Still waiting to hear from the state what’s going on with POWER library. My sources tell me it might be a while. And, as that veritable sage Tom Petty once put it, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
The plus side to waiting, though, is that you have plenty of time to scheme plan and agitate collaborate. It’s always good to have a plan, and it’s about time you heard a little more about some of the fine people I work with, and what we do.
I will do my best to make these topics as “sexy” as possible, but sometimes there’s just no way to dress up a skunk: librarians care, and very deeply, about electronic resources. Patrons tend not to know, or care, how the magicians do their tricks…until the money runs out, and resources are cut. I provide this information anyway, in the hopes that it will be useful to someone.
Allegheny County Databases 101
Library users in Allegheny County have access to three levels of database service, provided in different ways. Let’s take it from the top down.
Pennsylvania POWER Library
This is the suite of electronic resources that is available to all libraries in the commonwealth. It is currently paid for by the state of Pennsylvania, but based on the 57.1% reduction to the line item that includes these resources, its future is uncertain. These databases are selected and purchased by either the state library or a statewide committee of library staff, I believe–someone please correct me if this is not so. It’s a tad shrouded in mystery, and I’d like a little more transparency on the process, myself…
The Electronic Resources Evaluation Committee is a committee of the Allegheny County Library Association. It is composed of librarians who represent different geographical regions within the county, as well as staff from the Electronic Information Network, a/k/a EIN, which currently handles the statistics reporting and tech troubleshooting for countywide electronic resources. EREC purchases are funded from a variety of sources, which makes deciding issues about their administration (including tech support and stats-keeping) a touch complicated.
All databases selected by EREC are available to all library cardholders in Allegheny County, regardless of which library issued their card. The committee meets once a month to decide which products to keep or cancel, discuss other electronic products on the market, set up trials, discuss the outcome of trials, and generally keep tabs on the state of library electronica.
Individual Library Subscriptions
Each of the county’s libraries–and there are quite a lot that are not part of the CLP system–has the option to purchase individual database subscriptions with their collection development budgets.
CLP has its own Database Selection Committee (DBSC), which is made up of representatives from both Main Library and the branches, who make decisions about what, if any resources, we want to buy for CLP cardholders on top of what the county and state provide. Individual subscriptions have pros and cons, which we will examine more in detail when we discuss the patrons’-eye view of all this.
Everybody with me so far? All righty then:
When all is working well, this three-tiered system actually functions more like an equilateral triangle, with all limbs in perfect balance, resting on a solid base. If Bob Ross were here to paint it, he might call it a happy little triangle.
In our current situation, however, with steep budget cuts to POWER that could very well eliminate the majority of the subscription databases, a chain reaction has begun.
The current posse of fine folks on EREC are currently creating a survey, meant to be distributed to staff countywide, so they can provide feedback on what resources are key for them and their patrons. A patron-friendly version of the survey, which will appear on the county database page, will glean info from library users.
The surveys will, hopefully, tell EREC a few important things it needs to know, namely:
- Which databases are most useful to library staff.
- Which databases are most useful to patrons.
- Which POWER library databases EREC should try to purchase if the state drops their subscriptions.
- Which EREC databases we should cancel to make room to pick up POWER subscriptions.
Do you see the bind that crops up there with points 3 and 4? Given that the public library subsidy was cut 20% statewide, chances are good that EREC will have LESS money to spend in 2010, it will boil down to canceling some resources in order to save others.
Whatever choices EREC makes will trickle down to individual libraries. If, for example, a particular database is canceled countywide, each individual library may choose to research pricing, and make a purchase for its own cardholders. Given that many vendors do their pricing by population served and/or number of cardholders, electronic resources are less expensive the smaller your service area gets.
The only problem there is that it creates little “service ghettos,” in which the quality of electronic access varies widely depending on how much collection money a library has to dedicate to databases. This is what we library professionals like to call “uncool.”
The Patron Perspective
Patrons don’t care who buys what, what standards they use, or where the monies come from. They simply want what they want. This is human nature, and I am at peace with it.
Besides, look at it from the average patron’s point of view. To her/him, does it matter who bought what for whom? Nope. S/he just wants the information, not an object lesson on service models. And when s/he asks why s/he has access to some databases and not others, there’s currently no way to answer this question without boring the living daylights out of the poor patron.
If I ruled the world…
As you may have gathered, I think about these issues quite a bit. I’ve been immersed in this stuff for about two years now, so I’ve certainly had plenty of time to consider it. I’ve served on the DBSC and EREC, and then suddenly found myself as chair of both.
From a certain perspective, this makes the job a lot easier: when I get pricing for things, I can measure twice and cut once. However, wearing multiple hats also forces me to think about everything twice as long and twice as hard. What’s really in everybody’s best interests? What is the solution that will be best for my library and its patrons, as well as other libraries and their patrons?
I’ve come to the conclusion that, in most cases, it really makes more sense to buy databases on a countywide level, especially databases that give access to full-text journal articles. It seems ridiculous to have an army of little full-text fiefdoms – better to make the purchase on a wider scale, making as many journal articles available to as many people as possible.
In a way, this is not unlike the argument for opening up the gifted curriculum to students of all levels. Trips to the ballet, and chess lessons, and visits to art museums, are just the ticket for the high-achievers. But perhaps, if the “regular” or “under-performing” kids had those opportunities as well, it would cause them to flourish and grow? While every library should be free to spend its individual collection budgets as it sees fit, I can think of very few situations where a boutique database is needed.
Obviously, there are exceptions, and sometimes pricing on a countywide scale is prohibitive. Why shouldn’t a library pick up that would please its patrons if countywide pricing is not feasible? Still, if I ruled the world, I’d do a complete overhaul of the current three-tier system. Here are some of the changes I’d make:
- There would be a countywide database coordinator whose sole responsibility would be the care and feeding of the EREC databases.
- That person’s duties would include, but not be limited to: researching products, designing and producing promotional brochures, scheduling–and, if necessary, teaching–training sessions, creating Camtasia and/or video tutorials for staff and patrons, maintaining an electronic resources blog to keep everybody in the county abreast of electronica, serving as liaison to EREC and whomever selects state resources, as well as being a consultant for libraries on an individual basis.
- And speaking of the state, a huge part of this person’s job would be to let some sunshine in on just exactly how those POWER databases are selected. They’d also be responsible for promtion of and training on state-provided resources.
- If, after closer examination it was felt that was the best solution, this person would also be responsible for database tech support and statistics gathering for all the county libraries.
- Given the scope of 2 & 3, this person should be compensated A Very Lot. Perhaps not as much as a director, but definitely more than the average librarian.
- A subscription to The Charleston Advisor should be part of this person’s benefits package. Either that or the agency that employed him/her should pick up the tab.
You can see why I won’t be put in charge of anything anytime soon. I can just hear you now: “Where, foolish dreamer, is there money for that in this current economic climate?”
My only response on that point is, you get what you pay for.
If you have made it to the end of this post with your eyeballs still firmly lodged in their sockets, I salute your fortitude. Blathering about all this has been helpful for me because I have been asked to give not one, but two, presentations about databases within the next few months, and spilling it out in a blog entry has been insanely helpful in terms of brainstorming what I want to say.
Comments / questions / clarification? Let me know.