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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2002

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[Board accepted]

Public Services and Electronic Resources: Perspectives from the Science and Engineering Libraries at Duke University

Edward Gray
Reference Librarian for Science and Engineering
Duke University

Anne Langley
Coordinator, Science and Engineering Libraries
Head, Chemistry Library
Duke University

Change should be a friend. It should happen by plan, not by accident.
Philip Crosby, Reflections on Quality


The rapid and recent transfer of library materials to electronic formats has changed how we do public service in our science and engineering libraries. We reflected on how this has specifically changed the experience for the user; and what sorts of new skills public service librarians need to have to best serve user needs. Finally, we share some ideas on what the future may be like.


To state that electronic resources in the library have changed public services is obvious. Describing these changes is not so straightforward. Issues of archiving, budgeting, title cancellation, and space can be involved. However, we are primarily interested in what has changed for the user, and what librarians must to do to meet user needs and expectations. Our perspective comes from working at the science and engineering libraries of Duke University, where the number of electronic resources has increased exponentially over the last few years. We have seen first hand that electronic resources affect how users perform their library research. We have also seen that users' perception of the library changes as more of the collection becomes available online. To meet the challenges of this electronic environment, librarians must acquire new skills and provide new services. We must become proficient in electronic collections management and further our commitment to public service. If we don't, users will still charge ahead and leave us behind in a print world.

What Has Changed for the User?


Like other university libraries, we have seen a large portion of our collection become available electronically. Currently (as of July 30, 2002), Duke has subscriptions to 11,850 electronic journals and 299 research databases. With more publishers putting their titles online and with space issues a concern, our emphasis on electronic resources will, no doubt, continue to grow into the future. This growth will have consequences, both good and bad, for the users as they access our collection.

The good news is that accessing our collection becomes easier as we acquire more electronic resources. Any computer with a Duke IP address now becomes a gateway to our online holdings. This gives Duke students and faculty round-the-clock access to our library whether they are in a dorm, office, or lab. As these resources continue to grow, this should cut down on trips to the physical library and allow our patrons more time for their work. Our users are figuring out that it's not necessary to trek across the campus to the library when the library can come to their computers. This expanded access is even available in their homes if they configure their browser to use a Duke proxy server.

The bad news is that the abundance of electronic resources has created overlaps in journal coverage, which is confusing for the user. For example, the newsweekly Time can be accessed from our online catalog through five different full-text databases. The journal Chemical Week can be accessed through four. Users now have these questions to consider:

After contemplating those questions (provided they even contemplate them at all) and choosing one access over another, users face an additional hurdle. They must now use an interface that is different from either the online catalog or the web, and perhaps different from anything they have used before. Only after familiarizing themselves with a new interface are they able to access their article. Some users will find this extra step easier than physically locating an article in the stacks and making a photocopy. Explaining these new considerations to users is part of our job as the number of electronic resources continues to expand.

Ease of use

Probably the greatest benefit for our library patrons is the ease of use provided by electronic resources. Users can do a literature search in an online database in a fraction of the time it takes to perform the same search in a print equivalent. For example, if a user wants to find every article that cited a 1970 science paper, it would be necessary to search over 30 editions of Science Citation Index in a print search. Physically searching the volumes and copying down the desired citations could take well over an hour. Performing the same search in the electronic equivalent, Web of Science, takes less than a minute and the results can be printed immediately.

However, ease of use can come with its drawbacks. Because online databases are generally simpler and quicker to search, print indexes and abstracts are rarely used by our patrons. If both print and electronic resources offered the same coverage, this would not pose a problem. However, print sources are often more comprehensive than their electronic equivalents, a fact most users don't consider. While users might be willing to sacrifice better coverage for ease of use by exclusively searching online sources, this trade-off can come with tragic consequences, as illustrated at Johns Hopkins University. A researcher at the medical school there, in an asthma study, limited his literature review to the Medline database, which covers the medical literature back to 1966. Had the researcher used Index Medicus, covering the earlier literature, he would have found papers published in the 1950s that revealed the toxic effects of the chemical hexamethonium. Tragically, the chemical was used in his study and resulted in the death of a healthy 24-year-old volunteer.

Affects what users actually read and use

Like most people, our users prefer to follow the path of least resistance. If given the choice between searching for and downloading articles electronically, or physically locating journals in the stacks and then photocopying the articles, most patrons will resoundingly choose the former. Although some users enjoy going to the stacks, most prefer to do their literature review from a computer. Even though we might think the library is a great place to visit, user trips have decreased.

Another problem is that with more electronic resources, user expectations increase. If they can get some of our collection electronically, they want to get all of our collection electronically. Worse, they often avoid resources that aren't easily accessible. A Duke math professor admitted to us that he only reads journals that we subscribe to electronically. This aversion to print is seen in the citation lists of student papers. Citation lists are dominated by articles that are easily accessible. As students have become accustomed to working electronically, we have found them citing fewer print-only sources.

More likely to call you

Because more users are doing their library research at their computers, they are phoning us more frequently for their reference questions. This makes sense because users want to stay put and have all their library needs met from a single location. We often receive traditional reference questions over the phone such as citation verifications and research requests. We receive many questions involving access to electronic resources. Callers want to know why a particular database doesn't work, or why we don't have a particular title online.

Better suited to distance users

Electronic resources are naturally well suited for distance learners. We have discovered that all our users are becoming distances learners. Scholarship no longer requires being tied to a physical place, as so much of the educational and research experience takes place electronically. Electronic resources aid and enhance the growth of distance learning.

Compromise of searching abilities

With print indexes and abstracts, the search procedure is generally transparent to the user. They can easily tell that they are searching, for instance, an author or subject index. Electronic searching is not so straightforward. Often users are confronted with the choice of multiple interfaces such as a basic, advanced, or expert search. They must select from numerous fields, which sometimes total over 20 for a single database. Many of these fields provide little relevancy to the search and often confuse the user. They must also decide which limits, if any, to use in their search. When finally they understand how to search a particular database, they have to start all over again to start searching a different database.

Good search results are limited by the user's understanding of how a particular database works. Too often users view databases as black boxes where they enter search terms and hope some relevant results are returned.

What Kind of Skills Do We Need to Have?

Technical competencies

The need for public service librarians to be technologically savvy is greater than ever. We have to know what databases we have, and not only in our own specific subject areas. We have to be very comfortable with all varieties of search engines, and the searching techniques appropriate to each. We need to have a very high comfort level with the basics of desktop computer support, and a thorough understanding of networking and proxy servers. Troubleshooting skills for software and hardware are necessary components of a librarian's toolkit. And finally, we must be willing to support electronic resources. It is what most, if not all, of our users prefer. If we try to steer them to a paper source when there is an electronic source that does the same job, they ignore us.

Competencies in creating user finding aids: paper and web

Just-in-time reference supports the independent, self-sufficient user. How do we offer the best service to the majority of our library users? We create finding aids that are: easy to find; clear; and available in multiple formats and styles. We consider library signage to be a finding aid. Librarians need to study how to create good signage -- clear written instructions -- and we must figure out how many ways these tools can be offered. Web publishing skills, as well as brochure/handout creation, are skills that are necessary for our toolbox. Users want to do it themselves. We have to figure out how to help them do just that.

PR skills

We have to do more to let our users know what we have, and how they can access it. We must use any means we can to share this type of information with them. In the chemistry library we have used all four of the following methods: table tents; posters; flyers in user's mail boxes; and an irregular e-mail newsletter "This Week in the Chemistry Library." The e-newsletter follows this protocol: no more than two items per issue and, if at all possible, no more than one screen of information. They are sent out via e-mail to our primary user group as well as to a few secondary users, who we have identified or who have identified themselves. We also print out and post the newsletter on the front door of the library, and we keep an archive of copies on our library web site. To see examples of these newsletters visit {}.


Teaching users how information is organized in a highly structured electronic environment is key to making sure that users are finding the information they need. Teaching skills that embrace course design, integration into the curricula, and web-based instruction are vital for public service librarians. We can't just sit back and assume that users will figure out how to use the resources. Many will, but without instruction many others won't be able to find the information they need. We need to collaborate with faculty and instructors to ensure that our instruction is in line with what they are doing in the classroom. We must create on-demand instruction modules when we see that there is a need.

Managing electronic resources

Managing electronic resources becomes a public services issue very quickly -- because there is a very strong need to create an internal (tech services management tool) and an external (public use) list of what is electronically available to library users. These tools need to be searchable by type, title, subject, vendor, etc. Most of our electronic resources are listed in our online catalog. However, by keeping a separate, searchable list, we help users who are accessing resources remotely and we help librarians manage the resources. We must keep in mind that electronic resources are not yet mainstreamed into the system. They are extremely new in the grand scheme of things, and they are certain to undergo many changes before their management becomes business-as-usual.


We must be creative in how we offer access and guidance to our electronic resources. We no longer hold all the keys to the doors of information. And moreover, at times there is no perceptible door. We must continually re-evaluate how users are using, or not using, electronic materials. We must be willing to try all new manners of activities to support these resources, and we have to be willing to make mistakes as we experiment.

What Are the Key Issues?

Designated go-betweens

Each library system needs to designate one go-between with the publisher/vendors. This activity needs to be a major part of just one person's job description. We have such a person here at Duke, and this has proven to be a boon to librarians and users alike. Because of this, we have a person on staff who knows each vendor's history and response times. The vendors aren't being called by multiple people from one library system on the same problem. There is one person to follow a problem through from start to finish, and who can also send out vendor alerts. This is vital to public service management of e-resources.


Depending on vendor- and publisher-provided statistics, we have a better understanding of overall use and use patterns of our e-resources. Before electronic resources, libraries had to use a variety of inelegant methods to find out how, and how often, print resources were used. Gathering these types of data points is so much easier with e-resources. We are better prepared to analyze how users use these materials. Reviewing e-materials is less labor intensive.

User expectations

We have learned that we have to educate our users about the costs and licensing issues related to electronic resources. It is best to have a standard statement covering these areas because this will help ensure that all users are given the same background information. This will assuage their expectations, so that they remain realistic about what the library can afford and how long it can take a resource to wind its way through the licensing process. We have done this at Duke, early and often. For example, while chatting with a graduate student recently he asked about adding the American Chemical Society journals back file and then asked us, "What's up with that crazy pricing structure?"

Interconnectivity between databases and e-journals

Is there interconnectivity? Who has made deals with whom? Who merged with whom? Yes, dear user, it does indeed change daily. Need we say more?

Multiple access options

As mentioned previously, many resources have multiple access options, some more complete than others. We are still trying to work out the best way to solve this one. Conveniently offering both paper and electronic access in the library for the short term is one solution we will stick with, as long as we have the room. This means that we must have good printers for the public terminals, though quite possibly we may need to dedicate printers to e-resource printing only. The Duke University Library system has not yet considered free vs. fee printing. Once we do, we will have to re-evaluate our users' experiences.

What Do We Think We Can Expect?

In conclusion we offer two thinking points on what we think the future will bring. These are:

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