(Otherwise known as “the challenges libraries face in
meeting ‘managing’ student expectations with regards the delivery of online resources in light of a changing fees-based sector and multiple paths to content”!!)
A few weeks ago I blogged about the potential access problems caused by publishers issuing multiple subscription reference numbers for academic libraries. I thought I’d follow up that blog post with a few more personal observations surrounding online resources/journals management and the challenges libraries face (now, and in the very near future) in delivering content to meet the demands of users in the light of increasing university tuition fees and different avenues to content.
I work for a library team which deals, on a daily basis, with enquiries sent by library users experiencing problems with online resources and electronic journals. Diagnosing these ‘problems’ can be a complex and time-consuming activity for library support staff, especially in an ever-changing world of new technologies, multiple publishers and diverse pathways to content. It is not unusual for the library to lose access to online content at any given time – with the different electronic resources a library purchases and the diverse number of content providers supplying this content to the library, technical glitches are bound to occur (in an eResources “utopia” everything would work seamlessly but we know it does not!). What is becoming more difficult (this is not a moan, just an observation!) is the “detective work” which library staff have to undertake to pinpoint where these errors have occurred, and what steps have to be taken to fix/restore access. This diagnosis is also taking place in a changing sector, set against the backdrop of emerging technologies and, more importantly, increasing demands of university students who already pay substantial tuition fees. From the start of the 2012/13 academic year, they will be paying a heck of a lot more!!
This was amplified to me (and other colleagues) somewhat this week, when dealing with a student enquiry requesting that the library investigate the loss of coverage to an eBook title. The loss of access to the eBook in question took some time for the provider to restore and the student was rightly frustrated and dissatisfied as a result of the downtime. It is not surprising when users become angry if they are denied access to content they wish to use, especially if the loss of coverage is for a prolonged period. Indeed, it is very easy to empathise with users when you look at the access steps some providers ask patrons to take to retrieve content, especially if logging in to a resource platform remotely (more on that later!). What struck a cord with this particular user’s email with regards the eBook was not that the user was frustrated, it was specifically the (changing) reasons/terms behind the student’s frustration. The student used the following phrase – “it is very frustrating given the level of fees that I have paid” – and it highlighted to me that something library staff have talked and theorised about for the past 12/18 months is actually already happening – that students’ demands and expectations of the library, and the services and resources they use, are going to be made increasingly with an eye towards the financial contributions they have made to study at a particular institution.
As mentioned this is not a rant – these increased student expectations are a natural consequence of the higher fees they will be paying from September 2012 onwards, and it is quite right for users to expect services and support which are of a high standard and which fully support them during their studies. The dilemma for library support staff (like myself), in teams which are responsible for delivering access and support to online resources, is keeping up with, and recognising, the multi-faceted world that is resource content delivery. The “detective work” surrounding eResource problems I mentioned earlier is becomingly much more complex and requires a constant “current awareness” of how resources are set up, authenticated and delivered (not just ‘from’ publisher sites or platforms, but ‘to’ the user’s remote desktop, browser or mobile/smartphone device). Users, quite rightly, do not care why a resource is down or unavailable, all they want is the content to be easily accessible and retrievable. For library staff though, the reality is that we have to investigate clearly and quickly if access to content goes down.
The loss of content could be one of many things. Problems such as publisher site maintenance are easy to detect (this platform will be unavailable between time x to time y). Sometimes though, the detective work needs to be much more intensive as problems can be ‘hidden’ or increasingly ‘remote’ from the library. Problems with multiple publisher subscription/reference numbers (as I have previously blogged about) can lead to access errors (this is not always picked up by the library as it deals with a publisher’s own admin procedures). Issues with laptops/PCs used at home by library users is a common, and increasing problem as well. This could be a down to a security setting on the laptop which bars access to content, a ‘cookie’ being set on the device which does not allow the user to remotely connect to content, or the latest version of Internet Explorer not being compatible with the latest software release from a publisher.
User interaction with a publisher platform can also lead to access problems – most notably when a user is required to authenticate access to the resource remotely (usually via Athens, Shibboleth or the UK Access Management Federation) These access problems may not be technical in form, but are caused by incorrect use of the site in question. This is an area which publishers and libraries need to do a lot more work on to provide more standardisation in the way patrons are required to sign in to resources. There is still too much confusion in the way publishers set up these mechanisms and the terminology used on provider platforms to signal where a user must log in (is it institutional login, Shibboleth login, sign in via your academic institution or log in with your library card?). Libraries also need to do more with regards notifying users how to access a particular resource, especially if it involves complex steps. DMU are looking into using visual screencasts and LibGuides as potential sources of help for our users when it comes to online resources.
So, points of concerns have been raised. What do we do about it? This may sound a bit of a cliche, but I think the key is collaboration – between libraries and publishers (involving organisations like UKSG and JISC), libraries and their users (increasing resource promotion, better support for users to improve their interaction of resources, logging into resources in the correct fashion etc) and finally between librarians themselves (increased, and enhanced, communication across different library teams). Working together on shared services/sources of information, and with a shared purpose, will hopefully mean libraries are in a better position to meet or manage increasing demands of their users, even if budgets and resources are being cut in the current financial downturn.