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Retrieving content with paper indexing vs. web-based indexing

Retrieving content with paper indexing vs. web based indexing: How web-based indexing has failed students

Cheri Rauser, MLIS, MA
Head of Reference Services

The Virtual Library Reference desk has changed, and if you too are looking for help for your students, contact me. Finding articles for students is not as easy for me as a virtual librarian as it was when I was conducting graduate thesis research nearly 25 years ago. The world of digital library collections was just gearing up with a limited number of indexes (aka citation NOT full-text article indexes) available on CD-ROM and managed by library staff. The full-text of an article was still to be found in a physical volume sitting on a library shelf and accessible by going into the library. Whether keyword searching in a citation or a periodical index or seeking the location of a known citation, the process was usually the same for securing the full-text article. Just follow the exact instructions in the index and access the article on the shelf. This may sound a bit onerous as it involved physically accessing the library collections. But in comparison, digital access has far more layers, and for students this makes the task of gaining access to the actual content less straightforward.

So, how could the paper-based research process possibly have been easier for students than the point, click and download world of instant digital access? This is because the hierarchy between the seeker and the item sought was fairly shallow and there were few indexes to consult and you had a reasonable expectation that if you followed the prescribed steps you would gain access to the content in the library. Students soon learned which print index applied to their disciplines and how to acquire a copy of the required content through the mediation of contact with library services if they didn’t already know how to follow the index to the stacks.  If an institutional library did not have the item in question, as long as a student could tell the librarian where they had found the article reference, the librarian would put in an inter-library loan request for a copy.  Because the student had already paid their fees to attend the institution they were rarely asked for money to acquire an article.

The process or understanding of what it is to conduct research has changed with the growth of web-based indexes: both those created by libraries and by other agencies and vendors.  The basic difference between a citation index telling us something exists and where to find it, and the actual physical item (i.e. the full-text article) has been conflated.  We no longer spend time going from the index to the stacks to find the journal.  Web-based indexes have created the expectation, not only by students, that access is instantaneous. An index is now the access point for the article, or so we have been led to believe. But, by whom? Certainly not librarians. The expectation is that the full-text will be at hand and not cost the user anything. Essentially this holds true if in an aggregated full-text library collection, but when on the web-based indexes you are most likely to find yourself on a commercial site paying to access content. At this point the web index usually fails to tell you if your institution has the content. Fortunately this seems to be changing with the advent of Google's Library Links program and other commercial vendor attempts to provide similar services. We've been told that the web has made research easier and library patrons have been enticed with the notion that no mediation is required.  No need to consult a librarian. Search and click and download – it should be that easy, but it is not. Today my library content is completely digital, but I work much harder at accessing that content, without ever leaving my desk.

We now have a dizzying and confusing array of bibliographic access points in the form of online indexes (eg. PubMed and Google Scholar) that point you (as any good index should) towards the item required, but instead of directing you to your institutional library, you are directed to the publisher’s website and asked to pay a fee for access. There is no guarantee that students have been instructed on or realize themselves the need to then search in the library collections for that same item. All too often, students are not aware of the fact that their library’s current journal list may include full text access to the item they want. Students have no clear path to accessing much of the content they’re looking for, and librarians cannot instruct them on developing the information literacy skills around how to acquire the content, as so much of it is not in our collections. Both are left in a frustrating limbo of constantly reinventing the wheel each time they go to do research. It’s akin to someone coming in and restructuring a corporation, laying in more management, and not fully explaining to the employees: who is responsible for what.

The access providers charging a fee can be: an individual selling their content, an association, an aggregator assigned the rights by an individual or association, the actual publisher or a publisher who has the rights to distribute a specific journal.  The number of vendors and organizations selling access to journals is staggering. I did a gap analysis over 4 months on one of our reference desks to seek out where to acquire journal requests that were not in our library collection.   I found a pattern of costly multiple access points that I could not possibly manage to provide to my patrons. You might be lucky to find 15% of those in an available database collection offering a library subscription, or perhaps 30% percent spread over 2 databases. To secure them all, you are looking at spending a great deal of your budget acquiring single journal access for your patrons, and perhaps not having access to the full backlist or archives. This data does not make a strong business case for an increase in collection development budget.  Libraries are like any line item in an institutional budget: we must run according to good business practices. Buying your paper clips one at a time is far more expensive than buying them in bulk, and almost impossible to justify.

To complicate matters, we are seeing an increasing amount of fee-for-access content that cannot be held in a library due to licensing restrictions or budgetary constraints.  Whether available by institutional subscription or not, the increasing lack of centralized aggregation creates a situation where if the student or researcher has the money, they can acquire the item. This results in an increased erosion of the principles of democratic access to information.  Libraries have always been constrained by budget, but personal finances should never determine access to the basic information that students have paid for as part of their fee structure and that should be in the library collections to support their program of studies. And we know that this content should be in the collections because the syllabi topics support its presence and faculty, who are the content experts, are asking for it. The lack of a clear and central method of providing access means that we cannot provide a good user experience for our patrons and sometimes we are failing to support the institutional objectives.
At present: the work of journal access is complicated by too much description, too many access points, with little centralization of either. Essentially, too many cooks have spoiled the digital broth. Hopefully this is a transition phase in the development of digital access systems. Perhaps as we move towards more open access and fewer restrictions placed on libraries seeking content through commercial vendors, we will find a clearer and more direct way to provide access.  Then we can instruct students in transferable information literacy skills that will get them to the content they are seeking. With new players coming into provide open access to government sponsored research, we will hopefully see over the next couple of years a flattening of the user-to-content hierarchy.   In the meantime, institutions need to increase their library budgets so we can provide patrons with the content they have the right to expect and have already paid for. Or, students will have to start budgeting for journal costs the way they do for textbooks. In the absence of this, institutions may see their bottom line affected as students choose to not attend college due to the increasing cost of access to appropriate content to support their program of study.

Meanwhile, if unable to provide access through the library I will continue to apologetically direct my client’s students to multiple vendor sites to acquire or rent individual articles at personal cost to themselves. Sometimes they give heated feedback that the library is not supporting them as they expected and they prefer to use a web browser to conduct 'library research'.  While I know in my librarian heart that this is a slippery slope to questionable content, I do sympathize.  I am not responsible for the development of Internet commerce or the limited library budget, but it rankles to be reminded of my impotence and possible culpability in not coming up with a solution that serves the better interests of my patrons.

These are typical challenges we work on for our clients - and we would be glad to help you too. Contact me.

Cheri Rauser, MLIS, MA
Head of Reference Services