ASME- the American Society of Mechanical Engineers - has a series of journals that are heavily used by mechanical, aerospace, and even civil engineers. Most engineering schools have these all the way back. So in the past couple of weeks libraries all over the country have realized that, all of a sudden they don't have access to a decade of the journal 1990-1999. I have no direct experience with this but have been following the discussion and dismay on ASEE's ELD list.
What actually happened is that ASME sold a digital backfile that ended at 1989, they sold current access to the digital library that starts at 2000, and then later they added the 1990-99 volumes for an additional annual subscription ($~2700).
What it LOOKED like to some librarians, was that when they bought the backfile.... 1990-1999 would be added at a later date. Various members of the list dug up flyers from their files:
[x] had a flyer from 2007 which advertised the new ASME DL, with coverage from 2000 forward and with a note that, "In 2008, years 1990-1999 will be made available on the ASME Digital Library platform."
Apparently, some time around 2007-2009, libraries that subscribed to ASME journals got a free trial of 1990-1999. Some apparently noted that this was a free trial, but to most, this just appeared to be the extra years being filled in on the backfile. (A common thing - you buy the backfile somewhat complete and it gets filled in some time later). The invoices do not list dates of coverage, just backfile and current file.
Here's where ASME screwed up. They forgot to turn off the free trial or even, apparently, bill most libraries for it. They finally woke up the last couple of weeks of November - precisely when all of the students are working on final projects and theses and oh my! So those years are now not available to all of the libraries that haven't paid and there was no notice that the trial was ending.
Even worse, some of the libraries thought they had ongoing access and send the print volumes to long term off site storage OR even worse, at least one library weeded the print. So making space for these volumes (and let me tell you that's not trivial, these things are big) is bad. Oh, and at least one of the libraries just got done cutting $160k in subscriptions, so they cannot pick up another 3k/year, indefinitely. Other libraries have done all of their spending in subscriptions so don't have 3k sitting around.
I think both sides are at blame. First, it's not at all common to have to buy decades separately and not as a one time fee, but as a continuing expense - particularly when you've already subscribed to the journal in print for all of those years. Second, ASME should have made it clear that it was a free trial and then turned it off over the summer or winter break and followed up with phone calls or e-mails offering subscriptions.
The acquisitions folks and the selectors are also very much at fault. There is so much going on and it's so complicated, but someone should have realized that they hadn't purchased access to these volumes so they shouldn't have been added to the catalog and to SFX and to whatever other tracking databases. The print volumes should not have been sent off site or weeded unless the e access had been purchased and there was an absolute commitment to continue subscribing.
No one wins from this. What a mess. Large research libraries have to get their houses in order with subscriptions. ERMs seem to make things worse instead of better, but something has to be done.
Update 12/3/09: this was posted to ELD:
[Backfile] access was supposed to have only been available until July of 2008. Inadvertently, the access was never turned off until this error was recently discovered. We realized turning off the access at this time has caused a great inconvenience to our customers so we are turning the access back on for 90 days.