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Medical library makes the transition from print to electronic journals

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer

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These days a physician reading a medical journal is as likely to be peering at a monitor as paging through a magazine. Nonetheless, Yale medical librarian Daniel Dollar, M.L.S., says libraries are still in the “horseless-carriage days” when it comes to making the switch from paper to pixels.

For instance, librarians still distinguish between an “online journal” and a “journal.” “One day we’ll call them all journals,” says Dollar, digital resources librarian at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

Not that physicians and researchers are still riding horses. One service that links citations to full-text articles tracked nearly 190,000 electronic requests for articles at Yale in 2003. That figure represents only “the tip of the iceberg,” Dollar says, because articles can also be downloaded from a journal site; through library subscription services, such as MDConsult; through the library’s online catalog; or through its listing of e-journals. The library subscribes to 3,300 medical journals online and 2,300 in print. Most of those titles overlap, but some journals are available in only one form or the other.

Electronic journals add to the library’s costs, for two reasons. First, the library generally pays a surcharge of 5 to 15 percent to add electronic access to a journal that the library already carries in printed form. Second, many readers who once paid for their own copies of journals now rely on electronic access and have dropped their subscriptions. In response, publishers are charging libraries more. “There’s a reallocation of funds,” says Dollar. “We have titles that have gone from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.”

Online journals have many advantages, Dollar says; they take up no shelf space and are accessible remotely. “Folks in the hospital don’t have to run over here to get a full text of an article,” says Dollar. And online articles sometimes include raw data not offered in print. But print articles also have their virtues: they may have better graphics, the ads they contain keep subscription costs down, and the reader’s ability to page through an entire issue may lead to serendipitous discoveries.

By far the greatest advantage of print journals is that it’s obvious how to archive them: simply bind and save them. It’s not nearly as clear how to archive electronic journals. Who should be responsible? Libraries? Publishers? If an electronic journal ceases publication, what happens to its archives?

To grapple with these questions, Yale has joined a Stanford University-based consortium of publishers and libraries called LOCKSS (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”).

“We’re in transition,” says Dollar. “It’s exciting, because we get to reinvent ourselves. But it’s a time-consuming process, and we may stumble along the way. … Essentially we’re taking the library and putting it on a desktop.”