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Managing Digital Resources

Managing Digital Resources
Library Media Connection
September 2007

Doug Johnson

From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have “published” at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films, and 100 billion Web pages…When fully digitized the whole lot could be compressed…onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet – if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what’s taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.) – Kevin Kelly “Scan This Book,” New York Times, May 14, 2006

Chances are an increasing share of your library’s materials budget is shifting to digital resources every year. Popular educational reference book publishers are publishing e-books and online databases. If you are adding a new encyclopedia next year, you are likely to consider an online version. And your teachers may well be using more instructional films from a streaming video source than from your VHS/DVD collection. And we know our “net gen” students prefer their information in bytes rather than pages.

Learning to intelligently manage these intangible items is increasingly important.

When we talk about the management of print and physical audiovisual resources, tasks and procedures can be organized into the following, semi-chronological, areas: 

  1. Needs assessment/collection development
  2. Selection
  3. Acquisition
  4. Promotion and display
  5. Cataloging, circulation and control
  6. Inventory
  7. Evaluation

And each of these resource management tasks is applicable to digital resources. But online resources have unique characteristics that make working with them quite different than the books, magazines and AV materials we’ve managed in the past. And I’m sure you’ve already encountered some of those differences.

First, let’s identify what digital resources need to be managed. Most of today’s school library media centers have most if not all these resources: (For the purposes of this article I am listing only those items that have a purchase or subscription cost.)

  • Online databases such as full text periodicals (Ebsco, ProQuest, InfoTrac)
  • Online reference sources (ABC-CLIO, Facts on File, HW Wilson, Worldbook Online, Encyclopedia Britannica Online)
  • Streaming video collections (United Streaming, PowerMediaPlus)
  • Commercial search engines (Nettrekker. C.E.R.F)
  • E-books (Thomson Gale, NetLibrary, Follett)
  • Online tutorial services (Atomic Learning)
  • Software licenses for productivity and curriculum programs (Microsoft Office, Inspiration, Accelerated Reader)

1. Needs assessment/collection development

Unless you have an unlimited budget, your digital resources must be selected to meet the needs of your school, its curricula, and teachers. Long gone are the days of the “balanced” school library media center collection where collection building meant having something available on every possible topic. While general reference sources are still needed, the “free” Internet, interlibrary loan, and local public and academic libraries give students access to a rounded set of materials.

Many states also purchase general resources for all libraries, public, school, academic, and special, to use. A first question to ask in a needs assessment is “What do I need in addition to the resources provided by my state?” Some state collections are amazingly comprehensive. Familiarity with these resources is a must for every LMS for their collection development process.

The LMS can concentrate on building a collection based on specific needs down to course, unit and even project level. Just as there is little sense in acquiring books on a topic that is not part of a curriculum or meets a reading program goal, there is no sense in selecting a subject-specific database for a subject not researched in your school. And traditional needs assessment methods can be used to determine areas of need in your collection.

Increasingly the question about meeting those needs centers around whether digital or print resources are best suited to meeting them. How will your students and staff get the biggest “bang for the buck?” In making that choice, you need to ask a few questions:

  • How timely does this resource need to be?
  • How much access to computers or e-book readers do your users have in the LMC, in the rest of the school, in their homes and in the community?
  • What resources do your users seem to enjoy using the most? Studies of our “net generation” students indicate they have a definite preference for digital resources.
  • How important is accessibility to this information from outside the school? For multiple users to have access at one time?

The “right” choice will depend on your own demographics and resources. While both you and your users may prefer a digital encyclopedia, if there are only a very few workstations in your library on which one might be accessed, the print version is still a better choice.

2. Resource selection

Just like choosing a print resource, good selection procedures need to be followed, including knowing the board selection policy and using unbiased review sources when making a selection. I believe good reviews and comparisons are more difficult to find for electronic resources than for traditional ones. Given the changeable nature of online resources, reviews may no longer reflect the actual product (a full-text periodical database may have added or dropped titles, change years of back issues, etc.)

One method of reviewing online resources, however, is available that is not traditionally used with print materials: the trial subscription. You and you patrons can use the product from 14 to 60 days before deciding whether to subscribe or purchase it. “Before I spend money on a database I try to have at least one teacher use it with their students. If there are glitches or the instructions/process is unclear – the problem will usually show up quickly. And by using this method we can also gauge if the literacy level/instructional level of the information is on par with the level of the students.”  Gary Schwartz, LMS from Owatonna (MN) High School advises.

Another important review challenge is that many digital resources tend to be collections of materials, not distinct titles. It is one thing to purchase a DVD title; quite another to select an entire collection of educational videos. This makes a review imperative since a hands-on, eyes-on examination of every title is impractical if not impossible. It’s also a good time to review a basic selection precept that we include materials based on their strengths rather than censor them based on a small percentage of material that may be objectionable. Mary Alice Anderson, LMS for Winona Schools reports:

Had an interesting experience with purchasing a health database.  The LMSs previewed it and asked counselors, health teachers and a couple others to look at it, too. People liked it.  But one administrator questioned placing content like that on the web site because there are students whose parents don’t let them attend classes in topics such as sex ed.   I explained we buy databases to steer kids into good content instead of whatever they find n their own via Google. I saw that as another example of how we need to be continually educating administrators.

Additional considerations are operating system compatibility (less problematic with web-based materials), bandwidth and storage capacity necessary. Some companies (Digital Curriculum, for example) will allow a school to house the product’s digital content onsite so that only wide area network or in-building network capacity is a factor, not bandwidth to the Internet itself. When the medium being accessed is comprised of large files, like video programs, this is an important factor in selecting a resource, but the server on which the material is stored may need to be very large. With the purchase of materials that are meant to be a permanent part of the collection (e-books, perhaps) there is the question of how accessible such materials will in future years as programs, operating systems and storage media change. (Tried to read any files created on an Apple IIe lately?)

And finally, we also need to recognize that the resource interface, not just its contents, needs to be age appropriate. Happily, many companies recognize that younger users need less sophisticated search tools, larger icons, and brighter images.


3. Acquisition

Getting the resource should be as easy as entering a URL – right? Not quite.

Giving a school’s users access means working with your IT department in most cases and selection must be done in coordination with it. One decision to be made, when the option is available, is whether to give access to an online resource by password, by IP address or both.

If access is given by IP address, patrons at any computer within a range of IP numbers do not need a username or password to log on. The product recognizes the IP number as one in an organization that has purchased the product. This is convenient and reduces the amount of work needed to track usernames and passwords and is fairly secure method of limiting access only to licensed users. Access by username and password has advantages as well. Control can be given to only select users to certain materials; users may have access to individual areas where they can store results of searches or play lists; users can get access to the resource from computers outside the school’s IP range (without having to set up a proxy); and usage can be tracked more precisely. If access is given by individual rather than generic username and password, I would strongly suggest working with your IT department to set up an database, such as an LDAP directory, where usernames and passwords can be stored and used for authentication in multiple applications.

Home access is an important factor we consider when our district selects a resource. The movement is toward 24/7 learning and making sure learning resources are available 24/7 is important. Online courses and hybrid classes will continue to demand access to good digital materials since a students may not be near the physical library for extended periods of time.

One management/budgeting tip is to make sure your subscriptions begin and end when your school fiscal year begins and ends. Most companies will work with you to bill your district for a partial year or, more likely, a year plus the months needed to end the subscription at the end of your school year.

4. Promotion and display

How do you educate kids (and teachers) to use authoritative online sources and not just “Google it?” How do you teach your users to see the library as a portal to trusted sources? Online resources do not jump out at students and staff and holler “use me” anymore than library books ever did. They need to be promoted and displayed.

Library orientation programs must of course demonstrate online resources as well as the physical ones. Introduction to online resource is best done during research units themselves – when students actually need the information they contain. Any bibliography or webquest prepared for a unit should reference electronic tools as well as those in print. As LMS Jaime Jeanne Meadows St. Helens (OR) High School puts it, “The piece of the puzzle that I try to add is instruction.  When I get a new “toy” I like to show the staff how to use it, hopefully during an in-service day, and then if it’s a student use item, show them how to use it on a case by case or class by class basis.”

LMC webpages should clearly mark links to their digital resources, either on the homepage or on a separated page that has a clear link from the homepage. A note by the link that tells the user any special instructions for accessing the resource not only helps the user, but will cut down questions. Oh, posting a generic username and password on a public website, no matter how convenient, is not appropriate.

Students and teachers can be subtly reminded of the schools’ online resources if guides in the form of posters are visible near workstations. These resources need to be promoted at teacher meetings and in teacher newsletters. The LMC’s webpage with links to its digital resources should be the default page when any web browser is launched.

Just because it doesn’t fit in a display case, doesn’t mean you can’t make it visible.

5. Cataloging, circulation and control

Should digital resources be cataloged? Well, of course. Follett’s eBooks come with MARC records. Online reference materials should found when doing a catalog search just like their print cousins. When feasible, the ability to search digital resource using a federated search tool must be made available.

Few electronic resources circulate per se. Multiple users can access them all at one time – a major advantage of these tools.

E-books are the exception to this rule. Follett and NetLibrary allow only single users to access titles with libraries determining “circulation” length as they would with any print resource. The specific rights for e-book use vary not only from supplier to supplier, but from publisher to publisher within suppliers’ lists. This includes whether a title can be accessed by multiple users, can be downloaded and read by portable devices, and can be printed. NetLibrary suggests that most users treat their e-books as a reference source with an average use time of 35 minutes. Supplying digital materials like e-books, may require the circulation of portable devices on which to read the materials such as e-book readers or digital audio players. When a single digital device may hold multiple items (one e-book reader with a dozen titles on it), counting circulation will become very tricky. Good luck with that.

Regular checks to see if right users have the access are important, as is checking the resources’ links from the LMC’s webpage to make sure they are working. As Australian librarian Margaret Dennerley opines, with tongue in cheek, “One really cool thing our IT department does is change our external IP ranges without advising us and without thinking it might have an impact on our patrons being able to access those sites that are IP authenticated.”

6. Inventory

Counting subscriptions is usual pretty simple to account for since they aren’t very numerous and impossible to steal, even by ingenious 8th graders.

Tracking licenses of software that is installed on computer workstations is more problematic – making sure that your school is not running more copies of an application than for which it holds a license. Our district, to help stay in compliance, runs a remote survey of all computers to get a list of licensed program files on each. These lists are then compared to licenses for which we hold records, and if any unlicensed software is found, our department takes action. Limiting the rights for installing software also helps keep licenses from stretching too broadly. Oh, we like purchasing site licenses for products when possible. It is not only economical, but helps save the hassle of inventorying the product on individual computers.

Do keep good records of your licenses and subscriptions. It may not be possible totally stop software pirating, but your district needs to show it has made a good faith effort to do so.

7. Evaluation

Most vendors of digital information make it possible to track the usage of their products. It is, after all, in their own best interests to have LMSs and their administrators know just how heavily a resource is being used. A typical report might look something like this (from TeachingBooks.net):

Statistics for Johnson Elementary School, March 2007:

2786 pages turned since the start of your license.

229 pages turned in the past month.

28 sessions in the main section of TeachingBooks in the past month.

8 sessions in the Educator Area of TeachingBooks in the past month.

36 total sessions in all of TeachingBooks in the past month.

 Target use figures can be established with resources meeting those targets retained, and those not getting the required use, dropped.

Usage analysis such as listed above provides data on the volume of use but does nothing to show how useful your users found the resource. If you base your decision to subscribe purely on transaction logs you are not getting the full picture. You need to combine log analysis with other forms of evaluation such as citation analysis and exit interviews done at the end of major products and student/staff surveys that ask about the importance of these resources.

I would recommend that the decision to keep or terminate a subscription to many of these products not be done the first or even every year. It often takes several years before teachers and students discover a resource. And a danger of switching content providers is that you might turn some teachers off using them if the links in their lesson plans to those resources need to be changed every year. Evaluate – cautiously.


The practice of effective analog resource management has developed over many years – even centuries. But the rapid pace of transition from print to digital resource does not allow today’s LMS the luxury of a slow transition. We need to develop, test and share best practices with each other rapidly. After all, today’s kids are asking “what’s taking so long?”

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2009 at 01:26PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson | CommentsPost a Comment

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