Experts Discuss Databases and the Future of Libraries

by | Sep 30, 2013 | 0 comments

Experts Discuss Databases and the Future of Libraries

Paula-J-HaneBy Paula J. Hane

American Libraries magazine has been offering a free series of video streaming presentations entitled American Libraries Live. Past topics have included ebooks, discovery services, library learning online, mobile services, and planning for the annual conference. Archives are available here. The latest program on Sept. 12, 2013 was called “Digging Into Databases,” but it actually covered a broader scope than this might imply. Since it was being led by well-known library consultant Marshall Breeding, I decided to sit in for the panel presentation and discussion.

The panel focused on how databases and many other electronic resources are changing and shaping the present and future of libraries. It touched upon the issue of budget cuts, the impact of discovery services, evaluation of usage, and collaboration strategies. Panelists represented academic and public libraries and a vendor.

·         Jill Emery, Collections Development Librarian, Portland State University

·         Michael Santangelo, Electronic Resources Coordinator, BookOps

·         Meg White, Executive Director of Technology Services at Rittenhouse Book Distributors

Note: Rittenhouse Book Distributors Inc. provides libraries, retailers, and other businesses with print and electronic books in the fields of medicine, nursing, and allied health. The R2 Digital Library is Rittenhouse’s ebook platform.

Setting the Stage

Breeding began by saying that “all electronic products offered in libraries are fair game for today’s conversation.” He estimated that academic libraries probably now spend about 90% of their collection budgets on electronic resources. Public libraries may not have that high a percentage but still have sizable investments.

Many libraries are now implementing discovery services in lieu of multiple individual interfaces to resources. Breeding is currently conducting a survey on his website at As he notes, “Discovery products aim to provide enhanced access to the different dimensions of a library’s collections, usually spanning print, digital, and electronic resources. These discovery products supplement or replace the online catalog module of an integrated library system.”


Marshall Breeding

Breeding says another way libraries are dealing with databases and electronic resources is that these are increasingly pursuing collaborative collections and services. “Here today, we have a representative of BookOps, which is a fully consolidated, shared library technical services organization that serves the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the New York Public Library (NYPL).” Another example is the Orbis Cascade Alliance, a massive collaboration of 37 academic libraries in the Pacific Northwest, including Portland State University.

Another interesting trend says Breeding is data-driven selection. Libraries are using more and more tools to analyze and measure the impact of each resource they acquire. “As budgets get tight, I think there is less tolerance for overlap. Gone are the days of libraries building comprehensive collections in a just-in-case mode. Now we’re moving toward patron-driven models.” Vendors work hard to get libraries to take their bundles of content but a more flexible mix-and-match approach lets libraries build boutique collections based on patron needs.

Panelists’ Perspectives

Meg White, speaking specifically about the STM space, which she says has been an early adopter of online resources and technology, notes that in this time of budget cuts that the resources really need to be closely aligned with the library’s mission—it’s critical that libraries understand users’ needs. And, beyond the selection of appropriate materials and aligning with a mission, she added that “increasingly discoverability is the name of the game. Unless users can find those resources we’re providing, we’re not really doing our jobs.”

Michael Santangelo agreed with White’s comments on users’ needs and discoverability, and stressed that public libraries need to collaborate more. He’s involved with ReadersFirst, an initiative to present a unified library voice to ebook distributors. He feels it’s important for public libraries to work together to develop common requests and standards. Not every library should have to reinvent the conversation with vendors. Collaboration helps with workflows, technology, and better service to patrons.

Jill Emery says academic librarians are struggling with a number of things. “We’re still in recession mode, we’re dealing with budget cuts, and grappling with how to optimize where and how to spend our dollars. We are evaluating our databases much more closely. In the past, we were happy to have these large aggregated packages of content but, as vendors have worked deals to offer exclusive content, we are struggling to know which platforms we need to buy. A colleague described it as, ‘we used to be able to buy milk and now we’re having to buy the dairy.’” She also noted that some commercial databases are indexing open access content and wonders whether the library instead should be the discovery mechanism for this type of content. “Do we need that duplication?” They are also concerned about losing content from databases as publishers decide to pull out of aggregated collections.

Emery says that academic librarians also need to ask themselves, “How do we make our content context-sensitive?” This involves delivering content at the point-of-need. Libraries are looking at integrating with courseware and online learning platforms.

Strategies to Consider

The panelists agreed on the value of usage statistics—use stats to tell stories. But, White cautioned that stats can’t be the only way we measure effectiveness of databases. She related how they evaluated use of an ebook database and they started with the misconception that the database homepage was the “hub of the wheel.” But, they found that users were coming to the content from many different entry points. It’s important to make your resources more integrated and discoverable. Emery also mentioned how helpful COUNTER statistics are, when available.

The panelists mentioned the issue of some vendors refusing to cooperate with the discovery services—“this is really problematic.” Santangelo noted that the N.Y. public libraries in BookOps were going with a discovery service and if vendors wouldn’t collaborate with them, they may be dropped. He stressed that vendors should involve librarians in shaping their products and services. “Libraries should help create discovery services, not just review them.” Emery mentioned how many libraries are creating institutional repositories and other information resources. “The library becomes an API for its patrons,” she said. Emery also speculated on how librarians could come up with worthwhile partnerships with vendors.

The panelists agreed that collaboration between different types of libraries was also beneficial. Santangelo noted that school and public libraries need each other, and there are many examples of cooperation between public and academic libraries. Emery noted the important role played by many state libraries, such as Texas and Oregon. They help to provide consistent resources across K-12, college, and public. She also gave a plug for the Digital Public Library of America—trying to be a collaborative effort for the whole country.

Summing up, Breeding noted that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for library content. Venues such as this presentation will hopefully create more opportunities for librarians and vendors to work together.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her email address is

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