The Librarian's Role in the Electronic Information Environment

Fytton Rowland

Department of Information and Library Studies, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU, UK. E-mail:

Paper presented to the ICSU Press Workshop, Keble College, Oxford, UK, 31 March to 2 April 1998



Librarians have traditionally been concerned with certain functions, and most of these have their parallels in the electronic publishing era.

Collection development and acquisitions: deciding what materials to obtain for their user community, finding out how to get hold of the chosen materials, and buying them.

Cataloguing and classification: Arranging the collection in such a way that users can find items within it, with search tools such as indexes and catalogues.

Circulation: Lending items to users, reserving items for users, and getting them back again and reshelving them.

Reference work: Discussing users' information needs with them, and advising them how best to use the library's resources to find the information that they need.

Preservation, conservation and archiving: ensuring that materials remain available to users in perpetuity

It is often suggested that some or all of these functions become redundant in an era when increasing amounts of information are available directly to users via the Internet. This argument is contradicted by an often-heard complaint that the Internet is completely chaotic, and therefore that people waste much time in fruitless searching for the precise information that they need.

The skills of a librarian are, in fact, just as relevant to the electronic milieu as they were to that of print. The concept of ownership of items, however, has become more fluid. Collection development now consists in deciding which items to provide straightforward access to for your users. Institutions have to organise payment for information resources, other than those which are available free of charge. The library remains the appropriate structure through which to take decisions about the distribution of budgeted funds for the purchase of information resources. Cataloguing implies attaching appropriate metadata to information objects, to ensure that users will readily find the correct ones when searching. Reference work remains central: the task of listening to a user's needs, advising them on the best resources to access, how to access those resources, and how to formulate their queries for search systems. Preservation remains a significant unresolved issue for electronic publications; though librarians have not produced a full answer, they -- unlike some other people -- are at least aware that long-term availability of the resources is an issue. Circulation has no obvious parallel in the Internet environment, but to replace it there is a new task: user education. Despite the popularity of the Internet and supposed user-friendliness of the World Wide Web, users need significantly more guidance in using electronic resources than they did in using a library of print materials, and most academic libraries have now organised substantial programmes of user training.


There are a growing number of academics and publishers who believe quite firmly that once the transition from print to electronic journals has been made -- particularly within the scientific, medical and technical (STM) sector of the journals market -- there will be no role for libraries in the scholarly communication chain. Electronic journals can be delivered directly from the publisher (who may be a small research group, a learned society or a major internal publishing conglomerate) to the user’s desktop. Such a scenario is certainly possible, but it is unlikely for a number of reasons. Even assuming that all academics and researchers had the technical expertise to deal with the range of hardware and software required to access a variety of relevant electronic products, individuals will not wish to purchase, out of their own pockets, the range of titles required for their research, and therefore some form of departmental/ faculty or central purchasing will be required. Moreover, an individual academic will have scant regard that the titles they are interested in having delivered to their desktop may be of interest to other colleagues on campus. They will not want to read and sign a complex license agreement so that the title can be networked across the campus. Even if they did, who would be responsible for implementing the security requirements imposed by most publishers? Currently librarians perform a valuable service to the academic and research colleagues by facilitating quick and easy access to information. It matters little to the researcher that behind the scenes the librarians is dealing with selection, acquisition, licences, hardware requirements and software. What really matters is that relevant information is quickly and easily available to support research, teaching and learning. And librarians are currently playing a pivotal role in this process.

The roles of the librarian

The traditional roles of the librarian in the era of print can be defined as follows.

Collection development and acquisition: to select and purchase material - printed journals, abstracts and indexes, monographs, etc.

Cataloguing and classification: to organise and provide access to information - physically and via lists and catalogues.

Circulation: to reserve materials for and lend materials to users, and recover materials from them.

Reference work: to advise library users and to provide and facilitate quick and easy access to information.

Preservation, conservation and archiving: to archive, preserve and conserve information in perpetuity.

Of these roles, it may be argued that only circulation is not applicable to the electronic medium, and that in the case of electronic materials another, and more intellectually demanding, role replaces it:

User education: to provide information skills training.

Selection and acquisition

How does an institution decide what information resources to buy, and how does it then acquire them?


In academic and research libraries librarians have always taken guidance from subject experts on purchases: for teaching materials, academic staff provide reading lists to their students and request the library to acquire copies of the publications on their lists; for research journals, departments are often asked to prioritise journals in their field for purchase (or more often nowadays for cancellation). The library budget may be allocated, notionally or even totally, to different departments in order to ensure equity between subject fields in purchasing. Nevertheless, the role of the librarian is not negligible. Academic librarians suggest purchases to academic staff, inform colleagues about the cost implications of different purchasing decisions, and -- most importantly -- usually control the purchases of general reference resources that cannot sensibly be allocated to one department. They will also know, as departmental staff necessarily cannot, whether several departments wish to purchase the same items.


They will also be familiar with the mechanics of acquisition. While monographs may be purchased by libraries directly from publishers. through booksellers, or through library supply companies, journals have traditionally been purchased by libraries through subscription agents. Since there are hundreds of libraries and thousands of publishers, mainly small, the task for each library of maintaining subscriptions with each publisher directly would be an excessive administrative overload. The agents provide a valuable "sorting" function, allowing each library to submit a single order and each publisher to receive orders conveniently batched. This service -- now almost totally computerised -- is provided by the agents for a charge averaging about 12% of the subscription price, split approximately 6% paid by the publishers and 6% by the libraries. It would cost both parties a lot more than this to maintain all their bilateral links without the middleman. Agents also provide catalogues, as do the larger publishers, so it is relatively easy for library staff to ascertain what journals exist and how much they cost.

Selection and acquisition in the electronic era

Selection and acquisition in the electronic medium, on the other hand, are far less straightforward and currently require much higher levels of professional involvement and administrative labour. Electronic journals are much more difficult to find out about. Those made freely available on the Internet have little or no marketing budget and rarely find their way in traditional bibliographic sources. Even titles emanating from commercial publishers are currently notoriously difficult to track down. The best and most comprehensive source is the Association of Research Libraries, Directory of Electronic Journals and Newsletters backed up by the NewJour electronic announcement service and web site. Individual publishers’ web sites can sometimes be a useful source and the major subscription agents are slowly beginning to provide electronic journal information to libraries. Once relevant titles have been identified, selection criteria should follow the principles established for printed subscriptions, such as quality/peer-review, and relevance to research, teaching and learning. Freely available electronic journals have a zero subscription cost but they do have an upkeep cost once added to an electronic journal service, and they are more likely to move WWW site without notice than their commercial counterparts.

Payment structures for electronic journals

Except for those published free of charge, electronic journals have to be paid for and, in contrast with the print versions, there is a wide range of payment structures, often involving restrictions on use imposed by the publishers that go well beyond any constraints that exist with print publications. Subscription models include: free with a print subscription; a surcharge on the cost of the print subscription (typically between 10% and 25%); available as part of a regional/national consortium deal; available through a local/regional/national site licence agreement. The whole question of libraries signing licenses for electronic products - whether they be electronic journals, CD-ROMs or networked databases - is fraught with difficulty. The terms of each licence vary considerably and the small print has to be read thoroughly to ensure that institutions are not committed to terms which are unenforceable.

Cataloguing, classification, information retrieval and metadata

Libraries have always provided tools to help users find the items that they need within the library’s stock

Catalogues and databases

Traditional library catalogues included the content of books, but not the content of journals -- that is, the library catalogue would note the fact that the library held, say, The Biochemical Journal from 1950 to date, but would not index the papers contained within the journals. For the content of journals, one had to use the bibliographical databases which are now generally provided in electronic form either online or on CD-ROM. The electronic medium offers the possibility of linking the library’s own catalogue directly (with a single interface) to the bibliographical databases and from there in principle to the electronic full text of the articles. Although potentially very valuable, these hybrid services can be frustrating to use. It is difficult to explain to users why they can access the full text of some journals but not others (usually dependent upon whether a print subscription is held), and that the library does, or does not, financially support the document-delivery option on offer. The same holds true for bibliographic databases offering similar functions -- but many of these are at least developing interfaces which provide locally tailored information on document availability to the end user. Partial electronic publishing is possibly the most frustrating of all options. Such publications are set up as tasters for the full publication and provide access to the full text of only selected articles. Librarians offering an electronic journal service would be well advised to flag such incomplete publications very clearly.

Roles of different players in the electronic era

The long-term roles of the primary publisher, the bibliographical database producer, and the document-delivery organisation are not entirely clear. It seems likely that some reorganisations will take place: Elsevier, for example, the largest STM journal publisher, now owns not only Excerpta Medica, the second-largest medical database, but also Engineering Index, the largest engineering one. Clearly integration of the two types of product must be on the long-term agenda, and this is to be welcomed if it makes the information-supply situation less confusing for the user. Nevertheless, the overlap between primary and secondary information products will not be complete -- Elsevier will abstract and index many primary journals which it does not publish, and their primary publishers will wish to benefit financially from the sale of the electronic full texts; while there will be other primary journals, including perhaps some published by Elsevier, that are excluded from the coverage of the secondary database. Elsevier journals will also continue to be abstracted and indexed by secondary publications from other publishers. Document supply from other sources will also continue, with British Library Document Supply Centre seeking to maintain its dominant position in the UK, no doubt. Issue of electronic copyright will continue to dominate these debates, and it seems unlikely that average users will be able to find their way through this complex maze without professional assistance from librarians.

Reference work and access

Probably the most intellectually rigorous part of the work of a librarian is the reference interview, the occasion when a user tries to explain to a librarian what their information need is, and the librarian tries to find the best available strategy for assisting the user. Similar work is done by information officers in non-library contexts. The overall task contains many layers. It requires an understanding of human communication problems -- what people say they need initially is not necessarily a complete or an accurate description of their real need. It requires knowledge of the subject-matter: it is difficult to advise on information sources on a subject which one does not understand. It requires, quite clearly, a good knowledge of what information resources exist in a particular subject field. And it requires a knowledge of the internal structure of the sources -- it will not be sufficient to say "Use Beilstein" without explaining how this complex tool can be used.

The librarian as electronic-resources expert

The contribution of library and information professionals to reference work has increased, rather than the reverse, as electronic information sources have proliferated. It was probably never true that users could use all of the resources of a library unaided, but many thought that they could. With the great variety of bibliographic databases, numerical databanks, electronic journals, and general Internet resources that exist today, few users can make optimal use of them all. The software needed to search in these files, the command languages, and the facilities available for output or transfer of "hits" to other files for further processing are so complex and varied that professional help is very often needed.

The teaching role of libraries

It is often forgotten that students as well as staff in higher education use the journal literature: the belief that the books constitute the teaching library and the journals the research library is at best an oversimplification. It is often the case that students are directed to read particular journal articles by lecturers, and are expected to search the journal literature themselves as part of, for example, their undergraduate final-year research project work. Students, too, need to be assisted to use the journal literature, and since they pay fees for their higher education, it is fair for them to assume that all the resources of the university library, printed or electronic, will be available to them without difficulty or charge.

Holdings, document delivery and interlibrary loans

There are more practical issues concerned with access. In the print medium, either the required item was held by the library or it could be obtained by interlibrary loan, for which well-established procedures existed. With electronic resources, access is more complex. First, and most obviously, an appropriate infrastructure must exist within the institution for delivery of electronic information services. The internal network and its outside links to the Internet must have adequate capacity for the traffic, and users (including students) need sufficient numbers of machines of adequate specification to retrieve information with convenience. Acc ess needs to be freely available in open-access student PC laboratories as well as on the desks of staff. Once we are assured that appropriate hardware and software is in place, we need to turn our attention to access to titles. Many libraries have already set up electronic journal web sites to provide one starting place for access to a range of different titles -- and also to provide information on passwords etc. Freely available Internet titles are, superficially, the easiest titles to access. They do not require passwords (although some do require registration) and a hypertext link can be set up to the title page. However, such titles tend to be unstable in that they move sites without notice and it is advisable to instigate some system of URL monitoring to prevent the frustration of repeated error messages.

Access to electronic journals

Electronic journals from commercial publishers can be tedious to access. Although most publishers are moving away from password authorisation to IP address checking, it is still the case that for many publishers, access to their titles is via their web pages. This means that not only must the user know who the publisher of a title is (and how many of us know that for a range of our favourite journals?) but they must also work their way down a series of web pages before they actually find the title they wish to consult. Librarians would like to provide access to the content of electronic journals via an interface that their users are familiar with -- particularly, through the online public access catalogue (OPAC) system of their choice. Unfortunately, most publishers insist that one searches all the journals that they publish through their own site, with whatever interface and software they have chosen to provide -- which will most likely be quite different from those provided by other publishers.

"One-stop shops"

Another approach, therefore, is to use a "one-stop shop" -- one of the organisations, some of them the major subscription agents, who are providing access to many electronic publications through a uniform interface and with a single password. Again this is helpful to users by allowing them to learn only one system to cover all electronic journals at that institution. Unfortunately, not all of the publishers are willing to enter into the on-stop shop arrangements. Notably, Elsevier, the largest STM publisher, will not provide its electronic journals through any system other than its own ScienceDirect interface, to which they are also trying to attract other publisher. It is hard to understand this approach: Elsevier never refused to sell its printed journals through subscription agents. The attractive prospect of a one-stop shop seems therefore to have failed to materialise through there being too many competing one-stop shops.


A key issue for serious, canonical journals is their continued availability throughout the foreseeable future. Perhaps the oldest and most traditional role of libraries, stretching back to their very origins, is the protection of humankind’s cultural record from damage or loss.

Loss and damage

With print materials the major concern has been environmental control of temperature and humidity to preserve books, and the repair and restoration of ones that have been damaged. The quality of paper and bindings has also been an issue. Concern has been expressed more recently about the physical lifespan of CD-ROMs, for example. Perhaps a more serious problem with electronic media is the obsolescence of hardware and software. Files written on (for example) one-inch magnetic tape or eight-inch floppy disks, on some now-obsolete computer using non-standard software are now likely to be unreadable. Projects such as the Knowledge Warehouse have sought to address the issue of preservation, but it is acknowledged that there would be cost involved in that data in large amounts would need periodically to be ported forward on to a new software platform before the old one became unusable.

Intangible resources

Materials published solely on the Internet present further questions. There an issue of bibliographic control -- that is, actually identifying uniquely and unambiguously each different information object. At present the American Association of Publishers is addressing it with their Document Object Identifier (DOI) project. There is also a problem that, if an item is identified only by a URL, its content might change -- the publisher might choose to alter the wording of a document from one day to the next, and the old version is then lost. It is not yet established in all jurisdictions that electronic-only products have to be deposited with the national legal-deposit library; in Britain, the British Library is not entitled to free copies of them as it is with print. Finally there is a question of whether the purchaser (that is, usually, the library) is entitled to retain an electronic product permanently under the terms of the licence with the publisher. If you buy a print journal for one year only, you can return that year’s issues in perpetuity, but if you subscribe to an electronic project licence for one year only and then discontinue, you may have nothing to retain. The best way of ensuring continuing availability of publications is to have multiple copies filed in libraries in different parts of the world. Perhaps the most satisfactory method of achieving this would be for publishers to sell an electronic subscription to an online journals, and to provide an archival CD-ROM (or even an archival print version) at the end of the year. Some are already doing this, but the practice is by no means universal. Some not-for-profit organisations are seeking to archive WWW materials to ensure their archival preservation (though not making them generally available), but publishers have been challenging this on the grounds of breach of copyright. It is not clear why they do this: publishers have not traditionally filled the role of archivist for their own products, and this is just as well, since publishers can go out of business. Yet if they permit no-one else to archive their products, they are in effect committing themselves to do so; which is odd, since it is not an obviously profitable activity. Librarians maintain that it would be more appropriate, and more in keeping with traditional roles and skills of the different parties involved, if they were to fill the preservation role for electronic products.

User education

Will librarians, at least in universities, colleges and schools, move closer to being teachers?

Training of users

In the context of research institutes and commercial and industrial organisations, librarians and information officers often carry out information searches on behalf of research and managerial staff. In the electronic era this will undoubtedly continue to be the case, as many members of other professions have neither the time nor the inclination to carry out searches themselves. These areas (sometimes referred to as the "emerging market" for information and library professionals) continue to show growth in employment as the electronic revolution proceeds. The academic world is slightly different, since a relatively small number of library staff have to serve very large numbers of staff and students, and it has clearly never been feasible for them to undertake all the searching on users’ behalf. It is necessary for users to do the work themselves, and academic staff indeed have often wished to do so, not being very willing to delegate their "keeping up with the literature" to someone else.

Learning to use electronic resources

Over the last decade, however, the number and variety of information sources available, whether locally or remotely via the WWW, have increased greatly, and users in many cases have not been able to keep up with all of the choices now open to them. In addition to the classical "reference interview" mentioned earlier, therefore, librarians in most institutions of higher education have greatly enhanced their provision of user education, especially as regards electronic sources of information, to the point where this is now perhaps the dominant activity for professional staff in academic libraries -- circulation duties, for example, being delegated to paraprofessionals. This must be seen as an enhancement of the status of library staff, since it renders them more equal partners with teaching staff in the educational activity of the university. They now have contact in a training role with both academic staff and students. The areas in which training is given would include not only the use of electronic primary journals from many different publishers, but also the use of abstracts and indexes databases, databanks, CD-ROM publications, document delivery services, and electronic short-loan facilities for reading-list materials. Training may even be given to academic and research staff and research students in authoring for electronic publication.


An analysis of the emerging electronic publication era leads to the conclusion that it is likely to be a complex and confusing scene, in which staff and students whose major concern is necessarily their own subject field, and not computer and information sciences, will not be able to look after their own information needs without assistance. However, there is a widespread impression that retrieval of information from the Internet is both easy and cheap, and a lack of appreciation of the complexities that have briefly been described in this paper. Together with the perceived unfashionableness of the word "library" these misconceptions may give rise to the belief that the librarian will soon be an extinct species. The analysis given in this paper seeks to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the traditional activities of professional librarians have direct parallels in essential roles in the electronic era, and that the user-education role is a growing one which librarians are uniquely qualified to fill.


I thank Hazel Woodward for suggestions and discussions during preparation of this paper, and in particular for access before publication to her paper Electronic Journals -- the Librarian’s Viewpoint, from which some parts of this paper are taken.

Biographical note

Fytton Rowland, originally a biochemist, became an information scientist and worked for many years in scientific publishing and computer-based information services. Since 1989 he has been a member of the academic staff of the Department of Information and Library Studies at Loughborough University, UK. His main research topic is the electronic journal as seen from the publishers’, the librarians’ and the users’ point of view.

Last updated : 06 July 1998
Copyright 1998 ICSU Press and individual authors. All rights reserved


Appendix: Overheads used by the Author in his presentation



Functions of librarians in the paper age

Collection development and acquisitions

Cataloguing and classification


Reference work

Preservation and archiving

Functions of librarians in the new era

Selection and acquisition

Finding out what there is and choosing

Free journals--maintaining access

Paid-for ones--subscriptions/licences


Primary and secondary databases

Reference work and access

Helping users choose between tools

Helping them get access to the tools


Whose job is it?

Will the publishers let anyone do it?

User education

Key role of the information professional in the new era

Payment models for


Free with the print subscription

Surcharge of 10-25% on top of print subscription

Consortium deals

National licensing agreements

Pay per access/Pay per view/

Pay per print

Access interfaces to

commercial e-journals

Publishers' own websites

"One-stop shops"

Subscription agents



Preservation problems

Obsolescence of hardware and software

Cost of future conversions

How to identify items uniquely

Document Object Identifier (DOI)

Change of content with the same URL

Lack of legal deposit

Lack of permanent retention by subscriber

Unwillingness of publishers to allow it

But it isn't profitable