Collection Management in Light of Electronic Publishing

By Hitchingham, Eileen | Information Technology and Libraries, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Collection Management in Light of Electronic Publishing


Hitchingham, Eileen, Information Technology and Libraries


In Virginia we have been doing a lot of rethinking about higher education in the last several years. There is a general restructuring going on. Many programs in higher education are being examined, with the intent of focusing our goals and learning to maximize what are likely to be stable or slowly growing resources. Libraries are a part of that, too. Since I am new to Virginia, having been at Virginia Tech for just the last several months, thinking about collection management was a fruitful exercise for me. I hope it will be useful to you also.

I would like to start with a little bit of personal history. Almost thirty years ago I took my first job at Harvard as a MEDLARS Analyst at the Countway Library of Medicine. MEDLARS was the early version of MEDLINE. I would like to walk you through what was involved in doing a search at that time.

We would interview physicians, hospital staff, researchers, and students who were interested in getting information to solve research or clinical problems. We would try to talk to them about all the parameters of their search. Then they would walk away. Afterward, we would go through the MESH thesaurus and map out terms that described, or at least we hoped described, the kinds of information that they were looking for. When we had selected the terms we then formulated them into what was usually a fairly complex Boolean statement, often with lots of nested parentheses. The piece of paper, with the terms and the statement combining the terms, was then carried down to the nether regions of the Countway. Down there, on a large machine that looked something like a casketsized rolodex, we had thousands of punched cards representing all the terms in the MESH thesaurus. An assistant would pick out the cards that matched those on the search form, arrange the cards, and then keypunch a statement card with the ends, ors, and nots to match the way that the terms were to be searched.

The search cards would then be bundled up with other searches, shipped off to the National Library of Medicine in Washington, and if all went well, a week or ten days later, I would get the citation results back. If lucky, and if I hadn't used "or" when I should have said "and," and if I had selected good representative terms, the search was successful. The results would be mailed to the client, or they might come over and pick it up in a few days. Generally we had a process that could take from two to three weeks from the time that the user first wanted the information.

When I had been searching like this for approximately six months, I experienced what I think of now as one of the most significant events in my entire professional life. On that day, they rolled in our first terminal, we hooked up that acoustic coupler, zapped in some terms, and had instant gratification with instant information. The results were immediate. We could change our strategy based on what we were finding. We could give something to the users with no delays. We could even have the user present as the search was being done, so that she or he could also become part of the process.

I think you would agree with me that as similar events happened in libraries all across the country, as we all slowly went "online," we were experiencing the initial tremors of a change process that had a profound effect on us, on our user expectations, and on how we view library services.

Today, thirty years later, we see the emergence of technologies that seem destined to cause not tremors, but cataclysmic earthquakes across the familiar topography of library operations and services.

I am talking today about collection management and electronic publications. I say management, rather than development, because I see this as being more inclusive of the concepts of what we do in libraries.

I would first like to go through a traditional understanding of libraries and their roles, and then look at how the emerging age of electronic publishing is changing this tradition. …

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