George Stachokas on ERM issues and trends

"Electronic resources are now the predominant component of academic library collections," says George Stachokas, editor of the new ALCTS monograph Reengineering the Library: Issues in Electronic Resources Management. "Special collections, archives, and other physical collections are still important, but libraries spend most of their money and much of their technology acquiring and managing electronic resources." It's more crucial than ever to look at electronic resources management (ERM) using a variety of perspectives. His new collection does exactly that, discussing how ERM can best fulfill the mission of today’s academic libraries. In this interview we asked him about putting the book together, some key cost containment strategies, and where he thinks technology is heading.

As you mention in your introduction, many of the assumptions that underlay electronic resources management in academic libraries were developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. So it's pretty clear why this collection is so needed right now! How did you find your contributors, and what was your collaboration like?

Academic libraries have to continue working to improve electronic resources management in order to stay relevant in the 21st Century. Finding contributors was not as difficult as I had originally expected in that I am fortunate to have connections to a network of strong e-resource librarians who are both professionally active and philosophically like-minded. We may not agree on every specific issue, but we all want to move our profession forward and to keep libraries relevant. Drawing on these folks as my core contributors, I was then able to recruit some authors whom I did not yet know personally, but who have a presence in the LIS literature. I recruited authors to write about topics that fit my overall vision for the book, but they each brought their own ideas, knowledge, and experience to this collaborative effort as well. I enjoyed working with all of them and I hope that readers of Reengineering the Library will learn as much from my colleagues as I have.

What are some of the biggest shifts in the landscape over the past decade? Which trends have surpassed our expectations and which ones have so far failed to measure up to their promises?

Given the growing emphasis on digital humanities and the digitization of special collections as well, there really is no aspect of librarianship that is free from the online information environment. Increasingly, patrons use the library’s physical spaces for face-to-face meetings with librarians, peer collaborators, and instructors, to study, to use technology such as special-format or 3D printers, even just to socialize, but not to use physical collections apart from archives or rare books. This long-term trend began almost as soon as electronic resources emerged in the 1990s.

It has taken libraries somewhat longer than I might have expected to adjust their personnel, workflows, and organizational structures to the requirements of electronic resources management, but given the technical, political, and financial challenges, this is certainly understandable. Nonetheless, most academic libraries are finally starting to reorganize technical services to manage electronic resources rather than shifting responsibilities to solitary electronic resources librarians or small units alone. I also hope that more a diagram illustrating the concept of TERMSlibraries will transition successfully from integrated library systems (ILS) and electronic resources management systems (ERM) to library service platforms (LSPs) in the not too distant future, particularly given such efforts as the FOLIO Project and the ongoing development of other systems such as Alma, Sierra, BLUEcloud, and WorldShare Management Services. Of course, it is striking how many academic libraries do not currently have and have never had a fully functioning electronic resources management system (ERM).

The transition to Webscale Discovery services has occurred relatively quickly with most ARL Libraries using tools like Summon, Primo or EBSCO EDS, in most cases only a few years after some of these products first appeared in the information marketplace. The transition from the physical card catalog to online catalogs seems to have taken much longer in comparison.

Reading through the various chapters, what are some common challenges that academic libraries are facing right now?

Money is a critical challenge for libraries in many ways. The rising costs of electronic resources, particularly the cost of electronic journals, is well known. Beyond that, libraries also require more funding to recruit personnel with more advanced skill sets, particularly information technology. Most library facilities at research institutions are undergoing the repurposing of library spaces and need financial resources to transform stacks space to a wide variety of formal and informal workspaces that contemporary students have come to expect. Someone has to pay for the latest smartboard, flexible furniture, and all of the extra electrical outlets. More funding is also required for improved analytics, both in terms of new tools and personnel.  Higher education is required to assess itself more than in the past and so are academic libraries that serve these institutions. Assessment is in practice, very closely linked to money in that it is required to justify existing spending and to support any requests for additional funding. Many academics are loath to admit that libraries are required to demonstrate some type of return on investment. I would hope, however, that librarians accept this burden so that we can take the lead in establishing at least some of these measures ourselves and help to guide the conversation that promotes successful libraries and helps our users.    

Your own chapter examines cost containment strategies. Can you offer some advice to institutions who are ready to do some reevaluation of their electronic resources and services?

Open access is of great interest to many libraries, but the movement has still not overtaken the majority of highly ranked academic journals in most disciplines. There are a number of interesting projects and efforts going on right now, including mass cancellations, but most large academic libraries still subscribe to big book cover for Reengineering the Library: Issues in Electronic Resources Management (An ALCTS Monograph)deal journal packages due to the relatively low unit cost per title and the convenience of having subscriptions for users. The overall information marketplace is a type of mixed economy in which a number of paid and freely available electronic resources coexist. I would advise libraries to establish good working relationships with their most important vendors, leverage memberships in consortia without conceding their own strategic vision to any other institution or group, negotiating good deals directly with vendors when it makes sense, and continue to track and make freely available electronic resources of high academic quality to their users.

Looking into your crystal ball, what would you say is the biggest change on the horizon? How can libraries prepare for it?

I confess that I do not have a working crystal ball, but I will try to speculate by extrapolating current discernible trends and by borrowing some ideas from other disciplines. Beyond the realm of electronic resources management, but perhaps linked to it in some ways, is the need for libraries to continue developing and improving research data management. Libraries will also need to take advantage of linked data and the Semantic Web. As our society and the greater academic community continue to be transformed by the transition from more traditional analogue information systems to digital information systems, both in terms of technology and the wider human experience, libraries will have to keep up. All too often, our profession has a broadly based antiquarian bias, but most librarians now have to work quickly in real time to deliver the best possible solutions to busy users. Please understand that studying the past is incredibly important. I personally value the work of history and all its related disciplines. How could scientists create credible predictions for future climate change without the use of extensive historical data and models? Nonetheless, one has to have a good reason to look backward. While it is not always easy to do, we as contemporary librarians need to spend more time looking ahead.