23:2 (2008:06) Serials and Scorpions

May 30, 2008 at 5:49 pm | Posted in Guest Editorials | Leave a comment

Betsy Appleton, 2008 NASIG Horizon Award Winner

After doing a little digging to supplement my admittedly shaky knowledge of the scorpion—featured prominently on the 2008 NASIG Conference logo—I am almost surprised that I still want to attend a conference in Arizona. The possibility of such a sting strikes within me no little anxiety. However, I am a serials librarian: the risks and challenges serials librarians daily face cause scorpion venom to appear mild.

As I have transitioned from student to professional, the world of serials has gone from solely print, to primarily print with some electronic, to primarily electronic with some print. (Will the pattern continue?) A “COUNTER” is no longer a place to sit, eating “SUSHI”; “CLOCKSS” and “LOCKSS” boxes have left the pages of Dr. Seuss. Like a scorpion’s sting, all of these changes may be causing difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle spasms. Unlike a scorpion’s sting, symptoms of the serials’ sting include increasing budgetary pressures, rising user expectations, open access controversies, digital preservation questions, and a widening gap between academic study and professional application.

I am greatly relieved to know that there are antitoxins to scorpion venom as I anticipate attending a conference where the possibility of meeting a scorpion is far higher than at home. Just as these antitoxins have been developed, the challenges posed by the dynamic nature of serials have created tremendous opportunities. We have begun “taking the sting out of serials” with the same collaborative spirit that has been a hallmark of the profession for decades. Major kudos is in order for NISO working groups that have developed and continue to develop standards for usage statistics, resource linking, and metadata. Between drafts of this essay the Shared Electronic Resource Understanding Working Group issued its recommended practices—recommendations that may take the sting out of a wide swath license negotiations. Preservation initiatives such as LOCKSS/CLOCKSS and Portico are making questions of both preservation and ownership of electronic content less ambiguous. We are rising to meet our users’ expectations by ever-expanding access to online collections and services, though our budgets remain as tight as ever.

Though all of these initiatives have taken out their share of sting, there is still need for other sorts of “healing balms” to ease the pain that both serialists and their customers/users continue to experience. Serialists must remain agile—not only taking the current stings out of serials, but also anticipating new stings as serials continue to evolve.

As a 2007 graduate of an LIS program, I know firsthand that most students today regard serials librarianship as any Arizona tourist regards a scorpion: stay away! Where I see exciting opportunities to influence the changes that will affect nearly every aspect of librarianship as my career progresses, my fellow classmates see insurmountable problems too overwhelming and too mysterious in which to invest their professional energies. It seemed that my professors regarded serials as something best learned “on the job.” While there is certainly merit to this assertion, the sting is in the mysterious nature of serials concepts overlooked in the classroom. There is too much at stake for librarianship in general to rely on these sorts of assumptions. Our resources, budgets, and issues within serials librarianship are heavily affecting all librarianship. Throughout the information profession, the sting needs to be taken not out serials, but out of the perceptions of serials.

Emerging technologies continue to change the face of serials today. It is exciting to see users interacting with electronic content in unprecedented ways. Innovative, experimental publishing models are changing the look and feel of serials. Several electronic journals provide platforms for annotation, comment, ranking, and blog-like discussion of their content, bringing the author and reader into tighter circles of valuable communication. RSS feeds and table of contents services continue to streamline discovery. The future looks very bright for these new functionalities, yet these changes will undoubtedly create new stings: challenges for both serialists and serials users. Where do we need to facilitate these changes, and for what users are these changes posing serious challenges? Fragmented populations with different technical and subject expertise are creating the need for varied marketing strategies and instruction techniques. Serialists will be again facing now-familiar ambiguities as these new platforms take hold.

My fascination with serials continues to deepen, and I am looking forward to an exciting future in this dynamic profession. I intend to use my knowledge, skills, and expertise to continue not only to take the sting out of serials, but also put that sting to good use. Medical advances have isolated toxins in several animals’ stings, which are consequently used in a variety of therapeutic ways. With that in mind, I am looking forward to working with serials’ stings as they will undoubtedly surface in the future. Perhaps these future stings will be, as in medicine, harnessed for more exciting, innovative solutions to the challenges we currently face. I am sure we will discover ways to do this at NASIG 2008.


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