By Courtney McAllister
During the Charleston Conference this year, I had an opportunity to participate in a lively ATG Trendspotting discussion, led by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe. The session covered a wide range of provocative and timely topics that are weighing on the minds of librarians, publishers, service providers, and others within the information industry. Donald Hawkins’s excellent report provides a handy synopsis.
In the weeks since the Conference, I have found myself mulling over one particular discussion prompt: “You Call That Content?” During the Trendspotting session, participants responded to this prompt by describing their concerns and the challenges they face in wrangling the rapidly changing nature and scope of content. Instead of acquiring and managing familiar types of content, such as print monographs and physical media, librarians are tasked with building and maintaining collections composed of streaming media, datasets, images, and digital collections, in addition to the revolving door of electronic journals and ebooks. The sheer variety of these resources can complicate acquisitions workflows, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Some of these material types present unique challenges for description and discovery. What kind of metadata adequately describes a dataset? How will researchers make use of a primary source collection, such as digitized newspapers, if item level metadata is not available? How do librarians effectively track large packages of ebooks when titles might disappear from the platform mid-semester? As a result of the conversation, I became more aware of how these new forms and combinations of content test the boundaries of our existing standards, systems, and institutional priorities.
The discussion was enlightening, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how frequently those comments and observations have overlapped with discussions at my job. However, I’ve also felt compelled to take a step back and consider the implications of how we define library resources in the first place. Clearly, content is part of the picture, but what other entities edge into frame? I’ve held the title of Electronic Resources Librarian at two academic institutions, and the roles were definitely not interchangeable. While staffing needs and institutional priorities undoubtedly determine some of those variations, I think part of the differing permutations arise from the murkiness of “resources” as a concept.
There’s a learning curve involved in our adaptation from established collection types like monographs and print serials to newer forms of content, like datasets, but these examples are still rooted in a familiar transactional dynamic of a user accessing an informational artifact of some kind. While access models and types of artifacts are changing, there’s a reassuringly familiar object-based paradigm at work to provide some continuity. But what about the other side of the “resources” umbrella? Services.
In addition to the laundry list of content types, libraries are also being asked to provide access to services like research metrics dashboards, citation management tools, online tutorials, and interactive test preparation platforms. To me, these represent a departure from the object-based structure to which we’ve grown accustomed. Perhaps they are task-based, rather than object-based. I’m sure there’s a better way to articulate the difference, but, suffice it to say that these kinds of resources represent a unique kind of value proposition. Rather than informational artifacts, services often provide personalized assistance with a specific task. This can be a source of significant value in the moment, but does it align with the longer term perspective of collection development? How does a task-based tool contribute to a library’s collection? Does it have enduring value beyond the present user’s personalized experience?
To some extent, I think my preoccupation with the scope of “resources” is indicative of assessment angst and underlying concerns about collections stewardship. The Return on Investment for a database subscription can be analyzed fairly easily with Cost Per Use or other metrics and formulae. We have some strategies to employ when it’s time to examine how we selected and acquired content. But what methods do we use to assess services? Is the number of sessions equivalent to database/ebook downloads or print check-outs? For online tutorials, would one consider each viewed component an indication of use, or focus on completed modules? How can we make meaningful comparisons between our COUNTER data and these more nebuloud data points? Since these are more task-oriented resources, do we incorporate qualitative data and user experience into the assessment cycle to better capture whether that citation management tool was effective and easy to use?
These non-content resources can also instigate a bit of a collections identity crisis because they do not have a clear “home” within a library’s organization. When it comes to administrative oversight, subscription services might not be managed alongside typical collections. For example, a public-facing department, such as Reference and Instruction, might coordinate the access, training, and evaluation of citation and plagiarism tools. Even though these services could be categorized as electronic resources, Technical Services might not even have tangential involvement with them, creating additional uncertainties about the interrelationship between content and services. Perhaps it is up to each institution to reconcile these tensions in a way that complements local staffing, work culture, and the organization’s vision. However, I think it is still worth contemplating what we mean by “resources” and how both object-based and task-based instances are represented in our internal workflows, budgetary priorities, and collection development policies.
What do you think the next form of content will be? What new services will libraries add to their subscription rosters?
What is your definition of “resources”?
How are services and content managed at your institution?
How should we approach the value of services? Should they be evaluated alongside content, or do we need a new form of assessment criteria?
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Courtney McAllister is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library in New Haven, Connecticut. Her scholarship focuses on organizational cultures, scholarly communication, assessment, and emerging technologies. Her MLIS is from the University of South Carolina: Columbia. She holds an MA in International Performance Research from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of Mary Washington. She has contributed chapters to Technical Services: Adapting to a Changing Environment (Purdue UP) and Creativity for Library Career Advancement: Perspectives, Techniques and Eureka Moments (with Christine Elliott, McFarland). She is the author of an upcoming LITA Guide on applying change management practices to library systems and technologies. Courtney is Associate Editor of The Serials Librarian (Taylor & Francis).