Since the shift to the digital age, libraries must manage not only their traditional print collection, but also their ever-increasing electronic offerings. Electronic resources are appealing options, as they generally require less time to initially process, maintain their currency with little effort, allow you to enhance your collection free of physical space constraints, and often allow multiple patrons to use them at the same time. However, print materials are not without their own unique merits. I’m steering clear of the soapbox on the print versus electronic debate, though. Instead, I’m going to talk about another part of the puzzle, one which is remarkably challenging in the legal realm—finding a way to balance the costs and benefits of our expenditures on electronic offerings by leveraging available usage data. This is a task that becomes even more difficult as budget lines shrink and cancellations are necessary.
Legal database and print material costs are sky-high, and both keep getting higher. Additionally, legal materials require a standard of currency, regardless of whether they are in an academic, public, or private setting. Once you’ve decided to invest in a particular resource, keeping it up-to-date is rarely an optional fee, if you want your original investment in the materials to maintain its value to your patrons. To add insult to injury, if the updates jump in price, you have little recourse—you must simply find the money somewhere or cancel the material and have it begin to lose value. I’ve seen times where it’s far cheaper to buy a brand new up-to-date set of materials every few years rather than pay the update costs continually; assuming, of course, that slightly out-of-date print materials can meet the needs of your patron base.
Obviously, electronic versions of legal resources don’t require updates like loose-leaf releases, advance sheets, pocket parts, and supplements. While you’re still responsible for the cost of maintaining access to the resource and are beholden to price increases there as well, the staff time it takes to check in the materials, process them, and update them in a timely manner can help push any cost-benefit analysis in favor of the electronic resource. Cheaper and faster and more up-to-date is often the mantra of electronic resources.
There are a few things to beware of, though, when debating investing in electronic resources over print resources or even when choosing which electronic resources to purchase. Databases can be full of bells and whistles that seem exciting to your library staff, but which your patrons may not use. There could be a cheaper option with an interface that appears limited to you, but which easily meets your patrons’ needs. Databases have practically unlimited cloud storage, so it’s easy to pad title counts that may impress you, but which your patrons never even notice. Oftentimes, materials are available on multiple database platforms or through open access, freely available online. Isolating specific user actions within databases and tracking the total amount of activity in a consistent manner can help us be sure that our investments are worthwhile and the cost-benefit analysis is accurate.
It’s not as easy as it seems, though. In the print world, you can measure the ‘usage’ of a book by tracking check-outs and developing a simple method to approximate in-house usage for materials which cannot be checked out, such as asking for books not to be re-shelved. This allows librarians to formally track data on books pulled off the shelf, and it provides valuable informal usage data through observation of patron behavior.
However, patrons can use electronic materials outside the physical space of the library where it is impossible to gather informal information through mere observation, and the two basic ideas of check-outs and in-house-usage tracking are replaced with a cacophony of terms, such as page views, record clicks, downloads, hits, article views, users, sessions, searches, and more. Each database defines their own terms and their own “usage statistics,” and databases aren’t required to provide you with any statistics at all. Some may offer no way of quantifying your specific patron group’s user behavior, and you’re left to fill in the blanks as best you can with surveys, user experience testing, and ILS tools such as Web Access Management systems. These measure access, not necessarily activity, and thus have their own set of limitations.
Enter Project Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources (COUNTER). COUNTER is an initiative which focuses on setting consistent, credible, and compatible standards for both recording and reporting online usage statistics for online journals, databases, books, and reference works. COUNTER has also worked with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) on the Standardized Usage Harvesting Initiative (SUSHI), a protocol that allows tools to automatically retrieve and consolidate usage statistics across vendors. COUNTER-compliant databases use the same definitions for their metrics, count things in the same way, and report them in identical formats with consistent report names. I always like saying it gives librarians a chance to put two databases next to each other and compare apples to apples, instead of apples to yellow. COUNTER reports also give you a chance to create consistent return-on-investment measures, such as cost per search or cost per session, which allows you to compare the value of these databases to your patrons across the board.
Without a doubt, Project COUNTER is a stroke of brilliance. However, vendors are not required to be COUNTER compliant any more than they’re required to provide you with usage statistics. And in the legal realm, where a few big players run most of the show and monopolize your budget lines, only a few vendors offer COUNTER reports. This factor makes navigating the world of gathering and comparing usage data across platforms especially challenging. While usage data may not be the only thing that you use when deciding whether to cancel or keep an electronic resource, it can be an incredibly valuable tool. The challenge is finding ways to effectively quantify our return on investment without the luxury of COUNTERcompliant reports.
In my next column, I’ll offer some practical advice on delving into usage data within the legal field. As my law library life has been solely in the academic realm, I would welcome any advice from those outside of academia to help flesh out my own tips and tricks. If you have some practicalities to share, whether private, public, or even academic, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include you in my next column!
Technical Services Law Librarian (TSLL) is an official publication of the Technical Services Special Interest Section and the Online Bibliographic Services Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries. This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue and is reprinted here with permission.