Users set the agenda

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Providing the information that users want, when and how they want it, were the themes that dominated discussions at the recent Online Information conference. Tom Wilkie and Nick Morris report

The individual end-user of information emerged as the central focus of attention at the Online Information conference in London at the end of November 2005. However, although everyone was clear about the end-users' importance, opinions differed as to how their needs and demands would be met.

Arie Jongejan, chief executive of Swets and Zeitlinger, told the meeting that the industry had changed dramatically over the past five years. For the previous two decades, the focus of library management had been on managing attrition - a gradual process of dealing with shrinking budgets. 'Title-based subscriptions remain dominant,' he observed. However, he said that, now, customers are 'screaming for choice' and have started to define the value of information in terms other than price. Libraries now monitor usage statistics while end-users are interested in impact factors and timeliness.

Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association (ALA) also identifies the changing demands of users. In his keynote speech to the conference, he noted that 'what everyone wants is access to relevant articles'. However, 'The journal concept - an assemblage of articles - is not sustainable in the electronic age and we need to move to a more rational structure,' he added.

Speaking personally rather than on behalf of the ALA, Gorman said that Google's library digisation project, which involves the scanning of millions of published books from the collections of three major academic libraries in the USA, 'seems to me a waste of a large amount of money'. He believes that it would digitise an enormous number of texts that hardly anyone used. He also wondered at the utility of digitising non-reference books: 'What we have is a reductionist philosophy that says that if the Oxford English Dictionary or the Yellow Pages are better in digital form then so is War and Peace. But I don't agree.'

However, Elisabeth Niggemann, director general of the German national library, Die Deutsche Bibliotek, sees the issue differently, stressing that users want content and want it immediately. She told the meeting that bibliographic information - as is contained in traditional catalogues - is no longer enough. 'Search engines such as Google are more popular than catalogues because content is directly available,' she said. 'Even librarians use Google rather than catalogues.'

Changes to libraries

This change in behaviour has an impact on what users expect from libraries. Now, libraries need to become a 'one-stop-shop' for users, she maintained. They must offer more digital content, including content that is born digital, and not only material physically held in the library. She stressed the need for sophisticated retrieval systems and explicitly called for cooperation between libraries and computer companies, such as Google. However, she stressed that, as the German national depository library, her institution could not allow material to be digitised without the consent of the copyright holders.

The libraries at Stanford; Harvard; and Michigan are taking part in the Google Library Digitisation Project. Oxford University Library in the UK and the New York Public Library are also participating but are making available only works that are already in the public domain. The project has sparked much debate and the Association of American Publishers is currently taking court action against Google for infringement of copyright (see page 5).

John Needham, strategic development manager with Google, would not be drawn as to the progress of the lawsuit, but in an echo of Gorman's question about the point of digitising older books, he said that the legal action had drawn attention to the fact that the majority of books being referenced through the Google project are comparatively recent.

The copyright issue is not the only controversy that the new project has provoked. The original announcement of the Google project provoked a heated reaction in France, stimulated by fears that the digital archive would be predominantly Anglophone. Needham told the meeting that the company had changed its approach to take account of the concerns and reactions in Europe.

Niggemann, of the German library, said that The Council of European National Libraries strongly supports the digitisation of cultural and scientific heritage, believing that this would ensure global access to content, while promoting cultural diversity. The Council of European National Libraries itself has set up a project, The European Library. This is intended as a portal to the combined resources of all Europe's national libraries, and expects to have 31 participants by 2007. It is also receiving political support from the European Union.

Global access to content was a theme taken up at the conference by Glenda Myers, of the Witwatersrand Health Sciences Library in South Africa. She stressed the importance of digital content to researchers and librarians in developing countries that could not have copies of all relevant journals or all reference works in their print collections. Even if this meant more end-user searching, such developments would not mean the end of the road for librarians, she believes. Google still needs filters, she said, in the sense of someone to evaluate the quality of the information found, whether it is a peer-reviewed paper, a contribution to evidence-based medicine, or something with little value. That crucial role of filtering through the returns from the search engines was a role that could be taken up by librarians and information professionals. The issue of pricing was also a matter of concern in the developing world. 'Google maximises the opportunities offered by open access', she noted.

Speaking at the conference, Wayne Hay, IT manager for the Westchester Library System in the USA, also emphasised the strength of online search engines, especially when applied to traditional text searches. He suggested that the ideal online library catalogue 'would emulate popular websites such as Amazon, Google, and Yahoo, employ a simple search strategy, and enable further manipulation of the resulting data'. Hay went on to describe how the Westchester Library System had implemented some of these ideas, displaying 'best seller' pages that showed the front covers of books, and offering (or linking to) online extracts for textual, audio, and video resources held by client libraries within the system (in a similar way to Amazon). The Westchester System is also developing pages where subscribers can search and read articles and pages from popular journals, magazines, and newspapers. Hay also spoke in favour of the latest Google initiatives, saying 'If the projects provide an additional way for the users to find library information, it can only be a good thing'.

Martin Myhill, from the library of the University of Exeter in the UK, and Ted Fons, senior product manager at Innovative Interfaces, gave an alternative view of online library searching in a joint presentation. They discussed the strengths of meta-searching (multiple resource searching), with specific reference to the Millennium Access Plus (MAP) library portal, developed by Innovative Interfaces in consultation with the University of Exeter. Undergraduates, postgraduates, researchers, and academics, who log on using a generic campus ID and password, can access the service (from on or off campus). Once logged on to the system, they are granted unhindered access to licensed resources through a proxy service.

According to Fons, meta-searching allows users to simultaneously access and search a variety of databases and information sources that may not have common indexing standards. The functionality of a number of different catalogues was combined in the MAP project. Another advantage of this system that Exeter's Myhill sees, particularly for academic researchers, is that metasearching allows users to move directly from an abstract to the full text of any journal article included in the search results (while still respecting applicable copyright laws). This, he said, provides a level of usability that is still not fully available on commercial web searches.

But despite the enhanced functionality of specialist search tools, many in the industry see value in working with the likes of Google. Subscription agent Ebsco, for example, has included Google Scholar as one of its OpenURL-enabled sources, using the company's LinkSource software. End users at participating libraries who use Google Scholar will see article-level links displayed for their institution's subscriptions. These links will lead to the library's menu from which the user can access the licensed electronic full-text. In an interview, Ian Middleton, vice-president and general manager for Ebsco UK, said of the industry as a whole: 'we're moving from what the container is to the content.' These changes, he said, presented many opportunities for the company. 'We can continue what we've already been doing: discover, locate, and navigate.'

In collaboration with the US National Information Standards Organization (NISO), Ebsco has successfully demonstrated a web service for machine-to-machine transfer of journal-level usage, as part of the Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative (SUSHI). SUSHI was introduced to solve the problem of collecting and harvesting COUNTER-compliant usage reports so that librarians can analyse and compare data. It will be released by NISO as a Draft Standard for Trial Use early in 2006.

Middleton concluded with a remark that might legitimately sum up the entire theme of Online Information 2005: 'Users are going to drive what they want and how it is packaged. We are moving out of traditional fields into new ones. There is a new horizon and it looks inviting.'