Publishing, libraries and digital archives

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



O'Beirne, R. (2004), "Publishing, libraries and digital archives", Reference Reviews, Vol. 18 No. 7.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Publishing, libraries and digital archives

Changes in the publishing industry over the past two decades have had a profound effect on the workings of all libraries. In particular, the area of electronic serials collection management, with the move from printed to electronic text, coupled with new forms of distribution and delivery, has presented challenges to the librarian on a number of fronts. On the financial front there is perhaps the most uncertainty with different funding structures and subscription models used by publishers. Some of these models are experimental and likely to change, while others are uninspired and show a lack of understanding of the market. Librarians need to understand the benefits and often the drawbacks of using third-party providers or subscription agents for electronic journal services. Also, there may be advantages in forming or joining a consortium of purchasers who might then have a greater leverage with suppliers and be capable of negotiating a lower price or improved terms within a license.

Of course, pricing and licensing often merge into confusion within an already complicated procurement process. This seems an issue charged with strong feeling. For example a publisher that provides a subscription to its resource with the price based (for a public library) on the population of the local authority area may think that this is a pretty fair formula. But from the point of view of the public librarian, who, week-by-week, sees the lion’s share of his or her local authority’s spending swallowed up by schools, social services and housing, this model is less than pleasing.

Whichever purchasing model is chosen, the next stage is to assess the success of that particular resource. In the print dominated world of the past various methodologies were employed to ensure a scientific approach to usage monitoring. In the age of the electronic serial a variety of options exist; the librarian again needs to decide on an evaluation method that makes comparisons based on cost, quality and sustainability.

Let us not forget the users in all of this, what methods of delivery might they prefer? A good example here is the use of passwords to access e-serials, such as the UK Athens system. This may be acceptable to many users, but to others it is just another hurdle. Increasingly, IP ranges – selecting the access points from which a service may be accessed in advance thus obviating the need for passwords – are proving more popular, particularly in public libraries. Within this there also needs to be a way in which the management of electronic serials collections will complement other services of the library, and, looking to the future, this will include items such as e-books and media downloads.

On the technological front the whole environment is in a state of constant change. The rate of this change is rapid and proves difficult to anticipate this leaves many libraries in a state of uncertainty where it is often unclear which way the technology will turn next.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from staff who find themselves in a position of deciding whether to purchase e-serials or other electronic services is about the future for this content – a sort of digital preservation concern. “In five years time will this journal that I am subscribing to today and paying good money for still be available to me?” This is a very pertinent question. The answer, when dealing with electronic serials, should be yes – the subscription should be cumulative and build as the subscription continues. The subsequent question then arises. “But what happens if I stop subscribing? Do I lose those issues of the e-journal that I have already paid for?” Here one is tempted to suggest that the publisher would advise against ending the subscription. From the publishers’ perspective it is not good business to support past customers who would invariably be accessing old, in the sense of legacy systems, material. Indeed, this is a big issue on the publisher’s side. Publishers, who envisaged saving substantially on the costs of printing and distribution have now got greater concerns such as customer support. As one expert in the field recently noted: “With print journals, there were never customers who phoned in the middle of the night saying ‘I can’t open the latest issue’” (Morris, 2004).

On the subject of digital archiving and preservation two initiatives have caught my eye recently. The first is the award of the Pilgrim Trust Preservation Award – which recognizes innovation in the preservation of digital material – to the UK National Archives in Kew. The preservation concept is explained creatively in the words of David Ryan, Head of Archiving Services as “a giant fridge for digital records, keeping them ‘fresh’ by preventing digital decay”. Putting the project into perspective Mr. Ryan went on to comment; “The digital archive can hold up to 100 terabytes of data, which is the equivalent of 1.5 billion pages of text, enough to stretch from the earth to the moon”. This will undoubtedly be an impressive venture so long as we can find the cheese in the fridge. For further details see

In a similar vein, a consortium comprising the British Library, The National Library of Scotland, The National Library of Wales, the National Archives, JISC and the Wellcome Trust Library is addressing the problem of archiving UK Web sites. Using tried and tested software from the National Library of Australia (see the consortium members will archive Web sites relevant to their subject area or geography. Once archived the sites will be made available through the Web. Interestingly, the press release that drew my attention to this project noted “with the life of an average Web site estimated to be around 44 days (about the same life span of a housefly) there is a danger that invaluable scholarly, cultural and scientific resources will be lost to future generations”. I tend to believe that Web sites that stand the test of time are usually in higher demand; some Web sites have clearly passed their sell-by date and there are a lot of “abandoned ships”, and possibly fridges, floating about in cyberspace.

Ronan O’BeirneInternet Editor Reference Reviews and Principal Libraries Officer-Information, Libraries, Archives and Information, Bradford, UK

ReferenceMorris, S. (2004), “What’s really happening in scholarly communication?”, paper presented at the Aslib IT&C conference on The Future of Publishing, theme issue of Managing Information, June, pp. 30-4

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