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Print vs Electronic Workflows

I’ve been kind of immersed in workflows recently. Our workflow consultants delivered their much-anticipated, much-talked-about, and much-feared reports yesterday. And today I’m musing about a few of their recommendations. Some I don’t think will fly at our library, or at least not to the extent they propose, but that’s a topic for another day or another lifetime. Tonight I’m mostly interested in the question of the relative workload of a print collection vs. an electronic collection. (Notice, I’m not talking access, relative value, or any of that. Just workflow and time commitment.)

I’m all for e-access. I love love love e-access to journals. Nothing makes me happier than to click our link resolver button and find that I don’t have to walk the 100 feet or so to our print journal collection. And I’m cautiously in favor or transitioning to e-access where ever that is warranted.

But… when I hear that we should consider reducing our print periodical holdings at every opportunity, I worry a little bit that only one part of our workflow would see a benefit while other areas might see increased time commitment. Granted, print periodicals take up a lot of space, a lot of packing and unpacking, a lot of binding, and countless other processes. But what might the process be in an e-only or e-mostly environment?

  • Acquisition decisions will take more time because suddenly we’ll be deciding on costly bundles of journals rather than single journals. We’ll have to think even more carefully about the benefit of groups of journals because we may not want every journal in the collection, and it’s a hefty chunk of change.
  • How much time will it take for ILL and eReserves staff to wade through license agreements to see what they can lend or copy from an e-collection rather than relying on more standardized (though not necessarily easier) copyright law? (I’ve talked about the other possible effects of e-resources on ILL before.)
  • Keeping up with links and holdings and access issues and changes in subscriptions won’t go away any time soon.
  • And there may be other unforeseen processes that we don’t know about because we’re still learning what an e-mostly world would feel like at our library.

I don’t know if these increased time commitments would or wouldn’t be worth the savings in the periodicals department of technical services, but these and other repercussions should be taken into account if efficiency is the name of the game.

And I haven’t mentioned archiving. It goes without saying that this is an important issue that has to be considered every time we cancel print subscriptions. But everyone knows that, and it’s not up for debate at the moment.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Julian Julian

    This topic scares me because, quite honestly, it could force me into homelessness. (DC isn’t exactly warm in the winter.) Unless, that is, I can survive the transition from technical services to digital services. For a library of its type, I believe I work in one of the largest technical services departments in the country (as of last week, we are 28 strong). One position just handles binding. Another position just handles final processing of new materials (spine lables, book plates, stamping). Two positions do nothing but check-in and records maintenance, and another two do some of that in addition to filing updates to continuing resources. We’re over-staffed in some areas.

    Some libraries can get away with eliminating every print serial. Others might have more of an obligation to keep print resources, even if it’s only to make sure that someone out there has as complete a collection as possible.

  2. Iris Iris

    And there you’ve put your finger on the sore spot that’s been plaguing this library for a while. But man did it ever get prodded yesterday.

    My crystal ball hasn’t been in working order lately, so I can’t even pretend to know how all this will play out. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that workflows for print and digital will evolve over the next decade or two, and that some processes may not be as important. BUT that doesn’t say anything about staffing or staff expertise. I don’t think the need for the amazing people who work in libraries will go away any time soon. And I actually don’t think our specific processes will change too drastically any time soon either.

    But all this depends on at least some libraries taking responsibility for keeping really high quality archives and complete collections. And so far, print and microform are probably still the most reliable archives (though I’m working from library school information here, and not anything more recent than a couple of years). It’s kind of like a card house without a table to build it on if the archiving goes away.

  3. Julian Julian

    I’d take microform over print in terms of archiving every time if the option is available and economically feasible. From what I’ve seen here, managing the microforms is difficult, especially when they arrive to the library in the mail. Checking them in is so time-consuming that it can get backed up for several months if the process is not properly managed. This caused us to cancel many publications in this format.

    And for something a bit lighter: how many library staff members does it take to get a single e-resource up and running?

  4. Iris Iris

    I don’t know. How do you define a “single e-resource?” I think that’s a lot of the problem when we talk about e-resources workflow. Are you talking about the database, the individual journal titles, or what? All I know is that there are several very talented people at our library that deal with these types of materials. People manage log-ins and proxy stuff, other people keep up with the money end of it and the licenses. Then there’s the access from SFX, and the catalog records. And on top of all this is the troubleshooting of links and access and subscriptions. And there’s probably more that I don’t know about.

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