v32#3 Access is People: Navigating the E-resource Access Landscape During a Pandemic

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments

by Abigail Wickes  (Electronic Resources Management Librarian, Duke University

When I first began brainstorming this article in early March 2020, the refrain that kept coming to mind was a riff on a blog post by Whitney Hess1Access is People.  Just as Hess points out that a human being is behind every email, a human being is also behind every twist and turn in the content pipeline2 that can go awry.  (For clarification, when I use the term access, I’m talking about the process of a library user identifying then getting to content in the desired format.)  I knew this from my experience working in content discovery management at Oxford University Press, where I learned the importance of building relationships and facilitating communication across the library, publisher, and discovery vendor trifecta.  This was further validated in my current role as an ERM Librarian at Duke University, where I still work to open doors of conversation between content providers and discovery vendors when access issues arise in our collection, while also working with colleagues to manually provide e-resource access, and helping patrons and colleagues who are experiencing any number of enigmatic access issues. 

Then, the rest of March 2020 began to unfold.  On the last night of the ER&L 2020 Conference, I learned that my campus was extending spring break then abruptly switching to entirely remote classes and work.  One month later, writing up this article in mid-April, the whiplash I’m experiencing from these rapid and all-encompassing changes is unprecedented (though the lack of ergonomic office furniture in my home workspace may be contributing.)  The pitfalls of the content pipeline and the importance of building relationships with the people facilitating access at each point became even more important when options changed so drastically.

E-Resource Access “Before”

In the world leading up to roughly March 1-9, 2020, a typical library user with good intentions would try to access scholarly e-resource content via their library website.  They then may have encountered any number of errors, stemming from unregistered DOIs, openURL failure due to outdated citations, unannounced URL changes that break proxies, or intentional road bumps, such as restrictive DRM.  While we hope our users report these frustrating situations so they can be remedied, it’s also likely that these intentional or unintentional hurdles drive some users to access the content using more circuitous methods, some unsanctioned.  These hurdles to legitimate access are a lot like the piracy warning you have to sit through when you watch a DVD.  (I realize this comparison is also a great example of a way to indicate my age without using any dates.)  Like the library user with good intentions trying to get to content via legal methods, I’m the user with good intentions who bought this Shrek 2 DVD from Media Play;  why do I have to plod through these piracy warnings before reaching the content for which I should have legitimate access?  In an ideal world, discovery should be delivery.3

Standards for discovery and access protocols, such as recommendations from Project Transfer, KBART and KBART automation, the Open Discovery Initiative, and the Content Platform Migration working group, have emerged in an effort to minimize these problems and facilitate timely and accurate information transfer among content providers, discovery vendors, and libraries.  However, problems persist when these standards are not adopted at a wide scale.  Industry shifts, such as the emergence of digital-first publishing, waves of content platform migrations, and major changes of scale in library software, also contribute to delays and bottlenecks in the content pipeline.  Metadata distribution lagging behind publication will be inevitable until content provider discovery and access resources are scaled to meet the growing quantity of digital-first content.  In discussions with content discovery management colleagues from a variety of publishers, focused discovery work such as creating and distributing KBART files (often manually) and troubleshooting e-resource access issues is commonly relegated to one person or a small team, who can only do so much.  The sheer volume of e-resource content librarians must contend with has been one of the most striking parts of my experience transitioning to e-resource management work in libraries after working in a similar capacity for a publisher.  In contrast to the low number of discovery and access resources employed by many large publishers, academic research libraries employ teams of people to constantly work on solving these problems.  When standards are not ubiquitous, facilitating e-resource access becomes grindingly manual, demanding local work that is very difficult to keep current.

E-Resource Access During a Global Pandemic

When remote e-resource access becomes one of the only ways for users to interact with library resources, existing authentication issues and confusion compound, spiked with newfound anxiety and urgency.  Here, too, it has been helpful to remember that behind each frantic request for help is a person trying to cope in a stressful situation.  Students trying to complete an assignment from home may not understand that navigating to a resource directly from a content provider’s website may result in an erroneous paywall due to lack of a proxy prefix in the URL.  Faculty trying to continue with research may not know that the university VPN is necessary for IP authentication.  This creates a cocktail of potential issues, which could be attributed to existing but unearthed problems, new obstacles stemming from remote access limitations, or some ambiguous combination. 

The gravity of the abrupt and ubiquitous transition to remote access has largely been acknowledged with gestures of goodwill from content providers;  communication styles have shifted, and more formal tones are overwhelmingly replaced with well wishes and updates about how each person and their community are faring as the days of social distancing add up.  It’s a reminder that although these are business relationships, there are people behind each point of correspondence who ideally have a similar end goal — getting content to users who need it.  This has been especially important for research directly related to stemming the pandemic;  when some of our colleagues in Engineering urgently needed new subscriptions to several standards for efforts to create PPE using 3D printers, the provider granted access immediately. 

Content providers have also opened an abundance of free content provided during the pandemic.  This seems to largely be a gesture of goodwill, where most providers are looking to contribute what they can to a dire situation.  There have also been some bad actors who are using this as an opportunity to snare institutions into contracts if they don’t actively opt out before the end of the complimentary period.  Along with cultivating a healthy wariness about whether anything is truly free, expectations for access options for temporarily free resources have also made evident some existing confusion about access models.  Although these temporarily free resources may fill short-term resource gaps created by the transition to relying solely on decentralized e-resources, it may not make sense or even be possible to quickly add this fleeting abundance of temporary holdings to the knowledgebase, temporary MARC records to the catalog, or temporary stanzas to the proxy server, and then remove them all before the complimentary period is over.  Without these access frameworks in place, getting users to these provisionally free resources becomes a convoluted process. 

E-Resource Access to Come

As social distancing continues, there are some examples we can draw on for building more robust e-resource access in the days to come.  Specifically, by advocating for wide-spread adoption of information standards and data cleanup practices, and building on strengthened relationships to create teachable moments.  So many access issues stem from lack of standardization and bad data that blocks linking.  While we are all working, researching, and studying remotely, e-resources are the content.  Drawing on my own experience working in publishing, the importance of optimizing e-resource content for library access points is not always widely understood or prioritized by publisher stakeholders, who are more likely focused on augmenting their own platforms and investing in digital content innovations.  While these individual platform enhancements are important, especially when meeting ADA requirements, if users are unable to get to newly enhanced content because of link resolver failures or discrepancies in KBART files, who is benefiting from these developments?  This is where librarians can lean on what are hopefully strengthened relationships, and take the opportunity to offer explanations to the people we talk to when reporting problems.  At the risk of sounding like one of the many advertisements [insert brand/chain/car dealer/etc.] emphasizing their focus on people “during these troubling times,” it can help to remember there are people behind every bend in the content pipeline from provider to vendor to library to patron.  In troubling times, we can build these relationships through shared experience.  Just don’t be afraid to leverage that bolstered relationship to advocate for more resources invested in ensuring smooth library access and adoption of industry standards!  


1.  https://whitneyhess.com/blog/2013/06/03/email-is-people/ 

2.  https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/07/11/building-pipes-and-fixing-leaks-in-scholarly-content-discovery-and-access/ 

3.  https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/01/08/discovery-delivery-user-centric-principles-discovery-service/


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