Bibliographic Databases in a Changing World

By Ashling, Jim | Information Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Bibliographic Databases in a Changing World


Ashling, Jim, Information Today


It's no secret that we live in turbulent times. Change is happening all around us, whether it's technological, political, or economic. With increasingly more severe budgetary constraints, the products and services that are bought by the information community are constantly reappraised by customers for both their usefulness and value. Meanwhile, the producers and distributors face an ever-changing competitive environment and cost structure.

Amid this chaos, it sometimes seems that a handful of products remains constant, reliable, and reassuringly present. This is particularly, but not exclusively, so in the bibliographic database sector. There, many of today's online files have evolved and survived for about 100 years by adapting to the latest delivery medium of the day, whether it's print, CD-ROM, online, OPAC, or the Web.

But can these files exist indefinitely? Are the pressures today greater or somehow different than those encountered during previous upheavals? Or is it the very constancy and relentlessly growing historical depth that feeds increased value in such databases? This report considers some of the pressures and choices to be made by the customers of bibliographic and other traditional databases. Next month, I'll examine what responses are being made by the producers and distributors.

Choices for Cancellation

When a print collection or access to an online file has been maintained for many years, the librarian's natural tendency is to resist the urge to cancel it and avoid being the one to break the sequence of generations. As scientific R&D progresses, new ways of looking at older technologies and materials often arise, and deeper retrospective searches may be required. But growing print collections are becoming impossible to house and are now hardly found outside of academic libraries, where the volumes collect dust rather than users. Even so, at least a print collection remains your property when you cancel, unlike the annual-access subscription that you have purchased.

Such conservatism and traditional attitudes come at a heavy price in acquisition, storage, and access costs. Multiple copies and media formats are luxuries that very few can afford. Along with those of journals, database costs escalated through the 1980s and '90s, all adding to the serials crisis. This may have had the effect of making commercial publishers more unpopular than most, but the nonprofit publishers were hardly modest in their increases either. This caused librarians to wonder why they should be subsidizing society membership any more than contributing to corporate profits.

Cancellations caused falling subscriptions, which led to further price increases--a downward spiral that has only one possible final outcome. Generally, the choice to be made was deciding which expensive journals could be canceled, while retaining the bibliographic indexes. This meant retrieval and access were still possible, even if there would be a greater delay in obtaining article copies.

Usage in Universities

That choice is less common today as acquisitions have been pared to the minimum. You're more likely to hear that the primary journal must be protected and that an index that's used less and less will be the service to be sacrificed. The University of Cambridge and its associated laboratories form one of the great research institutions. Its library receives copies of everything published in the U.K. by virtue of its status as a legal deposit library. When choosing which bibliographic databases should be leased, the decisions were made on how best to unlock such a large and at times obscure collection of primary material.

The logic still stands, but Michael Wilson, librarian at Cambridge's Scientific Periodicals Library and the new Moore Library, tells me that despite a fine collection of both specialized and general databases, most of them are hardly used at all. …

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