Thursday, July 1, 2010

On piecing together new clothes from old, or, purchasing databases in this economy

There's a part of Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl, where the heroine, Polly, helps her friend Fanny, who has recently fallen on hard times, to remake a dress by turning it inside out so the unfaded fabric on the inside can be reused. Sometimes I feel like this is a good metaphor of what we try to do with library resources - find the undersides of things we already have and try to make them useful in new ways. Sometimes this works well and sometimes it doesn't; sometimes we don't have much choice.

A researcher doing very interesting and valuable work recently asked me about purchasing a very specialized (and very useful) database to help with this work. I'm looking into it, but with our current budget, it's not easy to make substantial purchases like database subscriptions, especially if they may only be used by a few people. This isn't surprising; it's the case in academic libraries across the country right now as we compete for funding in our still struggling economy.

"You are there to help the researchers," my researcher tells me. "Otherwise we can't go on." He is right of course, but part of me resents being told this, because I know he is right. The Libraries know he is right. We are trying to stretch our limited budget to help as many of our researchers as we can, as well as we can. I understand that he feels as though we aren't serving him as well as we could, but I get frustrated because I haven't been able to convey to him how hard we are trying. I am looking to see if I can drum up more interest in this database, if I can make a good case for getting it in the face of our current budget.

If not, I end up trying to help him track down the information he wants the hard way, through databases not designed to give us information or access to the particular type of information he wants. He's already good at this, but it's labor-intensive, takes time away from what he really wants to be doing, and it would be nice if we could give him better tools.

It seems like it may become harder and harder for institutions like mine to provide these tools, even as more and better become available. This is depressing. How much time can we really spend piecing together new dresses out of our old silks? Am I looking at a future in which we have to cut something every time we get something new? It can be tiring, having to explain that our budget can't keep up with inflation, that we're trapped in a failing model of scholarly communication which means that we keep cutting resources and vendors keep raising prices to make up for money they lose (or just for new money they aren't getting) when libraries cut resources.

To drum up an old sentiment I've heard often since I started work as an academic librarian, it would be very nice if universities seriously considered library funding when proposing new programs, colleges, departments, or centers. New areas of research and teaching focus almost always mean that there will be new needs and desires for information resources. If this were recognized and funded at the university level, it would make for happier researchers and librarians.

I don't have much influence at the university level just now, however, so I'm thinking of ways that we could get more funding for the kinds of tools that may be much more useful to select groups of researchers than to our larger student body, or the bulk of our teaching faculty and staff.

Aside from continuing pushing for support of Open Access so that some day we may have a sustainable and viable system for database subscriptions, I wonder if libraries could partner with researchers as they apply for grants, building access to tools and databases into the grant funding so that the researchers, the larger institution, and the libraries all benefit. Has anyone done this before? I'd love to see examples.

In the meantime, we work with what we have, hoping we can turn it to new uses.