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Month: January 2011

Our next reference desk should be a dark room with a closed door

Free-hand sketch of my side of the reference room

We often joke at my library about how my co-worker and I are always on reference duty even when we’re not at the desk because our offices are the first two in the row of offices along the reference room wall. I had been thinking of it as just one of those things… kind of annoying sometimes but not a huge deal. Now I’m wondering if I can learn from it.

I’m sure his experience is similar to mine, but here’s mine. Students pop in to ask me where a call number is even when someone’s at the desk not 25 feet from me (and far closer to the entrance to the reference room). During the summer when we have “on call” reference, I’m basically always on call, even when I close my door. Today a student worker from the post office asked if she could leave a package with me since the Archives door was closed. (The archives are three floors downstairs.) Last week I was out in the reference area and a student hovered around my closed, dark office door. When asked if he needed to talk to me, he said he just needed help finding if we had the full text of an article. He’d walked right past the staffed desk to find an office, any office, even if it was clearly uninhabited at the time.

This has made me wonder about several things, but two in particular.

  1. Are college students that much more comfortable looking for an office than looking for a desk? Office hours are a fundamental part of a college student’s experience, and maybe there’s something either more legitimate or simply more private about an office.
  2. We designed our desk to be unimposing. It’s not a fortress; it’s a desk much like the other computer tables in the room, except that it’s got a sign hanging over it that says “Research/IT” and it’s positioned so that you walk directly at it as you enter the room. Maybe unintimidating a red herring. Maybe they’re looking for more of a Structure. More of an office… After all, closing my door (and sometimes even turning out my light) should be a bit intimidating, but it clearly doesn’t get in their way. They’re looking for an academic authority figure, and apparently that comes with trappings that don’t include “unintimidating.”

Once is a fluke, three times is a trend: Digital humanities arrive in my world

I’d kind of expected a slow ramp-up. After all, this is the humanities, and as a humanist myself I know that change does happen, but only as long as you don’t watch for it too hard, kind of like watching water boil.  This term, the water boiled.

Within the space of two weeks, three students from three different language & literature majors came to me for advice on scanning, OCR, conventions of web design, hypertext literature, digital annotations, and (of course) copyright. For two of these, the students were developing senior thesis projects outside of the usual templates of a research paper or essay exam.

I foresee discussions about a coordinated support model for student work in the digital humanities in my near future. Luckily, the data services group has been meeting for a couple of years already and probably has some good advice about mounting a service that requires input from multiple departments on campus, so hopefully we can crib from their work.

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Heads they win, tails we lose: Discovery tools will never deliver on their promise

A couple of years ago, discovery tools landed on the scene promising technological and pedagogical advances beyond federated search’s wildest dreams. Libraries naturally thought the evolution of these products would take place at least partially in library territory. “Locate, collocate, and advise,” we thought, “We’re all over that game.1

What we didn’t realize is that we’re not players in the discovery game — we’re pawns. The players strategizing and moving the chess pieces are the EBSCOs and ProQuests of the world, and sometimes sacrificing a pawn or three is the only way to win that game. It’s not personal.

Here’s how the game, the real game, is played.

A couple of weeks ago a ripple of outrage spread around the library community when Ex Libris sent out a letter explaining that EBSCO had removed its content from Primo’s central database.2 Did EBSCO realize that they’d be hurting their click-through rates with this move, we asked. How could they be so selfish, we wondered. Don’t they realize they need us, we raged.

These were the questions of people who thought they were players in the game. In reality, though, EBSCO needs us like a chess master needs pawns. Which is to say, they need us quite a bit, but not that much and not as full partners. What they really need is to act on opportunities to profit and to ward off their opponent’s attempts to profit more.

Matt Andros, Vice President of Field Sales at EBSCO, was kind enough to help me understand things from EBSCO’s point of view, first through an email3 and then through a phone conversation (1/19/2011). The email was helpful; the phone conversation was enlightening. Apparently, participating in 3rd party discovery tools is not an opportunity for them to gain market share, and since the other big players aren’t participating either it could even open EBSCO up to loss. He told me in our phone conversation that 90% of academic libraries already have the major aggregator databases (like Academic Search Premier), so their goal is not primarily to increase the number of subscriptions there. And the metadata associated with their more specialized databases, the databases holding those exclusively licensed journals, isn’t itself exclusively licensed, so it could land in the discovery tool from any other company without harming EBSCO’s market. After all, what we’re after is the full text, and we can get to that easily via a link resolver. It’s just not in their interest to share metadata unless they’ll be getting something in return.

On the other hand, they do have to play the discovery game. “Discovery is hot,” Matt said to me yesterday. All the big players are playing it, so it’s not very strategic to fall behind in this market while ProQuest cashes the discovery checks. It is much more strategic to beat the competition at its own game by doing the same thing, only with (hopefully) better content.

As strange as it may sound, the future is not in unified databases powering discovery tools, Matt told me yesterday. He can’t foresee a time when the major database vendors will find it profitable to combine their metadata for our benefit. Instead, the future is in hybrid systems that combine discovery and federation. As I see it, libraries will have to decide if they care whether their EBSCO products or their ProQuest products are seamlessly integrated, choose the discovery layer that matches the company of their choice, and then federate in the content from the other database providers. Federated search is dead; long live federated search. And I’m sure the thinking at EBSCO is that we’ll be paying someone for a discovery tool, and that someone should be them.

So where’s our leverage in all of this? Competition in the free market is the force looking out for library interests, Matt said, and laughed with me as I pointed out that this was hollow comfort given the shrinking number of competitors out there.

After we hung up, I wondered if this whole game was short-sighted or the best long-range plan I’d ever heard. What happens when they drain us dry and their beautifully cultivated market withers on the vine? If we were their only revenue source, this might be a point of leverage, but we aren’t. They also own companies that deal in office supplies and companies that manufacture outdoor goods like fishing lures and hunting decoys.4 EBSCO is “one of the largest private companies in the US” according to Datamonitor’s company profile, so even if they are a little worried about library budget cuts, they can also move with confidence through the strategies that matter to them — the strategies that focus on their true competition.5

And that, my friends, is how the real game is played. Focus clearly on your opponent’s king and position yourself so that you don’t have to worry too much about your pawns, however useful and important those pawns may be to your strategy.

(Many thanks to Steve Lawson for helping me think through these and many related issues as I prepared this post. And many thanks to Matt Andros for his generosity in helping me rethink my assumptions.)

1 Charles Ammi Cutter’s succinct description of a library catalog’s function.

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2 Ex Libris Letter, via a 1/3/2011 FriendFeed post:

As you may know, for the past eighteen months, we have been indexing in Primo Central a number of the EBSCO databases. EBSCO has now changed their strategy and will no longer permit third-party discovery services to load and index their content. Therefore, starting 1st January 2011 we will cease hosting of the EBSCO content in the Primo Central Index. EBSCO will, however, permit our use of a specialized API to search the EBSCO content ‘just-in-time’.

Since our initial agreement with EBSCO in June 2009, we have made significant progress in working directly with many publishers and other aggregators to dramatically increase the content in the Primo Central Index. In addition we recently reached agreement with Gale whereby their databases in Primo Central will now be available to all, regardless of subscription. Since there is a considerable overlap between some of Gale’s and EBSCO’s collections, EBSCO subscribers will benefit considerably from Gale’s consent to open up their data. Furthermore, Gale’s move indicates the general trend of information providers of enabling their data through multiple distribution channels and we are delighted to witness this change.

Based on a recent analysis of the Primo Central content, we cover, through other channels, over 90% of the data provided by the current EBSCO content loaded in the Primo Central Index. Furthermore, of the small number of titles exclusively available from EBSCO, none of these appears on the list of the 5,000 most used journals, based on SFX logs, and only three appear on the list of the 10,000 most used journals.

We are currently finalizing the details of the new arrangement with EBSCO for ‘just-in-time’ search and will update you as we progress on this. However, we believe that EBSCO’s decision to withdraw their content from the Primo Central Index does not best serve your user’s interests. We therefore strongly encourage you to add your voices directly to those of the ELUNA and IGELU steering committees in requesting that EBSCO reverse their decision and enable their data for indexing.

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3 email, reproduced with permission
From: Matt Andros
To: Iris Jastram
Sent: Saturday, January 8, 2011 11:50:11 AM
Subject: Re: Questions regarding EBSCO’s non-participation in 3rd party discovery layers

Hi Iris,

I wanted to give you a response even though there isn’t an official response yet from EBSCO.  These are the facts as I know them, but please know they are my thoughts and not official remarks from EBSCO.

Of the three major full-text database aggregators, only one provides metadata to ExLibris and that vendor does not have many strong academic journal databases.  The others (EBSCO and ProQuest) do not provide any metadata to ExLibris.  In addition, EBSCO is also a major provider of subject indexes, and of the top twenty providers of subject indexes, only one provides metadata to ExLibris and that organization provides its metadata to all discovery services, which is actually very unusual for a subject index provider.

In ExLibris’ misleading letter, which shifts focus onto EBSCO, rather than onto the harsh realities outlined above that leave their service with very little coverage from any full-text database aggregator or subject index provider, they stated incorrectly that EBSCO does not work with other discovery services.  While our participation in other discovery services is very limited, if the other discovery service provider is willing to trade metadata, we are always open to some form of partnership.

For example, we do provide a small amount of metadata to OCLC for their WorldCat Local product, so it is inaccurate to say that EBSCO is not participating at all in 3rd party discovery layers.  As far as we know, we are doing more than, for example, ProQuest (who, as far as we know, hasn’t sent their metadata to third parties, and like EBSCO, is a provider of their own discovery service).  So why do we provide OCLC with any metadata at all when we don’t do so for ExLibris?  There is a trade of metadata.  OCLC provides OAIster metadata (as well as other metadata) to EBSCO Discovery Service, and in return, EBSCO provides OCLC with TOC & author keywords (no subject indexing from controlled vocabularies, no abstracts, and no full text) for approximately 20 of the databases available via EBSCOhost for their use in WorldCat Local.

Some of the blog postings from librarians made comments such as: “Does this mean EBSCO is pulling out of Summon?”.  Given those questions, it is worth clarifying that EBSCO has never participated in Summon and any such claims have always been false.

As far as we know, no other discovery service provider is providing the content they own to ExLibris.  Further, as outlined in the first paragraph above, even if we did not offer a discovery service, it would be very unusual for EBSCO to provide ExLibris with metadata for either its full-text databases or its subject indexes, since this is very rarely done by other similar organizations.

Matt Andros
Vice President Field Sales

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4 Datamonitor. EBSCO Company Profile. 2010. (Available through Business Source Premier’s Company Profiles tab)

Outdoor products (page 12):

  • Decoys
  • Feeders
  • Game calls and accessories
  • Game cameras and accessories
  • Other fishing products
  • Plastic fishing lures
  • Spreaders
  • Television production services
  • Tree stands
  • Wildlife management equipment

Manufacturing (page 13):

  • Cameras and accessories
  • Commercial printing services
  • Information packaging and binders
  • Point-of-purchase merchandising displays
  • Promotional products
  • Sign sales and manufacturing services
  • Steel joist manufacturing services

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5 Datamonitor. EBSCO Company Profile. 2010. (Available through Business Source Premier’s Company Profiles tab)

Threats (page 15):

  • Direct sales efforts by publishers
  • Low priced competitors
  • Cutbacks by libraries and legislatures

Strengths (page 15):

  • “The company is one of the largest private companies in the US. EBSCO Publishing is the world’s largest provider of online full-text magazine and journal databases for libraries, and EBSCO Subscription Services is the world’s largest distributor of magazines and journals to libraries.”

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Specialization: License to jump off the deep end?

In some ways, it’s probably overkill to have subject librarians teaching loyally for the first year seminars in their subjects. I know there were several courses I taught for last term, first year seminars in my departments, that any of my colleagues could have taught for as well or better than I did. And yet, if that happened regularly, when would I ever get to teach classes after saying flat out, “You don’t need to have them do research in order to fulfill the information literacy requirement for the class” to faculty who couldn’t work a research component into their courses?

And so a few times last term I found myself coming up with ways to integrate information literacy into courses that had no real research component. And it was fun.

I wonder if I’d have the guts to suggest such a session in a physics course, where I know much less about how knowledge is created and how scholars ask questions and what counts as evidence. I wonder if I’d be able to build up the kind of knowledge that would allow me to suggest this to a physics course if I were more of a generalist in my teaching. Maybe I could if I were a lot better at that kind of thinking than I am, but for me being a subject librarian paid off big time with these non-research-based first year seminars. Talk about unforeseen outcomes.

Of course, I’m still wondering if that was the responsible course of action. But it was fun, and it didn’t seem to do actual harm, and it got people thinking about information literacy in more nuanced ways. So maybe I don’t have to hand in my librarian credentials just yet?

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