Standardizing Terms for Electronic Resource Management

Awhile ago now, I conducted some historical research on a librarian named Ralph Parker. Inspired by technological advances in automation, specifically the use of the punched cards and machines, Parker began to apply this technology to library circulation processes in the 1930s and thus became the first person to automate part of the library's work flow. By the mid-1960s, Parker's decades long pursuit of library automation led to some major advances, including the founding of OCLC. Meanwhile, the punched card system he continued to develop eventually led to massive increases in circulation and better service to patrons. In the mid-60s he wrote the following about the installation and launch of a new punched card system to help automate circulation:

To the delight of the patrons it requires only four seconds to check out materials (as cited in Burns, 2014).

I think about that quote often. When I read that in his annual report in the archives at the University of Missouri, I could feel his giddiness with these results. Until this achievement, when a patron borrowed an item from the library, the process involved completing multiple forms in order to be sure that accurate records were kept. Accurate record keeping is important. Libraries need to protect their collections but also provide access to them. As stated in the Circulation work in public libraries / Jennie M. Flexner (1927):

it is necessary that the library have control of these circulating books in several ways. It [the library] must know where they are, it must lay down rules to see that thoughtless people do not retain the books in their possession unfairly, and it must provide means for securing their prompt return. These and many other considerations combine to make it necessary for the [ circulation ] department to install and maintain very efficient methods to control the circulation of books, which are commonly known as routines (p. 6).

What were those routines in the 1930s and thenabouts? Why was Parker so excited about his system taking only four seconds to check out a work? Well, two routines are important for circulation. The first involves membership and the second involves charging or checking out works.

Membership: First, if the patron was not yet a member of a library, then they had to register to become one; hence, the first routine was to check their membership and register them as borrowers if they were not yet a member or if their membership had expired. If this was a public library, then the process might vary a bit depending if the member was an adult or a youth (or juveniles in the lingo of the time). Regardless, this routine basically involved completing an application card, creating a member record and filing that away for the library's use, and then giving the borrower a card of their own, i.e., their borrower's card.

Charging: Once membership status was confirmed or created, then the circulation librarian employed a system to charge books to the borrower. Several systems had been employed up through the late 1920s, including the ledger system, the dummy system, the temporary slip system, the permanent slip or card system, the Browne system, and eventually the Newark charging system (see Flexner, p. 73 and on for details). Assuming the librarian in the 1930s used the Newark system, when a book was to be checked out, the librarian needed to enter the details on a "book card, a date slip and a book pocket for each book" (Flexner, 1927, p. 78). Flexner goes on to outline the process:

The date slip is pasted opposite the pocket at the back of the book. The date which indicates when the book is due to be returned or when issued is stamped on each of three records, the reader's card, the book card and the date slip. The borrower's number is copied opposite the date on the book card. The date on the date slip indicates at once the file in which the book card is to be found, and the [librarian] assistant is able to discharge the book and release the borrower immediately on the return of the volume (Flexner, 1927, pp. 78-79).

In essence, circulating books or works to patrons involved a lot of paperwork, and you can imagine that it might be prone to error. However, the number of systems at the time show that the processes and routines were increasingly becoming standardized, and standardization is a necessary pre-requisite to automation.

Parker's achievement in automation eventually improved the library experience for patrons as well as the librarians at the circulation desk, and indirectly their colleagues throughout the library. That is, once circulation standards stabilized, and once technology like punched cards became available generally, then it became possible to automate this process for the library. And this was good; the effects were that automation increased circulation and that an automated circulation process saved the time of the reader, four seconds to be exact!

This is all to say that standards and technology go hand and hand and that the details matter when thinking about standards. How does this relationship work? Standards enable multiple groups of competing interests to form consensus around how technology should work, and when this happens, multiple parties receive payoffs at the expense of any single party acquiring a monopoly. This is true for the design of screwdrivers, the width of railroad tracks, the temperature scale, and certainly also to how information is managed and exchanged. The internet and the web wouldn't exist or definitely not exist as we know it if not for the standardization of the Internet Protocol (IP), the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and other internet and web related technologies that enable the internet and the web to work for so many users regardless of the operating system and the hardware they use.

Our first article this week is written by Pat Harris and covers the basic reasons for the existence of NISO (the National Information Standards Organization) and the kinds of standards NISO is responsible for maintaining and creating. These standards are directly related to libraries and fall under three broad categories related to Information Creation & Curation, Information Discovery & Interchange, and Information Policy & Analysis. There are standards that touch on bibliographic information, indexing, abstracting, controlled vocabularies, and many other library important issues. If you have not before paid attention to NISO, you might now start seeing more references to the organization and the standards it publishes, especially because the international library community has worked closely with NISO to develop standards for various aspects of library work.

Another historical note: As Harris elaborates in the article, NISO came into existence in the mid-1930s. This was about the same time that Ralph Parker began working on his punched card system. Not long before this, in the late 1920s, the first library science graduate program launched at the University of Chicago, and in the early 1930s, the first research based journal started, The Library Quarterly. We often hear how long libraries have existed, and it's true that there were quite a few accomplishments before the 1930s, but it is this time period (for these and a number of other reasons) that marks the modern era of libraries.

We also are not simply interested in standardizing things like the forms used to catalog and charge a book, to create member records, to draw up a license for an electronic resource, as we'll discuss later in the semester. We are also interested in standardizing, as Flexner would say, "routines", processes, or workflows. Thus, our additional readings are on TERMS, or Techniques for Electronic Resource Management. TERMS is not a true standard, but more of a de facto standard that helps outline the electronic resource management work flow. It was developed in order for librarians or others dealing with electronic resources to come to a consensus on the processes of electronic resource management. Version 1 of TERMS is described by the TERMS authors in the Library Technology Reports readings of chapters 1-8. Although it has been replaced by a newer version, it still functions as a thorough introduction to the ERM work flow and provides guidance and suggestions on all aspects of electronic resource management. For example, in chapter 7 of the LTS report on TERMS version 1, the authors provide very helpful information on the importance of working with providers or vendors in case of cancellation of a resource. They write:

Do not burn any bridges! Many resources have postcancellation access, which means you need to keep up a working relationship with suppliers; this might also incur a platform access fee going forward, so this needs to be budgeted for in future years. Review the license to fully understand what your postcancellation rights to access may be. In addition, you may resubscribe to the resources in future years. Content is bought and sold by publishers and vendors. Therefore, you may end up back with your original vendor a year or two down the line!

Some of this material is repeated in version 2 of TERMS, but version 2 was created in order to address changes in the world and to include more input from the community. Version 2 also includes a slightly modified outline, and includes the following parts:

  1. Investigating new content for purchase or addition
  2. Acquiring new content
  3. Implementation
  4. Ongoing evaluation and access, and annual review
  5. Cancellation and replacement review
  6. Preservation

At the same link just provided, they also write about this new version:

In addition to the works mentioned or cited in the original TERMS report, much has been written in the past few years that can help the overwhelmed or incoming electronic resources librarian manage their daily workflow. In the end, however, most of the challenges facing the management of electronic resources is directly related to workflow management. How we manage these challenging or complex resources is more important than what we do, because how we do it informs how successful and how meaningful the work is, and how well it completes our goal of getting access to patrons who want to use these resources.

As such, the outline and the content described in these two versions of TERMS is very much centered on the ERM work flow. TERMS is essentially a guide and framework for thinking on the different aspects of the electronic resource life-cycle within the library, and helps provide librarians with a set of questions and points of investigation. For example, let's consider Term item 1, which is to investigate new content for purchase or addition. In a presentation by the Emery and Stone (2014), they suggest that this involves the following steps, partly paraphrased:

  • outline what you want to achieve
  • create a specification document
  • assemble the right team
  • review the market and literature and set up trial
  • speak with suppliers and vendors
  • make a decision (Emery and Stone, slide 12, 2014)

Emery and Stone provide other examples, and the TERMS listed in this slide are from the first version. TERM 6, PRESERVATION, was added in version 2, and TERMS 4 and 5 from version 1 were joined together. There is a link to these slides, with further examples, in the transcript of this lecture, as well as the citation.

This week you have a two part exercise:

First, you will visit the NISO website and search for documentation on a standard, recommended practices, or technical reports and post about it. The differences between these publications follows:

Technical reports:

NISO Technical Reports provide useful information about a particular topic, but do not make specific recommendations about practices to follow. They are thus "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive" in nature. Proposed standards that do not result in consensus may get published as technical reports.

Recommended Practices:

NISO Recommended Practices are "best practices" or "guidelines" for methods, materials, or practices in order to give guidance to the user. These documents usually represent a leading edge, exceptional model, or proven industry practice. All elements of Recommended Practices are discretionary and may be used as stated or modified by the user to meet specific needs.

And Published and Approved NISO Standards are the final, approved definitions that have been achieved by a consensus of the community.

See https://www.niso.org/niso-io/2014/03/state-standards

Second, after reading about TERMS, try to place these TERMS in additional electronic resource management context. Please draw from your experience last week using the ILS and ERM software, from the readings, your personal work experience in a library, if you have that, or use your imagination. Specifically, it would be interesting if you could pick out aspects of systems like Coral and Folio that appear to facilitate standardized workflows.

I am requiring a lot of reading this week because these readings capture the specifics of the ERM work flow, and understanding them will help you get started and attain success in this position. The Rinck article is a good interview with the authors of TERMS. Consider this optional reading, but its still worthy of your time.

Burns, C.S. (2014). Academic libraries and automation. A historical reflection on Ralph Halstead Parker. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14(1), 87-102. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/534487

Open access copy: http://uknowledge.uky.edu/slis_facpub/6/

Emery, J., & Stone, G. (2014). Techniques for Electronic Resource Management (TERMS): From coping to best practices. In 2014 AALL Annual Meeting and Conference, 12-15 July 2014, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, San Antonio, TX. http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/19420/

Sources for NISO tasks: