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Electronic Collections in the Age of the Traditional Library.

I have worked with Tracy Primich for over ten years in both academic and corporate settings. Her work to bring scientific and technical information to the desktop during that period has given her a pragmatic, but aggressive, view of how it might be done. Fifteen years ago, we had the technology to create the ejournal, and are only now getting around to using it. As Tracy vividly illustrates, the problems have not been technical ones; they relate more to the slowness of the publishing community to innovate, and the failure of the library community to stop whining and develop a creative vision of the ejournal.

Tracy discusses recent progress on ejournals that suggests to me we may begin to develop systems that deliver online functionality--the kind of online systems that could turn the carefully developed large library megacollections into 21st century anachronisms.

Robert Schwarzwalder


My crankiness is mostly focused on special and academic libraries that spend large sums of money on scientific, technical, medical, and other scholarly materials. These libraries have survived journal inflation crises, the switch in the information business from marketing to libraries to marketing to the individual, new formats, new technologies, etc. I don't need to belabor the variety of pressures we all face. We know the drill. Instead of responding with innovation, with a spirit of cooperation and leadership with publishers and vendors, and innovators outside of traditional publishing, we tend to stay in our entrenched positions, hostile to the publishers who "did this." I have largely stopped attending library conferences. It saddens me to listen to a round-table of acquisitions librarians and collection development officers, where each person begins with, "Well, this year, we had a 10% cut..." Yes, but what else are you doing?

This is not an article about how electronic collections have revolutionized libraries. To the contrary, librarians have insisted upon making ecollections that are facsimiles of print collections, and they have largely failed to innovate regarding how computerized resources are presented to library patrons. A traditional presentation of information will certainly persist, and this is a disservice to our customers, both present and future.


If you look at papers given by attendees at library conferences, the number of " I-done-it-good" articles in the library literature, and the agit prop from publishers, you would conclude that innovation is a way of life. These activities, however fast and furious, are deceiving. While everyone has a Web site, and users are busy clicking from one link to another, I believe that too often we are calcified in our thinking and stymied by details about which our customers care nothing. For example:

* Licenses: Have I got a deal for you! I have a folder in my drawer with the label "stupid journal tricks." The folder contains copies of contracts with clauses that I can't possibly honor, language that publisher representatives admit to not understanding, and an entertaining assortment of wackiness. (One of my favorites is correspondence from a publisher that states, "Unfortunately, it has now become necessary to revamp our current system and void any previously existing agreements." How I wish I could reciprocate.)

Anyone who is in this business knows that negotiating a license for access to any kind of electronic resource is an aggravating, wasteful, and labor-intensive process. I understand that publishers are worried about the predictability of their business and revenue stream in a Web environment. But I don't like the result: we are busy filing licenses, something that we never had to worry about in the age of print-only. Unfortunately, the environment of licensing everything and defining every stripe of user has limited our imaginations. Librarians license the product that is offered. Perhaps there are some quibbles about an interlibrary loan clause here or an IP specification there, but as a profession, I do not think that we are sufficiently involved in imagining new ideas, configurations, or presentations of electronic information.

* Status Quo: Everyone in the information food chain understands the subscription model. It works great for paper, so don't mess with it. The Peak Project, a pricing research project set up as a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Elsevier Science (, experimented with "by the drink" access and tokenized access. Some publishers allow an individual to download an individual article after paying with a credit card, but libraries are largely stuck with paying institutional rate for a subscription.

* Familiarity: Especially with electronic journals, the Web versions operate like the printed versions. They have tables of contents. They have volume and issue numbers. Just like mom's meatloaf, electronic journals are familiar and comforting. Other than tradition, what is the reason for this familiar presentation? Does it fit the need of tenure and promotion committees, so therefore nothing changes? I am fully cognizant that tenure and promotion exert significant influence on scholarly publishing, but there are other forces and needs. For instance, if I am conducting a prior art search for an invention disclosure, I don't care where the information comes from, whether the article is from a first-tier or third-tier journal, or whether is was published by the National Academy of Sciences or the Lower Slobovian Society for Biochemistry. If the information is reasonably credible and dateable, it's good enough. Being able to search for and retrieve information in this context is different than the traditional ac ademic mode of packaging information in a journal.

* Domination by Academic Institutions: Let's admit to the facts: Large academic libraries have large acquisition budgets. Publishers and vendors are skilled at arithmetic, and they know whom to call. Given that large academic libraries have the mission (in my opinion, an insane mission) of preserving human knowledge for the ages, is it any surprise that electronic journals are facsimiles of print versions? Why advocate change when the present cohort of users can't possibly compete with the ethereal future?

I recently attended the November 1999 Charleston Conference (http://www.cofc.edul/cdconference), an annual event that concentrates on issues of book and serial acquisitions. It is an informal conference, but enriched with the attendance of managers from publishing houses and acquisitions directors employed by large institutions. The talks were interesting and frequently interactive. However, the conferees and speakers were overwhelmingly drawn from academic institutions. According to my scans of the printed roster of registrants, I was the only librarian in attendance who was employed by a for-profit corporation. This homogeneity of opinion is distressing.


There is good work being done. The efforts to design standard licenses are wonderful, and I, for one, am grateful (for instance, see, a cooperative effort of Blackwell's, Dawson, EBSCO, Harassowitz, and Swets to present uncopyrighted standard license agreements for academic, special, and public libraries). Any tool that reduces the mind-numbing activity of negotiating a license for each and every byte should be accepted with thanks and gratitude.

Intelligent, well-informed people post to LIBLICENSE-L, and I learn a significant amount by reading their comments. I recommend the list archive ([tilde]llicence/index.shtml), and other information found at this site, to anyone concerned about collection development of scholarly materials. I am certain that your local consortium does a good job of negotiating a good deal for your library's access to existing databases or other products. JSTOR ( is an interesting and well-done project. Every time I see a demonstration of it, I think it offers up interesting ideas and solutions for storage of archival materials. Library acquisitions and collection managers are capable and intelligent people.


I am concerned that our work culture is not sufficiently innovative and not sufficiently tolerant of risk. I wish that I could name a dozen more JSTOR-like projects off the top of my head, and that our collections were as well known for their creativity of presentation and access, as for the quantity and preservation of paper collections. I have looked at many library Web sites, and usually see, prominently positioned on the site, "Databases Arranged Alphabetically by Title" or "Databases Arranged by Category." When you click on the link, it lists a rich array of resources, diligently compiled and maintained. In spite of the good efforts put into buying and maintaining such resources, these presentations increasingly strike me as confusing and unimaginative. If I want the specification for 1010 steel, do I start with the science category or the engineering category? This is an old complaint, I know, but in my opinion, we are making the situation worse by our insistence of presenting full-text resources so th at they look like a card catalog.

We are librarians. We excel at process. If there are incremental improvements to be made, we are on the case. If there is an archiving program for electronic journals that needs to be articulated, the contributors to LIBLICENSE-L will do an outstanding job, no problem. And good for us! We belong in the library profession because we are the only nuts who think that the detailed work of locating information is fun.

While I view this affinity for detail as a strength, I also think it is our weakness. Because we spend so much effort hand-wringing over new ideas, we fail to incorporate innovation into our work culture. For example, in October 1999, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Digital Library Federation, Association of Research Libraries, et al., sponsored the First Meeting of the Universal Preprint Service Initiative. Considering that the largest electronic archive of papers, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Physics Archive, was founded in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg (that's physicist Paul Ginsparg, not librarian Paul Ginsparg), the traditional library world is a little late to the party. The purpose of the initiative is to make interoperable the papers deposited in a variety of preprint servers. This is a worthy goal. Certainly, librarians have observed the growth of preprint archives, and commented on them, but these programs have been largely initiated and managed outside of the library profession .


I am very impressed by what I see from the California State University library system. The California State University is a 23-campus, statewide system that employs 40,000 faculty and staff, and serves some 350,000 students. The 1994 CSU Strategic Plan for Libraries states:

"Journals are too expensive to buy, too expensive to store, and too expensive to preserve for CSU libraries. CSU libraries need to devise both a shortand a long-term strategy to get out of the business of acquiring print-based journals altogether as a matter of strategic policy and planning. By the short-term, we mean transforming expensive journals in high-use areas into their electronic equivalents as early as is financially feasible, but certainly within the next three to five years."

The plan makes the following pledges: "...begin the transformation of the CSU journal collections from print-based to electronic through a strategic planning effort designed to target both core and fringe journals for replacement, by their electronic counterparts, and make CSU an early adopter of mature journal delivery technologies."

And finally, the plan predicts that the library will "get out of the business of acquiring print-based journals altogether."

Rather than write a bold strategic plan and place it in the file cabinet for later storage in the circular file, the staff went to work and created their program and product to meet the needs of their institution. The Journal Access Core Collection, announced in June 1999, has the additional goal of changing how publishers and aggregators distribute journals in print and electronic formats. Browse html to read the fascinating background of this initiative that has culminated in the electronic delivery of approximately 1,300 core titles to the CSU system.

The press release from EBSCO about JACC contains a real kick in the teeth: "JACC represents the first time a major university has formally expressed its requirements for a customized collection of full-text ejournals." This comment is attributed to Evan Reader, from the CSU's Chancellor's Office. Good for CSU. For the rest of us who continue to acquire and collect according to the status quo and don't express requirements for a custom collection, I reply with an "ouch." I know no one at CSU, but I am guessing that this program and transition was difficult, and perhaps painful. However, "leadership by consensus" is, in my opinion, an oxymoron.


Why should you care about changing anything? I can think of two good reasons. The first reason is that money, lots of money, is being expended. In our zeal to get a good deal, we gloss over the fact that quality electronic resources are not purchased for chump change. If we are going to spend this kind of money, let's follow the CSU example and formally express requirements, then deal with suppliers who meet these requirements. I work for a corporation, and I often have to justify my expenditures by explaining to management the business problem I will solve by following through with my suggested course of action. This seems fundamental, but in most of the organizations where I have worked, such a requirement is rarely practiced. The second reason-the better one in my opinion-is because it is more fun. I would like my information with a twist, and some surprise and delight, please.

Opinions expressed in THE TECHNOPHILE in no way reflect the position of the Ford Motor Company.

Tracy Primich has worked in a variety of academic libraries and is currently employed by Ford Motor Co.

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Date:Apr 1, 2000
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