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Faculty bypass library, with help of library
February 2, 1998

Eric Schultz was just days away from the deadline for a grant proposal when he realized he needed an article in a field of microchemistry that was unfamiliar to him. The citation was from a marine sciences journal not held by the University Libraries. So from the computer on his desk, he placed the order for the article and within 48 hours the article was back, printed out at his own workstation. The entire transaction was completed without a trip to the library.

"I feel like I'm entering the next century in terms of information technology," says Schultz.

Schultz, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is one of about 200 faculty, staff and graduate students participating in the University Libraries pilot document delivery project. The participants are able to request documents direct from a vendor and have them delivered, through software known as Ariel (an Internet fax), to a workstation in their own or a departmental office. They can also receive documents anywhere in the world, a feature that is invaluable to researchers in the field.

Andrew Moiseff, an associate professor of physiology and neurobiology, says he uses the service to request an article nearly every other day, especially during times when he is preparing for classes and wants to offer his students the most up-to-date material.

Participants in the pilot project describe the service as fast, efficient and convenient. It enables them to order an article and immediately return to their works.

"Our goal is to connect end users directly with document suppliers and to eliminate the library where we're not necessary," says Paul Kobulnicky, director of University Libraries. "If faculty have to ask for an article, it takes time. Why not communicate directly with the supplier - all in an electronic format."

The vendor, EBSCOdoc, one of several commercial vendors in this still experimental field, offers access to conference papers, books, patents, reports, standards, theses, and 13,000 journals, from suppliers that include the University of California-Berkeley library and the British Library. The vendor refers back to UConn's Interlibrary Loan any requests for documents that are held in the University Libraries' own collection.

Although a number of other academic institutions are using a similar service, most receive the documents through a library or via fax. UConn is one of just a handful that also offers document delivery to users at their own workstations.

The service is now available to five departments - psychology, the three biology departments and the Institute of Materials Science - and to Interlibrary Loan staff at all campuses. Whether or not it will in the future be offered to the entire of University community will depend on the outcome of the pilot.

"We are testing the convenience, the turnround time, and whether EBSCOdoc can offer a larger selection of journal articles, patents, etc. than we could offer internally via Interlibrary Loan," says Nancy Orth, head of access services.

Statistics gathered by the library show that nearly 90 percent of requests have been delivered within three days.

Some participants have other concerns, however. Margaret Sekellick, associate professor in residence in molecular and cell biology, says although the service is extremely helpful the turnround time is unpredictable and the quality of the images in some documents is poor.

"For straight text it's great," she says, "but articles in medical and life sciences tend to have a lot of important diagrams, photographs, and electron micrographs," and for these, even with the most powerful and up-to-date equipment, reproduction is inadequate.

Orth says image resolution is a well known problem in the field and UConn is working with the vendor to address issues of quality and color.

For some participants, there are other, less tangible issues at stake. "With electronic searches and document delivery you do very targeted searches," says Moiseff. "There's none of the classical browsing of tables of contents or other articles that you have with traditional searches. (The electronic system) is extremely efficient but you lose a little bit of the fun part of it."

Kobulnicky agrees. "Technology, citation databases and delivery services, combined with everyone's need to save time, are moving us away from the traditional culture of browsing subscriptions to a new model of access on demand," he says.

Still, delivering documents direct to the user appears to be the wave of the future, if academic libraries are to maintain and increase access to a wide range of publications at a time of unprecedented economic pressures. Escalating inflation rates in journal subscriptions and the need to keep pace with technology have forced libraries to cut back on collections and have placed increased demands on academic library resources.

"Document requests have been increasing dramatically over the past few years, mostly because of increased access to powerful citation databases," says Orth.

The pilot project is subsidized by the library and offered at no cost to the user. EBSCOdoc bills the library each month for the articles requested, including the cost to the document supplier and the royalty payment to the publisher. With a discount rate as a pilot site, the Univer-sity pays an average of $13 per article (the Interlibrary Loan average is just under $15), but Kobulnicky says in the long run on-demand article access will be cheaper than subscriptions, because for many subscriptions very few articles are ever used.

But if users can bypass the library, is there a risk of putting libraries out of business?

Interlibrary Loan librarian Bob Vrecenak is not worried about that. "No vendor can fill every request," he says. "Requests come to us in various degrees of sophistication. The citation is often incomplete. A vendor will go through only one or two steps to locate a document, and then the request comes back to us."

Vrecenak says he expects readers will end up with a variety of options for receiving documents. "The goal is for unmediated delivery of those requests that can be handled easily and transparently, while reserving expertise in Inter library Loan for dealing with those requests that require more investigation," he says.

"We are doing what is necessary now to understand the changing nature of scholarly communications and help faculty understand and practice how to acquire information as standard commercial practice in the age of information technology," says Kobulnicky.

"The library's role is going to be less about getting researchers the articles they need and more about advising them how to go about it in the most efficient, effective and cost-effective way. If we don't, someone else will - in a way that might not be as beneficial for the institution."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

This is the first in a series of articles about the University Libraries.