Interview by Martha Sedgwick (Vice President, Product Innovation, SAGE Publishing)
ATG/MS: Tell us about your role and your institution.
KF: The University of Michigan Library is one of the world’s largest academic research libraries. Our student FTE is more than 45,000; our campus libraries hold more than 15 million volumes and 221,000 current serials.
As the Electronic Resources Officer, I coordinate our selection of online resources. I work closely with colleagues across the library to identify, acquire, and make discoverable and accessible all types of online resources including eBooks, ejournals, streaming video and audio, digitized primary sources, datasets, etc.
As digital resources have exploded, what are the big changes that you have observed during your time at the University of Michigan Library?
What it means to use the library has completely transformed in the past twenty-five years. We had online indexes and catalogs when I started at the University of Michigan in 1995 but almost nothing was available full-text. If you wanted to read articles or books, you came to the library during the hours when we were open. The collection was carefully curated, each title chosen for its appropriateness for campus use. Now, while we still maintain a significant print collection, the preferred method for using the library is online, where content is available 24/7 to our users from anywhere in the world.
While the move to digital resources has made using the library more convenient, it also means that library-licensed content lives alongside content from the open web. While we try to brand resources with the library logo or name to indicate it has been selected and provided by the library, many users don’t notice the branding or don’t recognize its significance. As a result, users, especially novice users, sometimes struggle with how to find accurate information appropriate to the task at hand. To address this skills gap, the library offers a range of instructional opportunities about how to find and evaluate information.
With many students starting their searches on the open web, what are you doing to develop their critical thinking skills to assess the material available to them?
We’ve long offered instructional services designed to help students learn how to find and evaluate information. For our course-integrated instruction sessions, we offer faculty a menu of options to choose from. An increasing number of faculty are requesting the “Evaluating Sources” option, which indicates to us students are finding this challenging.
We also offer a one-credit course we call “Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction.” We have been teaching the class since fall 2017 and students who have taken it have found it highly valuable in learning how to evaluate information. One of the students who took the class said she had no doubt that she would use the strategies she learned “every day for the rest of my life.”
Given the size of our campus, we’re not able to reach everybody through in-person instruction. We have expanded our instructional offerings to include online tutorials and learning modules which faculty integrate into their class sites.
With so many users starting their search outside the library, tell me how you have approached discoverability at the University of Michigan?
Our approach to discoverability has always been informed by the needs of our local users. One thing they’ve asked for is the ability to browse by subject so we developed a system we call High-Level Browse (HLB) which associates call number ranges with subject categories. Subject specialists are able to identify journals and databases in their area as “Best Bets” to ensure important resources in their subject areas appear at the top of browse results.
We recently launched what we call U-M Library Search, which replaced several previous tools and brands. The goal was to unify the user experience for the various search interfaces, provide a modern technological platform for our discovery interface and improve accessibility and usability. The starting point is the “Everything search,” which shows a small number of results from each of the search categories (Catalog, Articles, Databases, Journals, Website). If a user knows where they want to look in advance, they can switch to see results from a specific category or switch to a category after the “Everything” results display.
While we continue to invest in our own discovery interface, we recognize that many users start with an open web search. We think it’s important that users are able to use whatever tool works best for their workflow, so we encourage publishers and database providers to ensure their content is widely discoverable.
How have you tackled the challenge of off-campus access to resources at your institution?
One thing we’ve done to facilitate access is to build our various library systems, e.g., the catalog, the databases list, and our online journals list, to make access from off-campus almost as seamless as on-campus. But, we know many users aren’t using library systems; they might prefer Google Scholar for discovery, or someone has sent them a link, or they’ve clicked on a link on Twitter. Whatever the reason, if they’re off-campus, access isn’t going to work for them because they are not at a recognized U-M IP address. For those users, we offered a proxy server bookmarklet which reloads a web page through the proxy server. A few years ago we started hearing about browser extensions like Kopernio and Lean Library that help direct users to full text and ended up licensing Lean Library.
We’ve uploaded information about our holdings and database subscriptions to Lean Library so the extension knows when a user is on a site where we have licensed content and will prompt them to log in to the proxy server if they are off-campus. In addition to the ability to direct users to full-text, Lean Library has other nice features we really like, including the ability to create custom messages for specific resources. We have almost 500 active users of the extension now, but we’re working on getting the word out so more users will install it.
We’ve been keeping an eye on developments around the Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA21) initiative. In theory, it should make for a better online experience for our users, using single sign-on (SSO) authentication so IP address no longer matters. But, I think publishers may be underestimating what a big ask this is for libraries. To date, our experience trying to implement SSO with just a few vendors has not been great, often requiring extensive back-and-forth between the library, our campus IT department and the vendor. The thought of having to do that for hundreds of vendors is daunting. While we’re eager for better access options for our users, we’re worried about the effort involved with the proposed solution.
I know that you have been proactively addressing accessibility concerns with your digital resources. Tell us more about what you are doing?
• We have a full-time accessibility specialist in the library who works on issues in both our physical and digital spaces
• We have a Digital Accessibility Team with expertise on digital accessibility standards and design best practices which works with library staff to remove barriers preventing users from experiencing an equitable and inclusive library
• We negotiate to include accessibility language in the licenses we sign with e-resource providers
• We are in the process of developing a lightweight accessibility testing protocol that staff involved in e-resource selection will be able to use as part of their evaluation process
We, along with the other members of the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), are funding third-party accessibility evaluations for e-resources. The evaluations, along with any responses provided by the vendor, are posted publicly on the BTAA website https://www.btaa.org/library/accessibility/library-e-resource-accessibility–testing.
As librarians we care deeply about access for all our patrons; it’s one of our core values. It’s disappointing to read through the third-party accessibility reports commissioned by the BTAA and see how often significant issues are identified with resources that will create problems for some users with disabilities when trying to use them.
It’s important that e-resource vendors understand that, aside from the ethical concerns around access, there are legal requirements at work. Several colleagues at other institutions report their procurement offices are implementing policies that would forbid the purchase of resources that are not accessible or would allow such a purchase only after completing an onerous exception request process. It would be to the benefit of everyone if vendors ensured their products were compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) available at https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/.
Can you gaze into your crystal ball: what do you think your priorities will be over the coming decade?
We’re currently investing significantly in building up our digital scholarship infrastructure to support researchers who are interested in using digital tools and techniques in their work, including text mining, data visualization, mapping, network analysis, etc. We have recently created several new positions including a digital scholarship strategist, a digital scholarship librarian, and a digital pedagogy librarian. They’re having great conversations across campus about how best to support this work which lives at the intersection of content, technology and disciplinary expertise.
Text mining is a particularly interesting space to work in. More publishers are offering APIs to facilitate large-scale downloading of content. We’re also starting to see vendors incorporate tools into their products that allow some of the kinds of analysis our researchers are interested in. The Gale Digital Scholar Lab, for example, allows users to create a corpus of documents and then use a variety of text-mining tools, including ngrams, topic modeling and sentiment analysis, to analyze the corpus. I suspect in the next few years we’re going to see more vendors offering these types of tools.
More expert researchers, however, frequently don’t want to rely on proprietary algorithms and would prefer to use their own tools to analyze the data. We have begun acquiring files from vendors — mainly historical newspapers from ProQuest and the Web of Science files from Clarivate — and making them available for researchers to download and use. A lot of libraries don’t have the resources to do local hosting and delivery though; nor is it particularly efficient to have multiple schools hosting copies of the same files. My hope is that either more vendors offer APIs to allow for bulk downloading or there is a cross-institutional hosting solution for text-mining files. The Big Ten Academic Alliance’s IMLS-funded Collaborative Archive & Data Research Environment (CADRE) provides a potential model to look towards. (https://cadre.iu.edu/)
An area where we’re seeing some really interesting developments is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning in discovery, for example:
• Scholarcy (www.scholarcy.com) — Reads and summarizes research articles
• Scite (scite.ai) — Checks to see if a scientific paper has been supported or contradicted
• SCITRUS (scitrus.com) — Filters content to help researchers find the most relevant and content
In addition, some libraries have been experimenting with chatbots which can be used to answer basic reference questions.
Another priority area in the next decade is going to be managing the transition to open access. It’s been a long time coming, but it finally feels like there is some momentum. It’s not yet clear what the way forward is going to be though, so I anticipate there will be a lot of pilots in the years ahead as libraries and publishers look for models that work.
One final, possibly longer-term priority is eXtended Reality (XR). The University of Michigan recently announced a major three-year funded initiative around XR, which encompasses augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. I’m not sure yet how this might impact libraries, but ProQuest recently announced the launch of virtual reality and 360-degree viewing functionality for some videos on their platform, so it seems to be an area for libraries’ attention in the future.