Which format is right for you? Some points to consider when comparing products delivered across platforms

The Bottom Line

ISSN: 0888-045X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000




Mansfield, E.R. (2000), "Which format is right for you? Some points to consider when comparing products delivered across platforms", The Bottom Line, Vol. 13 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/bl.2000.17013aab.009



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Which format is right for you? Some points to consider when comparing products delivered across platforms

Keywords Electronic publishing, Publishing industry, Comparative costs, Purchasing

With the plethora of options for subscribing to publications, libraries need to evaluate which format of delivery is best suited to their needs. Fifteen years ago, no one would have guessed that we would have so many choices. (After all the World Wide Web was only invented in the early 1990s!) For the same reference title, it is not uncommon to have the choice of print, CD-ROM or Web delivery. But which one is right for your library?

One of the most important steps is to evaluate the content differences among the deliveries. Does the publisher make available certain documents depending on the delivery medium? If a publisher varies the content based on media, it is usually print that contains the least material and the Web that has the most. Printed books and binders have a set number of maximum pages. When the page count is exceeded, the choices are to restrict content or publish in multi-volume sets.

With the advent of CD-ROMs, publishers were relieved that their space limits were resolved. However, the demand for more information by users, the desire of publishers to provide as much diverse information as possible, and the technological ability to store this extra data are now converging into a new space crunch. Similar to books and binders, CD-ROMs have a maximum capacity and can fill up amazingly fast. Consequently, the same dilemma with regard to space is being faced and limiting content is the only solution for CDs.

With the Web, limits on space are determined by the size of the servers that house the data. If the demand for data continues to grow at its current rate, multiple or super-sized servers will eventually be needed. However, the burden of maintaining these servers lies with the Web publisher, not the library staff. If your library does not need the documents that are available only via the Web or on CD, evaluate if there are other benefits that merit your subscribing to them.

If you determine you do indeed need these format-specific documents, but do not want to buy the subscription, consider other alternatives for obtaining the data. For example, if these documents are only referenced occasionally, is there a free source on the Internet for them? Factor in the cost of having to go to multiple, and potentially unreliable or unavailable, sources to complete the information-gathering process. Do human costs in terms of time offset the monetary cost of the subscription? The goal of publishers today is to sell convenience in addition to data.

Currency is another evaluation point. Books, as we all know, are usually out of date the moment they are published - someone profiled within has since died, the address listed for an organization changes, or the company being researched has merged with another and is operating under a new name. However, it may not be just the books that are out of date; it could really be the data used to make those books.

If a publisher is not keeping their data current, then it does not matter which delivery you buy. The information will all be old. We rely on publishers to provide us with timely and accurate information. Our clients rely on us to give them current information. CD-ROM and Web delivery have helped bridge this currency chasm but have not resolved it. Books are usually published annually; loose-leaf services and CD-ROMs mostly range from bi-weekly to quarterly.

But what about the Web? Are the data updated daily, weekly, hourly? Moreover, what proportion of the data is updated on this schedule? If currency is paramount to your clients, will your publisher's update cycle meet you and your patrons' needs? An investor seeking the most current information on a company wants information in real time. On the other hand, a student seeking biographical information on Bill Gates may be completely satisfied with year-old information.

Location of users is another issue to factor into the equation. Seldom are print reference titles allowed to circulate, but when a branch library system holds only one copy of a title in its entire collection, interlibrary loan is often an option. Consider whether the demand for a title purchased in print may merit paying for additional copies. Networked CD-ROMs help alleviate patron frustration with heavily used titles as they provide multiple-user access within a library. If, however, your library needs multiple-user access at branches all across town, the Web may be the best alternative. As patrons become more and more computer-savvy, providing electronic access to information may not be a simple issue of convenience, but rather one of necessity especially as libraries begin to provide more than just the catalog over the Web.

Ease of use, navigation and additional functions should all be evaluated. If a patron is unable to find the information they need, there is no use for the product. Is the organization of the title logical and intuitive? For print products, indexes, abstracts, tables of contents and good old-fashioned browsing provide the navigation.

CDs present the opportunity to access much more data via queries. Users perform simple word searches in addition to more complex custom searches (which, curiously, were often created in an attempt to mimic the ways we searched print sources). When the searches are executed, determine if the expected results are returned. Most important, are the results relevant? The same questions can be asked of Web-delivered products. Keep in mind that Web products, by and large, do not attempt to improve upon CD search functions; rather they endeavor to replicate them. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. Cost is a leading factor - why spend money to retool something that is working sufficiently? Over-engineering is another issue. Some products attempt to allow for every possible search option, thereby confusing the user. Keeping it simple is paramount, especially for Web products.

In addition, do the limits of the Web (delivery, load times, etc.) negatively impact the usability of the title? The Web presents a considerable challenge to publishers which have "large" documents to deliver. The balance between slow load times and context is fragile. The general rule of thumb among Web designers is that five-to-ten seconds is the maximum a user will wait for a page to load. If the document you are attempting to retrieve is large, that load time is slowed. Publishers consequently break up large documents into smaller portions to offset the load time. Are the documents in the title so large that load times are slow or that they have been reorganized to the point of uselessness? Usability should be a major factor in the selection of any title because if you as a librarian have difficulty, imagine the difficulty your patrons will encounter. Be sure to review the help file to determine if the explanations on the basics of use and navigation are clear and understandable. What other support does the publisher offer? When is it available? Staff time to handle any end-user training should also be considered.

Other functions, such as printing, should also be evaluated. Does the print function meet your needs? Can users download or save information to disk? These functions are markedly different between CD-ROM and the Web. Print functions for the Web work only on what is currently loaded to the screen. This can present an inconvenience to users who want to print an entire document that has been broken up into smaller pieces to allow for better load times.

Pricing is another key factor. If the data used to make the books, CDs and Web products are all housed in the same databases, should not prices be going down? The answer is yes and no. Because all the data are stored in the same place, yes it is easier and often costs less to maintain. However, any savings here are offset by the need to maintain numerous and totally separate delivery processes to provide the data: one each for print, CD and on the Web. Consider also the costs of more frequent update cycles, especially for Web delivery. Fortunately, libraries can oftentimes strike a deal on pricing with a publisher.

If you decide to buy across delivery mediums, there are often discounts when compared with separate subscriptions. Be sure to pursue this if you have users with different needs and abilities. Also, it is not unheard of for discounts to be given to libraries that subscribe to a number of separate titles published by the same company. While not all publishers are willing to give these discounts, the old adage "Nothing ventured; nothing gained" applies.

Value does not mean getting the highest-priced item for the least amount of money. Value is about meeting the needs of you and your users for the least cost - cost in terms of human resources (ranging from maintenance and training to evaluation and acquisition), time, ease of use, and, of course, money.

As more print and CD publishers venture into Web delivery, libraries must evaluate the pros and cons of the different media for their unique needs. The myriad options we now have are making life both easier and more difficult for library staff and management. Costs are a key factor, but meeting the needs of the patron remains paramount. Value can be found in each of the formats; with luck, some of the points above will aid you in determining which format is right for your library.

Elizabeth R. Mansfield is an editor with the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington, DC

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