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Magazines > Searcher > March 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 3 — March 2005
SEARCHER'S VOICE
"Real-World" Products and Academic Decisions
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

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 material?

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.

...bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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