Monday, May 11, 2009

Aggregators are Aggrevators

I alluded in my previous post that I hold some negative feelings towards -- what we call in libraryland -- aggregators. Aggregators are databases of articles from many sources that are compiled and maintained by a third party - most often by a for-profit company. Instead of subscribing to individual magazine and journal titles, most libraries save considerable time, effort and money by subscribing to subject and interdisciplinary databases from such companies as Proquest and Ebsco.

I've complained about these "full-text indexes" before. Here's a short of list of their offenses:

  1. many libraries subscribe too many of them and the overwhelming number of choices hurts our users' ability to decide what they should use

  2. many of these databases are filled with titles of dubious quality and are never read. In a study of interdisciplinary database use in 14 undergraduate institutions, "4% of titles accounted for half of downloads, and these were largely popular titles; articles in 40% of full text journals were not downloaded even once"

  3. articles designated as fulltext are frequently missing crucial elements such as charts and illustrations or are missing altogether for reasons unexplained

  4. most faculty do not use aggregators in their own research. (Many librarians are guilty of implying otherwise to students)

  5. most students have come to the university with hours of positive experience using the Internet for research and consequently our arguments for using closed-gardens databases fall on deaf ears

  6. the majority of our students will never have access to these databases once they leave school

  7. Most journals' table of contents can now be found online

But the most troubling aspect of libraries who are depending on collection access through corporate third parties is by doing so it negates our ability to say that we are preserving our collection for future generations with any confidence. Just ask run through this scenario in your mind: what if Google buys Proquest and carries out what they tried to do with Paper of Record?

With so many drawbacks to aggregators, its worth asking ourselves why do most libraries outsource their serials collection work to them.

1 comment:

art said...

I have often wished that aggregators would share an index of what they provide rather than throwing yet another interface into the mix for patrons. Ironically, many of the aggregators use lucene for their own search engine, which would be perfect for this. The indexes could then be blended together so at least there was fewer search boxes to deal with. Thanks for drawing more attention to The Paper of Record incident, there are so many disturbing issues around that sequence of events that there should practically be the library equivalent of a public inquiry into the whole matter. Why did the Canadian Library Association sell the rights to such a colossal amount of Canadian heritage (almost 700K pages of Ontario newspapers alone) to a private vendor to begin with? Was there really no public entity that was willing to buy this content for the reported sales price? Is Google going to charge a fee for individual articles from this collection when it gets added to its newspaper archive? And most of all, why do we continue to funnel limited funds to often poor renditions of duplicate collections of content while letting some of our most valuable material be scooped up by others?