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Critical online library services?

February 21, 2011

What seems like many years ago (it was 2004), a science librarian colleague said that if we had to pull the plug on online library services for lack of funds, the link resolver should go last. This flew at the time in the face of conventional wisdom, which would have placed the public catalog at the top of the pile.

It’s 2011, and I wonder how many librarians would still rank the catalog first. I know many would, having had such conversations in recent months.

Here’s the question: if one were to toss four common online services into the mix, specifically:

  • public catalog
  • link resolver
  • digital collections (of locally digitized materials – not IR files)
  • proxy solution (remote access; most commonly EZproxy)

how would one prioritize this list? Without hesitation I would put EZproxy at the top, followed very closely by the link resolver (the latter is largely useless without the former for most users). The catalog is a ways behind, while digital collections vary wildly by institution. At the library I just left, they are utterly inconsequential, while at my present employer more than just the odd librarian would notice if they went dark.

What gives me pause are the expenses associated with these various tools. Granted, it’s not fair to compare EZproxy straight up with the catalog, not least since the latter is just part of an ILS behemoth. But–and this is the crux–should we begin retooling/staffing our libraries to reflect user priorities rather than our internal priorities? Many people talk around this point, but show me the library that treats EZproxy with nearly the attention they spend on, say, whether to display some random MARC field in the public catalog. Yet, EZproxy is the gatekeeper to an increasingly large portion of our collections (i.e.- all licensed materials), which represent collectively an annual investment in the millions. Outages are like lost productivity in a factory.

Would appreciate hearing your comments and/or your rankings.

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2 Comments
  1. Marty permalink
    July 22, 2011 12:21

    I agree digital collections will vary to meet the needs of the institution. But I think you’re way off in categorizing digital collections at the library you just left (Kansas State University Libraries) as “utterly inconsequential.”

    Rather, I’ve seen many cases where the campus community and beyond have been influenced by the Libraries’ digital collections. For example, a graduate student’s thesis on the social impacts of Facebook, deposited in the ETD collection, has been downloaded thousands of times. The student noted on his blog that interest in his work, generated by access to his thesis in the Libraries’ collection, convinced him to continue his research in a doctoral program. Similarly, a faculty member who deposited her journal articles in the repository was invited to be the keynote speaker at two conferences. Conference organizers mentioned their invitations came as a result of finding her work in the repository. Through its New Prairie Press, the Libraries publish several online open access journals, and I’m sure the editors and readers of these journals, more than “just the odd librarian,” rely on these collections.

    I find it hard to understand why you would describe these collections as “utterly inconsequential.” Are you defining “digital collections” as those produced solely by scanning print materials? Maybe that would fit, since nearly all items in these collections were born digital. If that is the case, it’s not a very modern view, since more and more collections will be born digital.

    Maybe I’m being overly sensitive here, since I worked on creating some of these collections, but so did you, and it’s hard for me to see how you think we could “pull the plug” on New Prairie Press and not have anyone notice.

    • Dale permalink*
      July 22, 2011 16:15

      Marty, yes, I was defining “digital collections” as locally digitized materials, not IR materials nor other digital ventures. I’ve corrected my list to clear up the misunderstanding.

      It appears not to be a modern view, perhaps, but in this context I was specifically interested in how critical most libraries consider their locally digitized collections to be. In my experience, they are often sold short. At K-State, as you know, there are no locally digitized collections of note, hence my remark.

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