What We Mean by Electronic Resources | Purchased or Licensed Resources | Free Internet Resources | Further Information | Self-Assessment #7
What We Mean by Electronic Resources
Libraries today are more than shelves with books. Increasingly, libraries are providing patrons with access to electronic resources both those that are purchased or licensed by the library as well as those that are freely available. While proprietary online services developed by individual corporations or professional organizations all too often have features unique to a single file, there are increasing numbers of standardized features available in most files appropriate for purchase and use in a library. This is not to say that training is not needed for staff and patrons to enable the most efficient and effective use of these powerful resources, but once an individual understands the general principles underlying the structure of electronic databases, moving from one to another of the resources is not difficult. The marketplace has reconciled many of the early issues that made selection, management and acquisition of these electronic resources very complex. While the marketplace is still attempting to find the best possible pricing models for the various types of electronic resources, libraries still find themselves encountering interesting and sometimes surprising price structures and use restrictions. In general, however, many public and school libraries acquire access to a large portion of their major electronic resources through a statewide or system-wide consortia purchase that also centralizes the selection and management of the databases and other resources while also reducing the cost per library.
It is still true that some library resources are available both as electronic files licensed for a specific period of time or in print formats that are outright purchases. You can sometimes purchase much the same content in print or on-line. Some products even have the same name in either format. So many choices can make it difficult to decide which format is best for the source you’re considering, especially when budget constraints rule out multiple formats for the same source. To help you in the selection process, this section discusses evaluation criteria and selection tools for electronic resources.
In addition to these commercially produced products, both those to be purchased outright such as digital or electronic books and the electronic issues of journals and those for which one purchases only access for a specific period of time such as most of the databases, there are millions of free websites that serve as valuable gateways to appropriate information but there are also digitized resources to which one might wish to connect from the library’s catalog if it is Internet accessible. Both purchased and free resources will be discussed here.
Purchased or Licensed Resources
Many of the criteria applied to print resources (such as authority, currency, intended audience, ease of use, and accuracy) are also appropriate for commercially produced electronic resources. However, there are unique selection issues to consider for electronic resources. When selecting electronic resources, the extensiveness of the content, type of access points, quality of technical support, method of pricing, and conditions of licensing agreements should be considered; these are discussed in more detail below.
It is often assumed that electronic versions of print resources are identical but there can be a number of important differences in what is included in an electronic version. Some of the issues to consider when evaluating an electronic resource are:
- Does the electronic version have retrospective data? Do the retrospective files begin with a certain date or is it a growing file as the company adds additional backfiles? Most do not include much data prior to the 1970s or 1980s.
- How complete is the electronic database and what constitutes “full-text” files? Some electronic sources do not include information to the same extent that print resources do. For example, not all periodical databases include such items as “letters to the editor” and advertisements as part of their fulltext file system. It is up to you to determine if this is of sufficient importance for the purposes of your clients.
- Does the electronic resource offer any special features that are not available in the print version? For example, most electronic resources offer multiple access points to the data that are not possible with print resources so that one can search by key word rather than an authority controlled subject heading. How nice to search by “trains” rather than “railroads” and most now offer the option of advanced search strategies allow Boolean searching or other ways of combining or restricting the results of searches.
- How often is the information updated? This is becoming a mute question as most major electronic resources are updated daily if not constantly. Currency alone is one of the most compelling reasons for acquiring electronic resources such as databases or subscriptions to journals and newspapers. For those places where the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or even the newspaper from the state capitol has always arrived two to three days after its publication, the availability of today’s issue in an electronic subscription or a database with indexing is a big plus for users.
When evaluating electronic resources, it is important to consider how these resources will be accessed and what the implications will be for other library services. Access issues to consider are:
- How many users will the electronic resource accommodate at one time? Will the resource be available to an individual on a single computer, on all computers wired to the library network, and/or to remote users from their home, offices, a local coffee shop, or on their own laptop computers using the library’s WiFi access? Your decision on what kind of access to provide will depend on the amount of demand you expect for the resource, the costs of authentication for appropriate users, equipment needs if any, and the licensing models offered by the vendor.
- How can the content of the electronic database be accessed; that is, what types of search options does the resource provide? The user interface and search strategies vary widely from one product to another but as stated earlier are increasingly similar.
- Until recently, it has been necessary for library users to be able to identify where to look when—the catalog, the periodical databases, subject pathfinders, or Google, Yahoo, or some other search engine. We expected the casual library user to understand a great deal about how libraries organize things and what we call them. That is changing. As technology becomes more sophisticated, it is increasingly possible for patrons to search across the entire suite of offerings provided by the library—the catalog and thus anything with a bibliographic record, the journal databases, and any other content provided in an electronic form. The advent of the OpenURL and other improvements are helping to take the burden of user expert knowledge away and making all library searches function like Google searches. The user sorts the results after the search is completed and identifies what most likely will fit his or her needs. Our users will no longer have to decide first if they want a journal article, a website or a book or DVD. The availability of improved user access software will eliminate still more of the barriers to good access to these resources. Many ideas that have long been on the wish lists of librarians are becoming realities thanks to the genius of software engineers. WebJunction is one of the primary places for librarians to learn about what is new in these areas as well as how best to apply technological solutions to library issues. to advance, many ideas that have been on the wish lists of librarians are eventually
Technical Support Considerations
Electronic resources can be intimidating and difficult to use for the first-time user. Thus, for electronic resources to be successfully used, training for staff and users needs to be provided. This was also true in the world of print indexes and sophisticated reference tools. Training might take the form of printed “getting started” guides at the computers or online, one-on-one interactions, or group trainings offered as needed. In addition, technical support needs to be provided either by the vendor producing and marketing the product or by the system or state library coordinating the access license. Technical support issues to consider are:
- How much training will library personnel need to feel comfortable using the product?
- How detailed are the instructions that come with the product? Are there online help screens?
- How reliable is the producer/company?
- Is the system prone to technical problems? (Ask current customers as well as the vendor.) Is the product compatible with existing hardware? Is the technical support helpful and easily accessible when needed during your open hours?
Cost considerations are different for electronic resources than for books because most electronic resources other than electronic books are not purchased but are licensed for use on an annual or multi-year basis. So technically, these resources are serial in nature. That is that we basically buy a subscription for access similar to what we do when purchasing periodicals. While books or other monographic items are one-time purchases but most electronic resources represent a type of ongoing financial as well as resource commitment. However, as with other types of renewable information resources, one can discontinue one at the end of the license period and add others to replace a particular type of information need or a library might decide that the demand for a particular kind of information does not justify the cost of a database or electronic subscription.
Some other cost considerations include:
- What type of licensing arrangement will you make? Who will have access and from where?
- What kind of additional charges can the library expect for increased Internet use from telecommunications providers?
- Will the computers in the library support the level of Internet access necessary and enable reasonable downloading and printing times?
- Does the library need to purchase additional routers, Internet connections or other access equipment or services to support this product?
- What are your expected printing costs? Will you charge patrons for printing to help compensate for these expenses?
- As downloadable audio and video files become more popular and appropriate as a public library service, what changes or accommodations will be necessary for this or other new electronic services and/or types of files?
The library should carefully review licensing terms before purchasing a product if they are buying a product themselves and not purchasing it through a trusted consortia. The library is responsible for meeting all the terms of a signed agreement. One of the key points to consider is exactly who has the authority to commit the library to the terms of a contract such as this. Often the library director does not actually have that authority since the contract or license is committing the library to more than just the payment of a fee or price. The appropriate authority needs to act upon the license. Agreements often include provisions for payment and delivery of the product, warranties and limits, termination of the agreement, customer service information, responsibility of the licensee for the security of the product, and the need for the licensee to exercise due diligence in informing users of the copyright restrictions associated with the product. The library should post signs (similar to those seen at copy machines) to remind users of copyright restrictions. A shorter reminder about copyright limitations should also prominently appear on the library’s webpage that serves as the gateway to the databases and other electronic resources or on the first page for each database or type of resource. The first screen is often customizable by the library and a reminder to users provides evidence of the library’s due diligence in informing individuals of their legal responsibilities.
Given the many considerations in selecting electronic resources, how do you make informed decisions about individual electronic resources? To help you make decisions about the appropriateness of an electronic resource for your library, you may request a producer or vendor to let you test the product on a trial basis. Vendors are sometimes willing to let the library “try out” a product if they think it may lead to a sale. This is best done when a library is close to making a decision on a product. Trial periods help eliminate the guesswork in selection of electronic resources. Another option is to visit or talk to librarians at other libraries about how a particular electronic resource performs in their library.
In addition to these options, there are a number of selection tools available in print and over the Internet that can help you make decisions about electronic resources. There is no single Internet site that provides accurate information about the thousands of electronic resources that might be appropriate for a library. The best sources to learn about potential electronic resources for your library are your system (if any), your state library, library conference programs and exhibitors, the library literature including the various selection journals used for other resources. These include but are not limited to: Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal, and American Libraries. Read the advertisements as well as the articles and reviews. H. W. Wilson provides published reviews of all of their databases. Most of these reviews appeared in the library literature and many are quite lengthy. Other database providers also provide access to evaluative information as well as pricing and product summaries for your information. EBSCO Information Services, H. W. Wilson, Thomson, and Thomson Gale are a few of those currently available to you. With companies being bought and sold constantly it is difficult to stay current with the names and the partners in the information products world. To keep up with the latest electronic publishing trends and to find out cost or other information about electronic resources, it is a good idea to refer to the major providers of databases and especially intermediaries such as OCLC regional service providers (for Arizona that is Amigos Library Services). Remaining an active member of your local and state library community is the best way to ensure that you are aware of “what is happening” in the rapidly changing world of electronic information sources. Other libraries can also be an invaluable resource in identifying appropriate electronic resources.
Additionally, becoming a member of WebJunction (free registration) entitles you to many benefits including online training courses, discussion groups, and special features related to technology and electronic resources and software issues.
Free Internet Resources
Internet and World Wide Web resources are part of the challenge for modern libraries. How do we incorporate a vast, constantly changing, largely unstructured and unregulated conglomeration of information into our understanding of library services? Considering the extraordinary number and scope of Internet resources, and the exponential growth of the Internet and the Web, it can be difficult to find quality Internet resources and to structure access to them so that they can be easily used by our patrons without requiring undo labor on the part of the library staff.
This section does not attempt to “teach” the Web or Internet. If you are interested in learning about the Web, go through the extensive online tutorial, Finding Information on the Internet, from the University of California at Berkeley, join WebJunction and use their tools, discussions and trainings to assist you and your staff. Look for appropriate workshops being offered in your area and at state, regional and national library conferences. This section serves as an introduction to the concepts and vocabulary that will enable you to build a collection of Internet resources appropriate for your community. Specifically, this section supplies some information on locating good, reliable, and interesting sites and electronic resources, and suggests some evaluation criteria for Web pages that serve as gateways as well as those that are themselves content rich.
To say that keeping up with changes and new sites can be challenging is a huge understatement. Actual reviews of Web pages are getting hard to come but The Internet Public Library can provide useful links to Pathfinders that provide summaries and links to a wide range of possibly appropriate websites across a range of subjects and disciplines. In general pathfinders are research guides on the web with URL links and some organization and discussion of the resources to be found through the links. They are usually organized for a discipline or specific subject area. Individual libraries sometimes create such pathfinders for their patrons.
In this section, three categories of criteria are discussed: content, access and design. Some of the issues discussed in each category are unique to Web pages while some are familiar from evaluating print resources. An important difference between print and Web resources is that there are no “quality filters” on the Web, as there are in print (editors and publishing houses). While this can be a benefit for the dissemination of information, it also means that users need to be especially cautious and critical when evaluating resources for quality. In any case, if the library is to provide either pathfinders or electronic records in the catalog for web pages or freely accessible electronic resources then the topic of the pathfinder or the e-resource must be appropriate given the library’s individual mission and clientele. Thus it makes perfectly good sense for a public library to provide a pathfinder webpage that will organize links to a selection of free Internet sources about used vehicles because this is a “hot topic” in many public libraries. It is unlikely that any public library in rural Arizona is likely to provide a pathfinder to resources on Germanic anthropology however. Such a topic is unlikely to be a priority identified in the collection development or information resource development policy. It is important to always keep in mind that there are two questions to ask when selecting resources of any type for the library: 1) Is it good stuff? 2) Is it good stuff for this library and its user community? An affirmative answer to the first question does not matter if there is not an affirmative answer to the second question. This applies across all information resources regardless of format.
- Authority - Is the page provided by an organization with authority such as a known institution of higher education, a governmental body, or a professional association? Sites such as those provided by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Harvard University obviously have authority and are likely to contain reliable information. If there is a personal author or some or all of the material, are the credentials of the author given, and if so, are they sufficient to convince you that he or she is a reliable source of information on this subject?
- Verifiability/Accuracy - Are there many obvious factual inaccuracies and/or grammar or spelling errors? Is it possible to verify non-published information by contacting the source? Can the information be verified in other published, reliable sources?
- Currency - Is there a publication date, and if so, is the information too old to be useful? Can you determine when or how often the page is revised?
- Bias - Is bias hidden by not identifying the author, organization or publishing body? Does the page present an authoritative position, whether conventionally accepted, controversial, or politically influenced?
- Audience - What is the intended audience for the Web site?
- Purpose - Is the Web site intended to be educational, informational or entertaining? Does it succeed? How does it compare to other Internet and print sources covering the same information?
- Searching - If appropriate, does the site provide a mechanism for searching the content of the site? How well does it work?
- Organization - How clear or confusing is the site? Is it well-organized? Can you reach the information you need easily, with a minimum of movement between different “levels”?
- Stability - Does the URL change frequently? If changes are made, is the new address made easily available?
- Links - Are appropriate, working links provided? Are the links annotated?
- Construction - Is the page easily navigated, or are you forced to scroll through pages of text? Are there sections “under construction” or otherwise not working?
- Instructions - Are essential instructions available and easily understood?
- Graphics - Do graphic elements add to the page or distract from its content? Are the graphics relevant and/or useful?
Identifying appropriate websites as well as finding other free electronic resources requires the same skills as other collection development work. It needs individuals who are alert at all times to the possibility of finding good resources. It requires a true understanding of who our users are and what they want and need from us, and it requires a degree of intellectual curiosity that makes finding the answer or the resource fun or at least interesting. Without curiosity and the concomitant spirit of exploration there is little chance of being able to successfully identifying the appropriate resources regardless of format.
As discussed above with the purchased electronic resources, the best way to keep up with what is happening is to be actively involved with the library community. Talking to colleagues, reading the announcements that come across library listservs, and attending trainings and conferences are essential activities for finding out about good sources. The information world is changing so quickly that no one has the time to actually track the moment to moment picture of what is available at this moment. Each moment on Web is a new world!
Bluh, P. & Hepfer, C. (2006). Managing electronic resources. Chicago: American Library Association.
Evans, G. E., & Zarnosky-Saponaro, M. (2005). Developing library and information center collections. (5th ed.) Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Tennant, R. (2006). Evolving the resolving. Library Journal, 131(12), 28.
Tenopir, C., Baker, G., Robinson, W., & Grogg, J. (2006). Renovating this old house. Library Journal, 131(9), 32-36.