Outsourcing the management of electronic resources has significantly reduced the autonomy academic libraries have over their collection’s metadata, as well as the ways in which that data is collected, organized, and made available to the library. Yet the ephemerality of electronic resource metadata makes quality control burdensome and costly on the corporate end and necessitates ongoing title-tracking and maintenance for the library. As a result, the quality of data in outsourced knowledgebases is often inversely proportional to the library’s tolerance of “bad data,” as well as the library’s inability to tell the difference. Electronic resources are dynamic by nature, and a management system should have the ability to track and respond to these changes without the need for constant attention.
One of the greatest challenges in electronic resource management is the lack of interoperability between different outsourced systems. Most libraries maintain an Integrated Library System (ILS) for managing a catalog of owned materials and their related purchase orders, though they may have a separate Electronic Resource Management System (ERMS) for tracking licenses. However, libraries might also have a subscribed knowledgebase and link resolver to manage MARC record delivery services and title-level URLs, they might have a subscription agent that maintains cost data and billing by title, and they might use a Return on Investment (ROI) database to ensure all of these purchases are worth the money spent. Each of these contains unique identifiers, which makes links between systems difficult to establish and equally difficult to maintain. Figure 1 is a sample data flow diagram for a large academic library, and it illustrates the increasing complexity of interrelated management systems and how they communicate data.
Figure 1. Data Flow Diagram
Data depends upon the connections that occur between systems, and though interoperability ranked sixth on a survey of librarians and vendors administered by Collins and Grogg, they conclude “In the end, however, it all boils down to interoperability” (2011, p. 26). COUNTER, SUSHI, and KBART have all emerged to address the lack of standards in the industry, but “the implementation of standards and best practices has been limited” (p.27). Without standardized metadata, it can be a chore to load data from one system into another, thereby limiting the ability to update and store live data. And when data updates cannot be automated, that data merely provides a snapshot of the collection, which then quickly becomes outdated. “Several librarians described the data within their ERMS as static and only as good as their ability to maintain it” (p. 27), so the result of this lack of automation stemming from no interoperability leads to a large amount of additional work that must either find space in the daily schedules of library staff or require the hiring of additional staff.
Another problem has been a loss of autonomy over the data. Metadata stored in outsourced systems are created and maintained by the corporations marketing and selling those management systems. The selling point is the ease of use, not necessarily the accuracy. The illusion of data that no longer requires any sort of management on the library’s part masks the potential for the loss of precision and quality of data. When there is no quality control for data coming from sources outside the library, the resulting reports and data, all of which may inform tough collection management decisions, diminish in quality as well. Singer sums up his position by stating:
Much like working with the subscription-based resources they track, it is difficult to know what exactly libraries are allowed to do with their knowledgebase data. What is known is that a handful of companies are doing roughly the same work and their customers are often simultaneously fixing the same errors and inaccuracies in the data these vendors are aggregating. The entire process is proprietary, inefficient, and redundant and is controlled by a bevy of players who have no incentive to change. (p. 81)
Though Singer’s strong language may overstate the problem, his point about a small group of companies having dominance over the market is supported by a survey of librarians performed by Beth Branscome. She found that a few select vendors supply the management tools used by most of the survey respondents, and among these are Serials Solutions, Innovative Interfaces, Ex Libris, and EBSCO. Many also offer diverse applications from discovery interfaces to assessment tools to subscription management services (2013). That such dominant players in the library vendor arena have all developed and marketed so many products for managing electronic resources points to a very real demand for electronic resource management tools, but they may be exacerbating the problem rather than offering a solution.
Singer suggests, “the best solution would be for somebody to just get a handful of stakeholders together and create something that works” (p. 84), and indeed there are projects that aim to resolve some of the issues between data quality and data interoperability. The Global Open Knowledgebase (GOKb) is one such project, and its goal “will be to harvest data from publishers, standardize it, and maintain its accuracy as changes occur” (Wilson, 2013, p. 262). The uniqueness of GOKb lies in the ways in which it is managed. True to Singer’s ideal management system, GOKb is maintained communally by the stakeholders invested in its utility. It is also freely available to libraries. Therefore, while it alleviates the financial pressures of leasing a commercial product, it also provides a greater degree of accuracy in its collected data. This is all accomplished while allowing that data to be dynamic and responsive to change (2013).
Overhauling the state of electronic resource management in libraries is not a small task. However, the need for systems that can approach data management in new and innovative ways creates opportunities to experiment with projects such as GOKb. The next generation ERMS should be open-source and free to all, it should incorporate linked data, it should be flexible and ready to handle changes in content and design, and it should do all of these things while providing varied identifiers that link to already existing systems.
Branscome, B. (2013). Management of electronic serials in academic libraries: The results of an online
survey. Serials Review. 39(4), 216-226. doi: 10.1016/j.serrev.2013.10.004
Collins, M., & Grogg, Jill E. (2011). Building a better ERMS. Library Journal. 136(4), 22-28.
Singer, R. (2008). The knowledgebase kibbutz. Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship. 20(2), 81-85.
Wilson, K. (2013). Building the Global Open Knowledgebase (GOKb). Serials Review. 39(4), 261-265. doi: