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Dear JSTOR: What Went Wrong?
August 26, 2010 - 9:15pm

Before I say anything else, I want to praise you for responding so quickly to concerns raised by librarians about the new interface that was just rolled out. You folks grasped the issues, you didn't whitewash the problems, and you laid out a plan to solve them, providing a realistic assessment of how long it will take to make the necessary changes. Bravo.

But ... honestly, what was that all about?

JSTOR was founded as an innovative effort to create high-quality digital archives of complete runs of our most important scholarly journals, in part for preservation and access, but also so that libraries wouldn't have to build additions every few years to house growing runs of journals. Long before everyone else was doing it, JSTOR digitized articles and did it very well. They brokered a truce between publishers and libraries by letting publishers set their own "rolling wall" - three years, five years, whatever length of embargo the publisher felt was its window of opportunity to preserve a subscription base.

Now that the digital article is the norm, and print journal collections are shrinking, JSTOR is taking steps to include references to current material in its indexing. This also means libraries can subscribe to the current online content they choose, all of it from not-for-profit scholarly societies and university presses. This is a probably a good idea. Most of our content these days is chosen for us and comes in a package deal, in bundles that include plenty of stuff we don't particularly want. And it's nice to have a place to search for content produced by university presses and scholarly societies that want to participate. I can see why you'd want to provide access to current issues of journals.

But you forgot one thing: access means actual access. When you're in a library, access might require a library card, but not a credit card. That's the idea behind libraries. You don't have to pay for the articles. The library will get them for you.

Here's how access works in libraries. We subscribe to as much stuff as we can afford from a variety of aggregators and publishers. (Hey, it looks as if we can now subscribe to current stuff through JSTOR, though I didn't know that until the new interface went live.) We gather lists of what's in those various electronic packages and plug that information into software that routes library users from one site, where an article is indexed, to another, where the contents are available. When you're searching, say, Academic Search Premier or Google Scholar or the MLA International Bibliography, and your search turns up an article that is full text in JSTOR, you can get right to the article in one or two clicks. If the library doesn't have the article, it helps you fill out an interlibrary loan form. It's called OpenURL. And while some really tiny libraries don't have it (because it's expensive and takes a fair amount of maintenance) it's standard in most libraries because it's so important.

So how did JSTOR fail to get the memo? Have the people in charge not used a library in recent years? Until that fix is made, libraries will have to explain a very complicated work-around. The fact that links to purchase articles show up just fine rubs salt in the wound. I wonder if you spent so much effort selling the idea to publishers that you forgot to check in with your subscribers. As you describe it, "publishers participating in the Program will gain visibility and a streamlined, affordable means for reaching libraries and users, while controlling their own pricing and enhancing their brands."

Oh. It's about pricing and brands and reaching a market.I thought it was about access.Silly me.

And frankly - we love you, JSTOR, but search is not your strong point. You don't add descriptors or controlled subject headings to every article's record. That's okay; that would be a lot of work. We have other databases that do that, and there are plenty that drill much more deeply into disciplines.Far as I'm concerned, you don't need to compete with the EBSCOs of the world.

What makes you special is content. Good, reliable, full text, scholarly content. Adding references to mirage content with buy buttons but not to the library's collection is going to frustrate everyone who's used to the idea that JSTOR means "I can get good stuff, and I can get it right now."

Maybe there's a perversely positive side to this. At my Little College on the Prairie, we can only afford to subscribe to a few of the packages JSTOR offers. (This often surprises new faculty, who think we have the same JSTOR that they had at their R1 university. Whoops!) But students love JSTOR and use it even when other databases would lead to more current and relevant sources. JSTOR has the scholarly content their professors want them to use, and once they find an article, all they have to do is press "print." If they think JSTOR is broken, they might try other databases, ones that are often better for their topics.And hey, maybe seeing those crazy prices will be a teachable moment, too. Yup, that's why we are buying fewer books. This stuff ain't free. It just seems that way.

Maybe our users will learn some tough lessons when they try to use the new JSTOR. But I'd just as soon have a JSTOR that isn't broken. Thanks, and good luck with the OpenURL thing.


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