Focusing on counts erodes research libraries' competitiveness

Dec 05 2016 Published by under Collection Development, libraries

by @glennobleFor many years, research libraries (mainly those in academic institutions but also in other research centers) have been all about counting collections: how many volumes owned? how many journals licensed? Bigger is better. Millions of volumes.

This pressure, combined with continual downward budgetary pressure and the global doubling of scientific output every nine years, has led to most libraries taking some short cuts to get more coverage (more volume and more volumes). In place of carefully curated abstracting and indexing services necessarily specific to certain domains of knowledge that help explore and identify sources of information but do not provide physical access, many libraries are licensing massive collections from Eb and PQ that hugely boost the numbers. They are also licensing these massive "discovery" systems that, in my opinion, completely fail to improve discovery. We librarians have told our vendors that our most important users are the undergraduates who need any few articles on a topic to quickly pad their bibliography.  Vendor offerings that make that process easier are welcomed.  So we cancel Inspec, Biosis, GEOBASE and similar to feed the beast of more and more content. The vendors who provide access to formerly very useful databases (cough Aerospace cough) more or less eviscerate them to also give more - higher counts, faster, broader... and cheaper (no - lol - never cheaper for *libraries*)

Yet, as everyone has said before me, we are living in times of information abundance not scarcity. We know we cannot survive with the library-as-pocketbook model. Some of our value comes in working with users as partners in their research. We work to understand what their information problem entails and to help them (teach, do for, or provide tools for them to) find the information they need. We should also be building and licensing systems for the most sophisticated of users on our faculties and in our research centers. We should strive for precision and also serendipity of unexpected very relevant articles. We should save the time of the reader. What value millions of responses to a web query if your answer is on page 10? New researchers should be taught to be more sophisticated in their searching (I honestly think chemistry may be the only field that does this well), instead of accepting good enough or random iteration around the theme.

The best services and tools respect the researcher's precious time. They help the researcher have better information more quickly and with more context and confidence.  This is the way we compete with the ubiquity of information freely available on the internet. It's something we do and something we can do quite well... but we need to stop these collections processes now before it's too late.


*These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my immediate organization or my parent institution. Any specific products are mentioned to clarify my meaning. No endorsement should be inferred.

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