The Counting Game

Let’s say you run a research library and you have JSTOR. You are convinced that JSTOR is a safe, permanent electronic archive that fully substitutes for the included print journal volumes. It makes sense to take a second look at those print volumes. It’s a large number of volumes, and space (as always) is tight. What to do? You could withdraw them, you could put them in remote storage, or you could do nothing.

A question that might come to mind is: What impact will withdrawing these volumes have on my volume count? And, if your library is in ARL, a second question might be: what impact would withdrawing these volumes have on my ARL ranking?

Of course, if you are at one of the very top-tier libraries, this might be the proverbial drop in the bucket. If not, it might have an effect, possibly a big effect if you are at the bottom of the rankings.

Another interesting twist comes when the same questions come to bear on cooperative print archives. The idea is that a group of libraries band together and put one archival copy of book or journal volumes in a collective print repository, freeing up a considerable amount of collective space. Perhaps it’s in response to a shift to electronic access, or perhaps it’s based on low usage. In either case, one archival copy is stored safe and sound for that someday when it might be needed.

Makes sense—until you play the counting game.

The problem with the counting game in the emerging electronic era is figuring out how to count electronic "holdings" so that they have the same weight as print holdings. This is make especially tricky by the fact that libraries do not own licensed electronic resources, only "rent" them. What’s held one year may not be held the next due to a wide variety of factors, making counting a bit more difficult than just adding this year’s new purchases to last year’s volume counts.

Like it or not, research libraries are unlikely to stop playing the counting game. ARL’s E-Metrics project is one attempt to define meaningful new measures. In the long run, the counting game will have new rules, because it appears that the substitution of electronic information for print information is gaining momentum, driven by a variety of budgetary and other factors.

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