why is serials recordkeeping so problematic?

I’ve been reading this post, from the charmingly named In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

The part I’ve been munching through: apparently it’s really, really hard for libraries to keep track of their electronic serials and database usage. If you want to know which of the things you’re subscribed to are actually getting used and how (and what it’s costing you), strap yourself in for a long ride, because ILSes don’t have rich enough functionality to harvest that information for you. Some people buy additional systems on top to help, but even those require a lot of work if you want to extract useful data.

There are some good reasons for this. Libraries frequently subscribe to databases or journals as bundles (and may be required to do so by the publisher), and the usage codes may not disaggregate resources within the bundle. Libraries may subscribe as part of consortia, but need to extract data for their individual institution.

Still, though. This seems like a pretty obvious thing to want to do — keep track of your actual use! So why do the tools not support it? I welcome ideas from people who actually know something (which is not me!), but in the meantime, I’ll brainstorm some possibilities…

  • It’s a genuinely hard technical problem. (And there are a lot of problems that need to be solved here — not just capturing the data, from subscription systems that apparently don’t natively provide it, but organizing it into a database that answers users’ questions, has a usable front end, and spits out data in formats useful for budgeters and other decisionmakers. That’s not one system — that’s multiple interacting systems, possibly produced by different organizations — and potentially problems that have to be re-solved for every database vendor and ILS combination. OK, it’s even harder than I realized when I started this bullet point and was just thinking about algorithms.)
  • Libraries don’t prioritize recordkeeping and review of their serials and databases enough to exert pressure (market, social, cultural) on companies to develop this feature.
  • ILSes offer a tremendous number of features; while libraries might want better serials tracking, they care more about those other features, so it’s those things that ILSes are competing on. (Although this doesn’t answer why an ILS that does well on those things, *and* on serials, doesn’t emerge and stomp on its competitors. But maybe it’s too hard (algorithmically or monetarily) to do that.)
  • This is a place where the culture clash between librarians and programmers is showing; maybe they just aren’t talking to one another enough for the user needs to become apparent. Again, you’d think this would be a place where the company (or open source project) that does do a good user needs analysis to eat its competition — and there are niches where librarians and programmers overlap — but all too often they don’t seem to even have a common vocabulary.


8 thoughts on “why is serials recordkeeping so problematic?

  1. What’s “use”? I clicked on an article in a journal? I left the article up in my browser for a while? I printed out the PDF? None of that proves I read it…

    You almost want to ask comprehension questions at the end of the journal article. (But who would write them? And who (besides librarians) would take the time to answer them?)


    1. Hm, good question! I don’t think comprehension questions are relevant here — the librarians’ remit is to provide the access; comprehension is up to the students and teachers — but it’s true that clicking doesn’t prove that the journal has had the kind of *use* one might be hoping for in context. So what would be a more, well, useful metric?

      I guess there’s a larger question of purpose here — I mean, in the context of a university the point of journal access is teaching and learning, so I see where you’re going with comprehension questions, but the scope of the blog post I linked to has more to do with budgeting, and with the process of having a conversation with your users about their needs. Are logs of clicks sufficient for generating budgetary priorities (or, at least, sufficient within the context of getting other, subjective data from users)?


    2. One alternate measure of usage is citation. It’s a bit haphazard, as my citing a source in ten papers doesn’t mean I needed to come to the library to access it ten times. On the other hand, the more times something is cited (perhaps especially by distinct patrons), the more important it may be to keep it around.

      On the third hand, ideally, there are plenty of members of a university community who use sources without ever publishing anywhere. That is, this is ideal if you hold out hope that some undergraduate, somewhere, is using the library…


  2. But if you wind up using clicks to decide what journals to carry – and ultimately, who gets paid – then you will find that undergraduates of all disciplines have suddenly become extremely interested in the Lower Slobovian Journal of Concrete Algebra. Journal payola! Journal viruses! Academic SEO howto sites! The future ain’t pretty.


    1. This point about false clicks is interesting. Surely, though, there are tools that could be brought to bear on the problem: people who advertise online have been facing it for a decade, no?


  3. How would I do it? Depends on my role, I guess. If I were a journal publisher/aggregator, I’d do just what they’re doing now, perhaps unintentionally: obscure the usage information.

    As a librarian? Depends what fraction of my budget these people are eating. Some large proportion of my users may still like paper, after all.

    As a consumer I would try to drive the price of prestige journals to zero. Here’s how: pick a high-value field and found a new journal, online-only, free for all to read. Something like the Journal of Law, Internet and Freedom. Recruit very high-profile editors sympathetic to the cause, such as Larry Lessig, rms, Eugene Volokh, etc. Make the journal a very-high-prestige publication. Repeat with other fields.

    Don’t know where I’d get the money from, but you wouldn’t need too much to start.


  4. From what I hear, journal subscriptions are very expensive and getting more so each year; online versions are increasingly popular; and scrapping the online version in favor of paper (or vice versa) is a very minimal cost savings. So not having a strategy for containing costs isn’t really an option.

    There’s a big movement behind open access journals (and one supported by many librarians) but, as you might imagine, it’s not always easy to do. You can’t make a journal high-prestige just by waving a wand; publishers have clout; there may be actual costs associated with publishing journals; faculty (especially untenured faculty) have strong incentives to publish in certain existing journals. And even if you were to be successful, people would need access to back issues of non-open-access journals, so the cost problem wouldn’t be solved.


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