For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
January 10, 1996 - EBSCOhost
Over the past year, the Douglas Public Library District has conducted several experiments. Our aim was to provide direct public access to electronic magazine indexes and full text.
Three years ago, we tested, at no charge, a CD-ROM based product. It was OK, but in my judgment, surprisingly expensive. We would have had to buy a PC for it; only one person could use it at a time; and the annual charge for 12 CD updates was several times the cost of a paper index. Too, the product did not include full text. I decided not to invest in it.
Two years ago, we loaded the index information right onto our own computer system, headquartered in Castle Rock. But there were problems. The updates were supposed to be monthly; in fact, they were annual. Then we ran out of storage space on our hard drive. Indexes eat up a lot of space.
But in that year of local access, the industry moved on. Instead of mailing out tapes and CDs with the data, vendors hit upon a way to distribute it more efficiently: load it onto their own machines, then open the machines to the Internet. I'd been predicting this for a while, so was glad to see it -- or I would have been, if the price didn't take another jump, even above the cost of the CD-ROM product.
In Colorado, there are two big public library vendors in the automated magazine index and full text business: one is IAC; the other is EBSCO. IAC has tied up the big contracts for CARL (the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries). I've spent a lot of time talking to EBSCO, mostly because I think competition helps to keep prices down, and I've been troubled by the way every significant reduction in costs for vendors has meant increased costs for libraries.
How much a vendor charges a library varies, of course. But there's no consistent formula. Some base their charges on the size of the library's budget for materials. Others charge on the number of branches. Still others tack on a "simultaneous user" fee (based on the maximum number of terminals that are predicted to be connected at any given moment). None of these has much to do with the cost of producing the product, or paying the copyright use fees to the companies that publish the magazines in the first place.
So in 1995, we tried two basic approaches: the first was through a product called "Vista," the second was through something called "EBSCOhost." Again, because they were trial periods, they didn't cost us anything.
Vista is a middleman: the company receives the EBSCO data, generates proprietary indexes on it, then loads the data and indexes on its own Internet machine. The people who run Vista also run Ameritech Library Services -- the same folks who make our library software. The advantage to this approach is that the product LOOKS like the rest of our software. That makes it generally easier to use for most of our patrons.
But the disadvantages to Vista are that we STILL have to buy the data from EBSCO, plus a markup, plus simultaneous user fees. Under that scenario, we would soon be paying more for electronic magazine articles than we currently pay for the paper product. We would, in effect, be buying the data twice.
The second product, EBSCOhost, is a direct Internet connection to the people who gathered the data. Advantages: the product offers some powerful searching and printing options; it allows an unlimited number of users; and I've negotiated a price that's about a quarter of the usual market cost, and locked it in for 3 years. Disadvantages: it doesn't look like our usual library software, and the interface itself is still evolving. In effect, we're getting a price break for helping EBSCO develop a very competitive product. This means that we have either the challenge or the opportunity (depending on whether you're the sort who sees the glass half-empty or half-full) of customizing its look and feel to our needs, and of influencing both the pricing and the features of an important new tool for libraries across the country.
What's the bottom line? Vista will soon be gone from our computer screens. In its place, you'll see EBSCOhost. Now that we've made our decision, we'll start cranking out some guides to help people get used to the new software. For those of you who have been a little confused by our multiple approaches, my apologies. But as I hope this column points out, sometimes it's worth a little exploration before we start writing checks with your money.