Fifth Annual Conference,
Oakland, California

Where do electronic journals belong?
Price coping and place keeping in the transitional library

A paper contributed to the 5th Annual CARL Conference, 2nd Plenary Session,
Oakland, CA, 20 September, 1997.

Alan Ritch,
Head, Collection Planning,
University of California, Santa Cruz, 95064 (comments welcome)

 Abstract  Multi-year licenses and sustainability
 Vision versus values  The promise of textual enhancement
 UC foundations for a digital library  The risk of user resistance
 An electronic journal setback  Contradiction and inaction
 EJ Economics 101  Sixteen promises and what do we get?


The paper examines the place of electronic journals in the digital library from the perspective of a collections manager of a relatively small campus library in the large UC system. It reflects on several paradoxes: the promise of UC as a locus for the digital library, and the recent rejection, by four of the nine UC campuses, of an electronic journal initiative; the promise of publishers to construct sustainable pricing models, and the inability of academic libraries to afford these costs; the promise of increasingly refined measurement of content and use, and the rigidity of longterm licensing; the promise of digital textual enhancement, and the passivity of PDF formats; the promise of digital delivery to the user, and the imperfect organization and contextual obscurity which threatens to disguise from the user the value of the content; and the nature of contradiction itself, in the context of planning and action. The paper concludes with a list of sixteen contradictions, electronic journal promises and the problems associated with them.

Vision versus values.

In their keynote speeches for the CARL conference, Richard Lucier and Michael Gorman gave us remarkably dichotomous perspectives on the promises and risks of the future digital library for California. Dick has played an immensely valuable leadership role in educating first his fellow UC library directors, the UC president himself, and us, about the potential virtues of the digital library. Without his efforts and unequivocal vision, the blueprint for this shimmering new virtual edifice would remain to be drawn. In counterpoint, Michael offered another eloquent sermon on the need to protect several of our enduring values. I share not just Michael's old world accent, but many of these old world values.

My perspective as a collections manager at one small campus in the great UC system is not entirely consistent with that of its top administrators. Since I don't have to be a lobbyist, except on behalf of my own library or my own campus, I can afford to be ambivalent. But my small-town parochialism has been tempered by my work on more than my share of UC-wide groups concerned with the digital library planning. This essay fails to reconcile the vision with the values; rather it challenges publishers, administrators and librarians to acknowledge several stubborn contradictions and to cooperate in their resolution.

UC foundations for a digital library.

On the face of it, UC seems to be fertile ground in which to grow a digital library: the largest public university library system in the world, with over a century of collection building, two decades of unified library planning, a widely influential online union catalog, serving as a model platform for dozens of other databases (thanks in part to our FirstSearch friends at OCLC), and five years of 500 full text journals (thanks largely to our friends from Information Access). This looks a lot like the start of a digital collection.

Ten years ago, many of us were apprehensive about the specialized content of the first licensed resource, MEDLINE. To our surprise, MEDLINE was an instant success, attracting heavy use at every campus. This reassurance led to rosy optimism which has been the prevailing mood, until recently, ever since. "Build it" as Kinsella said of his virtual field of dreams, "build it and they will come."

An electronic journal setback.

But UC has yet to consummate the vision of its progressive leaders by building its digital library on these promising foundations. Our failure stems in part from the persistence of the old multiversity. Indeed, the old feudal structure, fiefdoms run by Barons of Berkeley, Dukes of Davis, Earls of Irvine, has recently seen something of a revival, with increased devolution of resources to the nine chancellors. Distributed funding leads to disparate decision making. After years of negotation between UC and one electronic journal publisher, arduously argued by both sides, because both sides assumed that the result would be a 9 campus commitment, only 5 UC campuses have signed up, the 5 receptors, like the 4 rejectors, almost the same odd mix of "flagship," large, medium and small. This demonstrated ambivalence -- nine more or less rational members of more or less the same institution almost equally divided in their response to the same opportunity -- vividly exemplifies the dilemma implicit in yesterday's keynote dialectic and the theme of this morning's session.

So let's look more closely at the recent 5 to 4 UC split over a major EJ offering. Some of the resisters objected to the quality of the journal list. Some observed that while many of the journals were necessary, the package as a whole was woefully insufficient to meet the needs of users in any field. Some were victims of the uncertain boundaries of the campus collections. Were affiliate hospitals and research centers part of the campus or not? Some worried about dependency on the Web, increasingly congested by its own success. And all, even those who eventually subscribed, were utterly mystified by the baroque pricing models.

EJ Economics 101.

For those of you who have never taken a course in EJ Economics 101, let me take a moment to review a typical publisher package. Let's call the publisher "A." In 1996 you received 100 A titles for a total of $100k. Those 100 titles cost $50k 5 years ago. Then you had 130 titles from publisher A. You've cancelled 30 to help pay for the rest. Now you're paying twice as much for 30 fewer. The 1997 prices continued to rise, by 15%. So you cut another 10 journals to cope. Now you're paying $100k for 90 journals.

To solve your serials crisis, along comes publisher A's EJ package. Here's their generous offer. Take your 1996 list. (100 titles). Apply 1997 prices. ($115k). Excuse me, I've already cancelled 10 titles, to save $15k. Don't worry, read on. Call this the base price. ($115k). Calculate the license fee by adding 10% to base. ($127k). Discount license fee for academic institutions by 20%. Which takes us back to about $100k. Which is what we expected to pay to publisher A in 1997. For 90 titles. And now we're getting access to all 200 titles published by A! Including the 40 A journals we'd cancelled during the past 10 years!! What a deal!!!

Wait there's more. You can have print copies of any title for a mere 25% of its 1997 price. 25%. What a deal. But 25% of $115k is ... $28k. And where will that additional $28k come from? And can we afford not to get print copies of journals heavily used by a truculent academic constituency which has claimed in the face of bi-annual cancellations that their research and grant proposals depend on convenient print copies of every journal they've ever read? And can we afford not to get print copies to ensure a continuous archive for future local scholars? There's nothing in the license agreement with Publisher A which guarantees our perpetual access, or indeed the survival of the digital files, beyond the period of the agreement.

Multi-year licenses and sustainability.

The period of the agreement presents another unfamiliar problem. We're used to annual subscriptions to individual journals, a reasonable arrangement , in an unreasonable economic environment. We've developed clever ways to monitor use, first with circulation data, then with in- house pickups. Finally, in the face of faculty claims that they always put current issues back exactly where they find them (and open them so carefully that the spine remains uncreased!), we're planning to put the least used titles on reserve, so that we can record more precisely than ever actual as opposed to imagined use. Such tactics defend us against colleagues who are sceptical, or paranoid, or resistant to change, or guilty about not reading journals they think they should. We've also built cooperative partnerships with faculty friends to make sure that our budget is put to the best possible use. We've sustained dynamic programs with inadequate budgets by increasingly subtle measures of use and relative value. An all or nothing multi-year deal is neither subtle nor sustainable. If every publisher offered electronic access at these terms, holding the annual license increase to 15%, and giving us print for a mere 25% above the license fee, we'd still need 40% more each year to pay for our journals.

Of course, all publishers can't and don't sell EJs. The ones who can and do tend to be those who'd gain the most from what we call "the vicious spiral of inflation"and who'd lose the most by what they call "the vicious cycle of cancellation." They have the most to gain by long term commitments, and the most capital to invest in digital innovation. The stakes are enormous both for publishers and libraries. I estimate that EJ initiatives already being tested could consume more than a third of the UCSC serials budget. So compensatory cancellation would have to be borne by the other two thirds, which is invested in cheaper journals in all fields, especially the social sciences and humanities. With the noble exception of Johns Hopkins' Project Muse few non-science presses have been able to enter the digital arena. Ominously, this cherished Muse has just removed her discounts and proposed twice the price for next year's license.

Electronic journals literally don't balance the books for librarians working desperately to buy a swollen scholarly output with a shrinking purse. Most of us, already emaciated, are forced to trim. We can't afford to admire the fattening of individual journals with more and more content. Nor can we afford to applaud the bloating of our serials lists to include titles which are irrelevant to our programs but which are part of the gross publisher packages. The new digital delivery lets us quantify the extra journals, words and characters we're getting for our money. Their volume of use could also be captured by the new medium. But until the multi-year agreement runs its course or until the license is rewritten to reflect real demand rather than virtual content, these data nought availeth.

The promise of textual enhancement.

Several years ago, a proponent of hypertext noted that what was lost in Gutenberg's revolution might be recovered in the new digital reformation. Twelfth century manuscripts were so crowded with interlinear and marginal commentary, that they became scarcely legible non-linear palimpsests. Casting type into blocks of words did not deal well with these interwoven arguments. The new hypertechnology promised to release us from the boxes of the page and book. For example the electronic Patrologia Latina, the works of the early church, allows the restoration of old complexity by scanning multiple editions and commentaries. It could also illuminate these themes with imagery and music.

EJs, more mundanely, could at least make footnotes more dynamic than those stuck passively in the linear text of the compact codex. With the admirable exception of OCLC's ECO which points to MEDLINE abstracts of articles cited in the new text, most of the EJ offerings I've seen have not even tried to realize this promise. They're essentially pictures of pages in PDF, reasonably priced at half of what they cost.

The risk of user resistance.

Having considered concerns about cost, collection balance, and the unfulfilled promise of electronic delivery, I'll briefly address the risk of user resistance. Let me begin with a canine metaphor from Alberto Manguel, the eminent but waggish historian of reading. He admires the dogged electronic retrievers which run down information from all over the world, but he loves more his library's dog-eared pages, domesticated pets, with their visible personal mnemonic evocations of repeated use.

Will scholars adapt to new workstations and their electronic texts? Many librarians patronise their most important patrons. Haughtily they observe that "faculty don't know how to use the library" (that is the traditional library, not the digital library of the future). Some who share that perception are humbled by it. If that's so, then there's something wrong with the library. Many professors who continue to look wistfully for the card catalog have written great books listed on those ill-fated cards.

Librarians and some students, attentive to our advice, compensate for their subject ignorance by using a complex array of remedial tools like thesauri, online catalogs and indexes. We enter relevant terms, framed in fancy boolean logic, and print or download citations, to simulate what we call research. Search tips are summarized on so-called "cheat sheets," a curious label reflecting perhaps the guilt of those who know that real research is not that simple.

Faculty build their own bibliographic structures, not on elaborate strategic frameworks but by burrowing from within. The scale and shape of these structures may be inferior to those of dogged librarians and their retrievers, at least as measured by such self-serving bibliometrics as coverage, comprehensiveness and relevance. But they do have the virtue of organic growth. Their outcomes are less certain, less based on precedent, but consequently more original and more apt to contribute to the mountain of material being tunnelled.

This contrast between librarian and scholar, flattering to neither, is simplified here as a crude concept which allows us to anticipate faculty use of electronic text. Will their traditional indifference to coverage and comprehensiveness allow them to fit the new disorder into their search behavior, less obsessive about what might be missing, than is ours, that of the professional information managers? Or will they disregard scholarly content, offered on the secular Web? Even with the imprimatur of respectable societies and publishers, the worth of these messages may be masked by their medium. We are not doing digital document delivery. We are providing potential access to obscure resources, the organization of which remains imperfect. They are obscure because of they literally have no place. They lack the semiotic grandeur of ordered spines on shelves in stacks in monumental architecture which proclaims the library as the center of the campus.

Contradiction and inaction.

These are a few of the dilemmas which divide us. How can we reunify our planning to a common purpose, a digital library to which every UC user or perhaps every California citizen will have potential access? Our planning is driven both by the traditional principles of collection development and by persuasively simplified budgetary rhetoric. Academic administrators with deep pockets rarely appreciate nuanced contradiction. We librarians are connoisseurs of contradiction. We cling to them firmly lest we risk intemperate action! At the risk of inhibiting productive action, and in the hope that both publishers and librarians may aspire to more cooperative resolutions, let me conclude by contributing a modest list of sixteen contradictions, promises and risks which still confront us.

Sixteen promises and what do we get?

First a verse, with apologies to Tennesse Ernie Ford. Gloss: the "St. Michael" in line 3 is a genuflection to Michael Gorman's plea to sustain the traditional values of librarianship.

Sixteen promises and what do we get?
Three years older and deeper in debt.
St Michael don't you call us, cause we can't go. We owe our souls to the digital store.

1. EJs promise to control inflation; but their projected price increases are still three or four times greater than the increase in our budgets.

2. EJs promise to keep journal prices more or less at current levels; but these levels were reached only by a decade of destructive inflation which has almost cut our journal lists in half.

3. EJs promise to give us more journal titles; but most of these may be irrelevant to local programs, or why would we not have bought them when they were cheap?

4. EJs promise to let us monitor use more discretely than ever; but prevent us from weeding our collections of expensive unused titles.

5. EJs promise to protect our most expensive titles, especially in the sciences; but they may force us to cut less expensive titles, and reduce our support for the social sciences and humanities.

6. EJs promise to cut the cost of processing; but we have yet to work out the methods and costs of central licensing, and the analogs of such traditional functions as acquisition, check-in, claims, and cataloging.

7. EJs promise to reduce the cost of storage; but they do not ensure the durability, location and form of cumulating holdings.

8. EJs promise to reduce the cost of shelving and space; but they distribute these costs to workstations in and away from the library, and, though the workstations may be multipurpose, they need to be replaced in increasingly frequent and expensive cycles.

9. EJs promise to reduce the need for paper; but, since scholars still like to read on paper, EJ articles are reproduced in more copies than ever, by inferior printers on paper incapable of capturing legibly, complex formulas and images once delivered on a glossy page.

10. EJs promise to reduce the need for ILL; but many EJ licenses preclude the opportunity for ILL and deprive nonsubscribers of any access to EJ content.

11. EJs are accessible 168 hours a week, many when libraries are closed; but many EJs are promptly accessible only in those wee hours of the morning when libraries are closed and most scholars are sensibly asleep.

12. EJs promise to allow word indexing of article texts; but their indexing usually lacks the control and agility of three decades of online interface design.

13. EJs promise to allow indexing of a hundred or more journals at a time; but, since these clusters do not reflect a significant share of the core of any discipline, but simply the opportunistic acquisitions history of a single publisher, such indexing is convenient to nobody.

14. EJs promise to allow hypertext and SGML links to related information; but, with few exceptions, their publishers have yet to make the investment which would fulfill this promise.

15. EJs can be read by anybody at any time; but what remains uncertain is whether they will be read by anybody at any time: many faculty have research habits committed to the culture of print, and most undergraduates, though more attuned to the culture of the web, somehow resist the seductive allure of scholarly articles.

16. EJs are a promising component of the virtual digital library; but they must not put at risk our stewardship of actual libraries, with centuries of content in all its forms, billions of dollars worth of print on paper, and generations of intellectual capital, the cataloging, classification and conservation of toute la memoire du monde.

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