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The impact of electronic publishing on library services and resources in the UK

2.5 Online databases

Online services have been widely available to libraries for many years, and over the past decade have become increasingly offered for direct searching by end-users. The earlier emphasis on bibliographic databases has shifted towards financial and full-text databases, with sophisticated facilities for the manipulation and processing of data retrieved. The practice of passing on a proportion of the costs of mediated searches to the user is well established. Costs are often limited to marginal expenses (e.g. online and telecommunications charges, and some administrative costs but excluding staff time involved in the preparation and conduct of searches, equipment and other overheads) unless a value-added priced research service is offered. More recently, the national provision via JANET of networked access to selected online databases for a flat-rate subscription payable by the institution, has enabled academic libraries to offer users free and unrestricted access. The upgrading of the JANET network, and development and implementation of a Datasets Policy by the HEFCs Joint Information Systems Committee will facilitate widespread use.

In parallel with the increase in end-user searching (and the introduction of CD-ROM systems) academic libraries have seen a dramatic drop in demand for mediated online searches. (The trend is also evident in public libraries, where mediated searching still predominates, but CD-ROM is preferred to online because it is easier to control the costs.) Decentralised access to online services has been seen by some librarians as a threat, leading to downgrading of the library function, diversion of funds to other departments and undermining the concept of a central service. Others accept and even welcome a change of role, which emphasises the expertise of information professionals. The need for a co-ordinated strategic approach and strong leadership from the library is vital to ensure that the parent organisation secures value for money. Library staff have a key training/advisory/consultancy role to play in database selection, search strategy and integration of the use of online systems with bibliographic management software; also in managing institutional subscriptions, negotiating site licences and facilitating networked access. In addition, evidence suggests that even where there has been a significant shift to end-user searching, users still turn to the information professional for difficult and complex searches.

As access strategies replace the traditional holdings model, we will see more emphasis on current awareness and SDI as primary services, with both on-site acquisition and remote document supply becoming secondary or back-up services related to specific identified needs, with the costs borne by the end-user.

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