:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Trouble with Online


   Imagine you are a student with a paper due the next day and the library
   is closed. You fire up your web browser, go to the library catalog, and
   enter a search, limiting to only those items that are available online.
   Simple, right? Think again. Sadly, we are far away from making such a
   scenario come true, even those institutions that have attempted to make
   it work.

   As an experiment, go to a number of library catalogs in your region and
   attempt to limit your search to items available online and in full
   text. I did, and the result was not pretty (a sample of such catalogs
   is in the [145]Link List).
   A litany of failures

   The first place we fail is on the opening screen. With many catalogs,
   there is no apparent way to limit a search to online resources. Not
   only is there no option to limit your search initially, there is
   sometimes not even an "advanced search" choice where you could insist
   on such a limit. Some libraries offer a special "collection" of online
   resources, and for those libraries the user can specify that collection
   (which performs the same function as a search limit). Other libraries
   require users to first hit a difficult-to-find "Set limits" button,
   select the limit they wish to apply, and then search. Still others
   offer no such option but require users to search first, then apply a
   limit, and reexecute the search.

   Should hapless users find an option to limit their search in some way,
   they are often faced with a bewildering array of choices. One catalog
   provides the option to limit the "item type" to "web site" or "etext"
   or "ebook" or "compfile." Which to choose? And why? Even as a librarian
   I am at a loss to discern the difference between "etext" and "ebook."
   In the end, it is probably better to choose "online" from the
   "Location" menu, but this option appears after item type, and there is
   nothing that highlights it as a useful selection.

   Going from library catalog to library catalog is a particularly
   frustrating experience, since almost every library feels the need to
   state the option differently. Labels I've encountered in a quick survey
   include E-books, Electronic Resources, Web Resources, Internet,
   Online/Computer Resources, Computer File, Online Resources, Electronic
   Resources (web), and Internet Resources.

   I'm being generous with the above categories, since some are probably
   not exactly what our imaginary students want. Selections such as
   "Computer File" will often include items that are definitely not
   online, such as CD-ROMs. The "E-book" category likely leaves out
   resources like web sites, government reports, and other non-e-book
   Getting to full-text

   Assuming that our users have been able to specify they only want online
   items, they have roughly a 50-50 chance that the search results will
   offer an option to click straight through the full text. Many systems
   do not display a link to an item until the "full record" is displayed,
   thereby requiring the user to do about twice as much clicking than if a
   link had been on the initial results screen. A particularly bad example
   is a library that buries the link way below the full record in the
   holdings statement, hiding that the full text is available online until
   the user scrolls down far enough.

   So if our poor students have gotten this far, finally find the link and
   click it, what happens? Often what is returned isn't the full text. It
   may only be the table of contents. Why? Because we can't even agree
   what "online" means, at least in our library catalogs. Varying coding
   practices for the 856 field in MARC sometimes make it impossible to
   know whether the link in the record leads to the full text of the item,
   or simply to some additional information about the book. This must be

   Over a decade after the Internet revolution we are still waking up to
   what our users want and what we could give them. In most cases our
   users want to know what they can get now and what they need to fetch
   from the shelf or from another library. These options should be much
   more apparent.

   We exert much more control over our library catalogs than we do with
   article indexes, where we are at the mercy of vendors. Since our
   catalogs are at least partly in our control (automated system vendors
   largely respond to market demand, and we control how we catalog our
   items), we need to find ways to enable users to limit searches to full
   text online. Users rightly expect this ability. Their not being able to
   do it easily, or at all, is a disturbing failure of our profession.

   Link List
   Sample Catalogs