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The JSTOR Kerfuffle

What a weekend! I feel so proud and happy I almost don’t want to think about libraries. Finally, the nation is restored and middle class white people like me can exercise our civil rights. It’s about time!

This doesn’t make all librarians happy, though. Sometimes, I just think librarians need something to complain about. I understand their frustration. I need things to complain about to, so as usual I’ll complain about librarians.

Last week, we who follow Libraryland news noticed the JSTOR kerfuffle, well documented in this article from Inside Higher Education. Though its search features are as reassuringly clunky and 1980s-retro as ever, JSTOR has a new interface that is making some librarians just plain angry. JSTOR now shows search results from the entire JSTOR collection rather than just from the modules of JSTOR to which a given library happens to subscribe, so students at smaller libraries see a bunch of citations with no links to full text. This, apparently, is traumatic for the little dears. The feature can be turned off by the user  checking a box, but not by the library itself. And librarians are worried that students will be too stupid to check the little box.

Some librarians see this as a problem, especially because JSTOR doesn’t allow link resolvers to work with its searches. For the handful of real librarians who don’t know what this means, a link resolver allows a database that provides a citation but no full text to link out to other databases to which the library subscribes that have the full text, or possibly to the OPAC or an interlibrary loan form that would allow the library user to find the article some other way without having to go to the enormous trouble of opening a new browser tab and searching the OPAC.

Rather than seeing a link resolver, if the article is not available, users are asked if they want to purchase the article. Librarians are worried that students will be buying articles from JSTOR that they could get for free from the library, because that’s just the kind of thing college students do, rolling in money as they are. Some librarians are calling foul and besmirching JSTOR’s motives. Though a non-profit, some suspect that JSTOR is trying to make more money through this practice.

Frankly, I think we should cut JSTOR a little slack, because it’s pretty clear to me they just don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’ve forgotten they’re in the “Journal Storage” business and somehow think they’re in the “discovery” business. They also seem to forgotten that they’re really good at journal storage but suck at discovery. Or maybe they’ve never tried to search their own database.

As far as I remember, JSTOR never interacted with link resolvers, because everything in JSTOR was full text. That was the whole point. The problem isn’t the lack of link resolvers; the problem is including things that aren’t full text in searches. Who the in the heck would go to JSTOR for “discovery”? Is that the promise that has made them the go-to database for lazy scholars? Absolutely not. They’re the primary database for lazy scholars because everything is full-text, even if the coverage is more limited and less timely than some other databases. Either JSTOR never knew this, or they’ve forgotten it.

I suspect JSTOR is so confused precisely because it is a non-profit. Ebsco might irritate the same bunch of librarians haranguing JSTOR at the moment, but those folks at Ebsco know exactly what they’re doing. They add value, but they suck every dime they can out of libraries and do their best to run everyone else out of business.

For some, this capitalist competition is the problem. The radical wing of librarianship was represented in this odd comment on the IHE article:

I definitely do want to hide results that are not available through my library’s subscription from users. Students should only see results that they can access. I should not have to constantly explain to students that their library is controlled by capitalist publishers whose profit is more important than their education, nor should I have to spend my life battling the $@! free market at every turn instead of doing my job.

This comment is a little bizarre, because normally librarians wouldn’t want scholars to be confined to what happens to be accessible at their library. Even Harvard scholars use interlibrary loan. And obviously the library isn’t controlled by capitalist publishers who value profit more than education. It’s controlled by clueless librarians who don’t understand economics and thus are at a disadvantage when dealing with commercial vendors who do.

I have a solution. Librarians are always looking for ways to make themselves useful to students. Here’s another way. Instead of constantly explaining to students that their library is controlled by capitalist publishers, why not just tell them that when in JSTOR, check the little box that says “Include only content I can access.” That way, the students can be less frustrated, and the librarians can look a little less crazy.

In the meantime, as many librarians also need to do, maybe JSTOR will remember what they’re good at and realize what they suck at, but without a profit motive I wouldn’t hold my breath on that, for librarians or JSTOR.

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Comments

  1. Real Librarian says:

    Slow day in academia?

  2. grumbly librarian says:

    Non-profit does not mean all for good (see: OCLC). Also, rumor is, from librarians working at small presses, that JSTOR was telling them that their new interface was going to mean increased revenues for publishers.

    Also, when should I tell students to check the box in JSTOR? When I see all 20,000 of them on campus the first week of classes?

  3. Bruce Campbell says:

    I’m going to try and slip the term “link resolvers” into conversation. Good post, AL.

    I’d venture to guess that a student would bug a librarian before they entered their credit card info into a computer for a school-related article.

  4. needs a 'nym says:

    Bruce, that might depend on the school. On my STEM campus, I run into several students a year who say they’ve paid for articles or given up on things that didn’t look free. Sadly, many students only break down and ask for help (or ask their advisers for help and get pointed to the library) when they’re looking for something we can’t get for them, like a $300 ANSI standard that’s held by nobody in WorldCat, thus confirming their (largely inaccurate) suspicion that there’s nothing the library can do for them.

  5. another f-ing librarian says:

    i thought that was called a ‘discovery tool’. do the little dears have the same number of heart attacks over google scholar? ’cause it seems to me that google scholar does the same kind of thing, right? not everything in the search results is available for no extra charge? what’s next? hiding the bibliographic citations within articles, if those journal issues are not represented in the library’s electronic holdings?

    and if it’s so important to make students think that the library has everything in their world — why? so they won’t transfer to a school that has a better library? — couldn’t libraries just politely request that jstor consider adding that functionality at the library’s administration level, rather than having a giant conniption?

  6. the annoying librarian says:

    Asking libraries and librarians not to have a conniption is pretty much like asking not to breathe. What’s going on with this column is an ember of hope to those of us who believe that librarians need to learn to chill out and laugh at themselves a little. Perhaps, in my lifetime…

  7. jrochkind says:

    “Is that the promise that has made them the go-to database for lazy scholars? Absolutely not. They’re the primary database for lazy scholars because everything is full-text, even if the coverage is more limited and less timely than some other databases. ”

    Funny because it’s true. Shooting themselves in the foot.