In the final post of this series, I discuss the Electronic Resource Management (ERM) element of the SCONUL Shared Services Report. Electronic resource licensing and management is identified early in the report as one of the three domains for proposed shared services. For fairly obvious reasons, ERM is a high priority operational area for academic libraries. With electronic content licences identified as one of the four areas of cost under consideration, ERM is explicitly identified as the focus of the shared service initiative:
“The core shared service will be centred on ‘e-resource lifecycle and access management’ encompassing e-journals, e-books, abstracts and other digital content.”
And this is the clearest passage in terms of establishing the scope of ERM within this initiative:
In the target scenario, a shared ERM service will be used by the service provider and customer institutions to keep track of electronic information resources, supporting acquisition and management of licensed e-resources. This will include resources licensed at a UK level where all students and staff in the UK can access them, resources with a UK framework agreement where any UK institution can obtain discounted access for its staff and students with standard licenses. The system will handle the metadata for resources and machine-readable versions of all licence agreements. The ERM system will include usage statistics related to the electronic resources.
Can ERM be centralised?
This is surely the fundamental question here. The report claims that 90% of respondents either agree or strongly agree that much ERM work is repeated unnecessarily across institutions, and I see no reason to dispute that. The report somewhat boldly asserts ERM is a function that is no longer needed locally, and refers to a “community source platform”. It seems unclear to me what a community source platform is exactly. In the States around 2008 there was a ground-up initiative started at the University of Florida called Library Okra. Although sadly defunct, it argued cogently for a community-based ERM approach along the lines of cooperative cataloguing, where, say, the relationships between a journal title and a package would only have to be entered once, as would the core clauses of a licence. If this is what the authors mean by a “community source platform”, then I applaud it unreservedly.
The fundamental ERM problem
I’ve touched upon the fundamental ERM problem there, namely the disparity between the resource acquired by the library (e.g. a journal package) and the resource that is the focus of the user’s attention (e.g. the journal title or the article). By adopting a “cooperative cataloguing” approach, we solve one part of the problem and ensure that it’s always updated in a timely fashion, but part of the reason why the first generation of ERM systems has failed to deliver on expectation is that this is also a design problem. So, for example, an academic complains that s/he is no longer able to access an important e-journal. As the e-resource librarian investigates, the journal title needs to be mapped to commercial constructs such as the package right across the e-resource lifecycle in the system. The library management system has never had to handle this complexity.
Has the report had demonstrated sufficient sensitivity to local information resource needs? The report proposes:
Guarantee equality of access to electronic resources for students and researchers across institutions, potentially including colleges delivering such as Foundation Degrees.
I therefore wonder how much local flexibility will remain in place. It reminds me a bit of the whole supplier selection issue in public libraries – a risk of disintermediating the close relationship that currently exists between academics and liaison librarians in this instance, helping to ensure responsiveness to academic needs. The packaging of journals and national deals already compromise this. One of the most important takeaways from last month’s UKSG conference was the growing resentment of libraries towards National Deals as the need to manage costs means increased attention at the level of individual titles.
Can the authors of the report guarantee that local responsiveness will remain in place? Is there a risk that academics will simply take matters into their own hands and effectively disintermediate the library in order to get access to what they need? And if some vestige of local control is retained, we need to bear in mind that currently the management of locally procured materials alongside the national deals is yet another significant problem in ERM.
On the other hand, the enhanced aggregated usage statistics that the report proposes does offer the possibility of improved decision-making in acquisitions.
National level licensing
On licensing, the report states that
88% of respondents either agreed or agreed strongly that ERM linked to licensing at a national level would be liberating.
I agree that we should be questioning the need for local divergence in licensing terms; ERM would be greatly simplified with standard licences. Even if there remained some localised needs, a cooperative approach to licensing would ensure that e-resource librarians would only have to input those localised clauses. A system that could be readily queried for licensing terms of individual journal titles would be a great step forward, although the problem remains of the disparity between the commercial entity and the individual title.
Overall, in terms of the ERM-specific proposals, I fear that the Shared Services report is conflating the need to eliminate duplication of back-office effort with ongoing acute problems in the ERM sphere, and that the scope creep which I alluded to in my first blog will be particularly problematic with this area of the initiative.