Convegno internazionale sullo sviluppo delle raccolte
International conference on collection development

Current issues in collection development: Italian and global perspectives

Bologna, February 18, 2005

Lynn Sipe
Understanding the Work Flow Complexities of Dealing with Electronic Resources

When librarians get together and talk about electronic resources the conversation will usually range from issues of price to information content and overlap with similar resources to licensing issues to technological developments. Attention is seldom paid however, to the work that takes place in our home libraries in actually dealing with those electronic resources on a daily basis. This paper is intended to begin a conversation about just how complex that work is, viewed as a complete system of processes. Most of the presentation focuses on describing the essential elements of a model for understanding electronic resource work flow that can be applied in any library. The paper concludes with a summary of reasons why such understanding is important and the benefits that can derive from it.

Each of us, as skilled acquisitions and collection development personnel, can be expected to have a very good understanding of our personal range of job responsibilities, including whatever involvement we may have in working with electronic resources. While each of us will individually know about our personal role in electronic resources work flow process in our libraries it is highly unlikely that any of us have a full understanding of the total mix of complexities inherent in these operations. These operations have evolved and expanded as the electronic resource offerings in libraries have grown. Most of us have been too busy keeping up with being behind in our daily work to have the time or opportunity to view our various library activities, including handling electronic resources, in a systematic fashion.

Yet looking at the total picture brings clarity in understanding the complexities involved in handling electronic resources that is important not only to the acquisitions, collection development, cataloging and public services personnel directly involved in working with electronic resources, but also to others away from the electronic resource center of daily library work who will know much less than we do. Specifically, this includes administrative and or political agencies involved in or responsible for budgeting and funding our library operations. It is essential that all involved understand that handling a complex mix of electronic resources in a library is both expensive, not only in terms of the frequently significant cost of the resources themselves, but also in terms of the personnel required to do the job well.

In my role as Collection Development Coordinator in the library at the University of Southern California I have been involved with colleagues and outside consultants in a series of ongoing analyses of library work flow processes over the past eighteen months. These analyses are driven by a need to be as effective and efficient as possible with too few personnel attempting to manage an expanding workload. When it was suggested that we undertake a separate work flow process analysis of electronic resources I was initially very skeptical, fearing a disturbing waste of valuable time. The process is now about 80% complete and while it has indeed been very time consuming, the outcomes have been very valuable and have made a believer out of me. To my considerable surprise we have discovered that none of us involved in the work flow analysis knew nearly as much about the complexities of handling electronic resources in our library as we presumed we did.

Before turning to an overview of this work flow analysis process let me first briefly describe the organizational setting in which all of this is taking place. These next four slides quickly set the institutional context at my university in which this work has taken place.

In its simplest terms work flow analysis looks at each step in a discrete job process, such as paying an invoice for example, and maps those steps and their outcomes and linkages with other processes in a process flow chart. Several examples of these are provided in the yellow handout and I will be referring to them by Example # as we proceed. Various levels of work flow are normally identified, beginning with a top level and then identifying sub-processes as second, third or even fourth level, with each level receiving its own process flow chart.

The detailed information specific to my library in the flow chart examples you have is unimportant except for illustrative purposes and I will not be discussing any of these at any length. What does concern us is that the methodology of work flow analysis can be universally employed by any library wishing to understand electronic resource work flow complexity. Almost all of the process levels in the work flow that we have identified are likely to be common to all libraries with significant responsibility for providing electronic resources, though they may not have been viewed in these terms. Variations, of course, will arise with the details of each individual library's organizational and procedural approach to handling electronic resources.

At USC our work flow analysis has centered on mapping the desired way of doing things under optimal circumstances, what we call the 'should be', rather than limiting ourselves to current practices in every instance.

In some cases this has involved identifying the need for new procedures where none have existed before.

You will note in the examples as we go through them that most of each page is taken up with squares and rectangles, which identify the key tasks involved in a given process. In all of the process maps, whether high level or sub-process, the geometric diagrams are connected by arrows indicating the direction of the work flow. In many instances a yes or no question is asked, with a triangle indicating a decision is required, with one set of arrows going one way if the answer is yes and another set of arrows going another way if the answer is no. The horizontal dotted lines across each page indicate a 'swimming lane', identifying who is responsible for performing that task. As you can see various tasks can extend across multiple swimming lanes as numerous parties may be involved in performing that task. If an arrow points to "End" that task is completed. Arrows pointing to the right side of the map indicate that the next process begins as do arrows pointing to a dotted circle. In appropriate instances we have elected to develop procedures, guidelines and checklists rather than attempting to map at too great a level of detail.

Our electronic resources workflow analysis has identified four primary or top level processes involved in the handling of an individual electronic resource. Each of these, in turn, is divided in to a number of sub-level processes. I shall necessarily be simplifying and compressing a great deal of information as we go along, so every sub-process is not addressed; instead I will be picking only same for illustrative purposes.

In Example 1 in your handout you will find the high level map for the first of the four primary processes, "Select Electronic Resources". Each box or rectangle identifies one of four second level processes involved in selecting electronic resources, followed by a box referring to ensuring quality control, which appears on all process maps. No flow chart is provided for Evaluate Content, but here evaluating the content of input refers not only to the intellectual or subject content of the resource but also to determining what type or format of electronic resource it is. Questions such as do we have it in print, do we have comparable information elsewhere, are back files involved (if a serial) all arise in this sub-process.

Example 2 provides a sub-level process map for "Select", titled "Research Interfaces, Capabilities and Sources". Here the major focus is on identifying the appropriate interface for the resource and or if a trial use of the resource should be arranged with the vendor.

The third sub-level process for "Select", researching costs, is fairly self-explanatory and no flow chart example is provided for it. This process, of course, can turn in to a very time consuming exercise if there are multiple vendors with multiple pricing options for the same resource. The final sub-process in selection is actually making the recommendation to acquire and ascertaining if funding is available, if required, or determining if the resource to be placed on the electronic desiderata list pending funding becoming available.

As we examine the combined second and third high level processes, "Acquire/Deliver Electronic Resources" matters get somewhat more complicated. Example 3 provides the high level process map. Here the emphasis is on all of the work that must be done to order and or otherwise acquire access to an electronic resource.

A review of the information provider's license terms is undertaken first. Routine or uncomplicated license matters are dealt with in the first sub-process. However, if the license is complicated and requires review by a university lawyer before it can be signed and returned is covered in the second sub-process. The whole subject of licensing of electronic resources has generated numerous workshops, papers and articles and is obviously very important. It is merely acknowledged in passing here as another element in the workflow.

To first obtain access to a paid resource which we are committed to providing first requires requesting access; it is not automatically provided by the information provider as they may not have all of the required information yet. This sub-process is mainly one of paperwork, physical or online, including obtaining authorizing signatures, if necessary.

The next step, "Process Payment", is the most routine in this process group. This is one of the instances in which each library's local institutional procedures most clearly come in to play. Next is the process of creating order records in the acquisitions module of the local integrated library system. At USC we have SIRSI as our ILS provider. Here again, procedural details will vary significantly on a library by library basis depending on the library's integrated library system vendor.

Examples 4 and 5 illustrate the final two sub-processes of "Acquire/Deliver Electronic Resources". The processes involved in activating access to an electronic resource are indicated in Example 4. Experience has shown that one can take nothing for granted when it comes to actually activating access to an online resource. There may be a communication problem with the provider about IP ranges or the number of simultaneous users or the library might be given a URL that is no longer active. More than a single set of messages may be required back and forth with the provider before access is established and validated locally.

The fact that access has been activated by the provider means nothing to the library and its clientele if that information resource is not actually delivered or made available. These workflow processes are the focus of Example 5, with a multiplicity of steps identified, with variations depending on the type of resource acquired. To be made accessible to users the new resource must first be entered in the library's internal database of electronic resources as well as in the library's online catalog, if appropriate. If the resource is an electronic journal from as part of publisher's package or from an aggregator data base the appropriate links must be established with a company called Serials Solutions, who provides electronic resource management services for online journals. The appropriate URL's for the vendor utilized for the specific resource must be validated. Finally, initial communication of the availability of the new resource must be made to the library's collection development personnel.

In the early years of the development and growth of electronic resources, at least in the United States, there was an infatuation with the new technology that made the provision of such resources possible. Library literature and presentations at professional conferences naturally tended to focus on the technological aspect of electronic resource delivery. There now appears to be an increasing realization that issues surrounding the management of electronic resources are looming large. These are questions common to all libraries and they are questions that have not, for the most part, been adequately addressed in the past. It could be that part of the reason for the reluctance by libraries to deal with some of these issues in the past is because they are complex and not always susceptible to easy resolution. Let's then examine then the third major process in our workflow analysis of electronic resources, "Manage Electronic Resources".

Example 6 provides the high level overview of the workflow processes we have identified as pertaining to the management of electronic resources. I noted earlier that our work flow analysis of electronic resources is not quite complete. The areas we are still working on all fall under this broad heading of "Manage Electronic Resources". We are slowed down a bit here as some of the processes we are examining are new or not yet fully developed or ready to be implemented.

The first two sub-processes listed on the current slide, "Market Electronic Resources" and "Train and Instruct ER Users" are among these. While we have, in the past, generally informed library personnel about the new availability of new resources and have activated access to the resource and listed it appropriately we can not claim to have implemented a comprehensive or effective marketing plan for electronic resources on our campus. A major focus now underway in our continuing workflow review is the development of a "Marketing, Communication, Training and Instruction Plan" for electronic resources. The plan will have a desired outcome of raising awareness of electronic resources, of increasing knowledge of those resources among all library personnel and of building skills in using them in the appropriate user communities. Once the library's collection development librarians receive appropriate training they will become responsible for instruction in their particular areas of subject expertise. Use of library and university web pages, publicity in other university publications, emphasis of new electronic resources in ongoing library bibliographic instruction activities and specialized seminars all will figure in the over-all communication effort.

The third sub-process, dealing with electronic resource statistics, is another unfinished item on our agenda. It, of course, is an issue of immense complexity and has also been discussed at numerous library conference programs in recent years. No library is likely to be in a position of addressing this issue on its own. However, much valuable assistance is to be gained from such efforts as Project Counter, whose sole focus is the development and availability of appropriate electronic resource statistics from information providers. Additionally, the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC), the European Coalition of Library Consortia (ECOLC) and various national library organizations all have collaborative efforts underway in addressing electronic resource statistics. We intend to borrow heavily from these sources as we develop our preferred workflow processes in this area.

The final area under the heading of "Manage Electronic Resources" that we have not considered is that of "Maintain Availability of Electronic Resources". Here the primary emphases are on the daily efforts required to identify and resolve access issues that may arise. This work is both extremely important and potentially very time consuming. Examples 7 and 8 will deal with this momentarily. Additionally, maintaining the accuracy of the information in our in-house electronic resources database and the accuracy of the URL information in the online catalog is also a critical concern.

Example 7 details the detective work that is necessary in trouble-shooting and problem resolution when access is interrupted to an electronic resource that should be available. The nature of the problem must be identified (is it with the user, the network, an access issue with the vendor, a software problem or an interface issue) and then the appropriate steps must be taken to deal with it and to communicate the outcome to the appropriate parties.

To delve one level further into the kind of problem solving, Example 8 looks at testing and working on access-related resolution. At this point we are now at the fourth level down in the workflow analysis. In this process various mishaps that may occur, such as registration for a resource going astray, an unpaid invoice, a change of provider, etc. are documented.

Finally, the timely and accurate completion of the separate set of complex procedures involved in completing the annual renewal process for each paid electronic resource is also fundamental to maintaining availability to the library's electronic resources. These processes are identified in the final Example 9. Considerably more effort is required in dealing with renewals than is the case with print resources. While renewal activities for database products are fairly straight forward, any number of complications may arise in dealing with electronic journals, especially if they are part of a publisher package or an aggregator database. Additional extenuating circumstances arise if a vendor has switched from bundling electronic access with print to charging extra for it and or if a third party subscription agency is involved. Each of these decision points must, of course, be documented appropriately.

I have presented you with the thesis that the handling of electronic resources in our libraries is a much more complex operation than most of us appreciate. I've described a methodology that can greatly assist in describing and analyzing such work flow complexities. In concluding, I will offer you several reasons why all of this matters.

Systemic knowledge of a set of processes, including how they interrelate is always preferable to understanding work flow only as a series of stand alone procedures. Knowledge of all of the facts involved can lead to better decision-making and planning. Work flow analysis provides the opportunity to validate existing electronic resources procedures and to document where changes are needed. Not only will you have a better knowledge of what and how much work is being done by whom, but also what important work is not currently being done. You will be in a better position to identify broken links in your existing work processes. Missing documentation and yet to be developed procedures affecting electronic resources workflow can be identified and planned for. Likely needs for additional personnel to handle increased workload can be better justified to budgeting authorities. All members of your library staff involved in working with electronic resources, whatever their responsibilities will have a better understanding of the larger picture and how their position and perspective fits into it.

Work flow analysis is time and labor intensive for those involved in it, but I believe the outcomes are worth it.

N.B.: disponibile anche la versione italiana.