gale puts its data aggregations all over the place,
from traditional vendors such as sister subsidiary,
Thomson Dialog, or Factiva or LexisNexis to dot-com
services including Findarticles.com. On campus, however,
it markets data under logos such as InfoTrac and Expanded
Academic Index. Once a student graduates, how will
he or she know where to go to recover access to that
And one wonders why Google rules the world? Sigh.
Let me admit that I have an ulterior motive in urging
academic librarians to apply a "real-world" availability
yardstick when measuring the worth of products and
services. I hate to see any data kept imprisoned. It
offends my professional ethics. I believe it should
offend any information professional's ethics, even
those working for vendors. If a vendor is reluctant
to expend its own limited resources to a small-payoff
market, that's perfectly legitimate, but it does not
relieve them of the responsibility of looking for a
channel outlet that can do the job for them. Data should
not be kept from people who want it for nothing more
than corporate convenience.
We information professionals are all in the same
boat here. If academic librarians unite to hold vendors'
feet to the fire to expand the lifetime of their data
services to match the lifetime of all potential users,
instead of timing it to die on prom night, we will
all look smart and useful and professional. Vendors
that cannot see it this way may find themselves asked
to swim as best they can, while academic librarians
row the lifeboat away.
[By the way, any vendors interested in thoughts on
how to make it work might want to take a look at my "UpFront" column
in the March issue of Information Today. You
didn't think I would leave you in the drink without
a life preserver, did you? Consumer advocates (AKA
librarians) might want to read it too; it might help
round out your discussions with sales reps.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.