Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
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Thursday, September 11, 2003

Sigh. Why does it always seem like the libraries get called the heavy?

This article--Scientific American: Public Not Welcome -- Libraries cut off access to the scientific literature--(how's that for a subtitle!), talks about how the publishing world is squeezing out public access to scientific information through the limits it places on electronic delivery but makes it appear that libraries are at fault. It's as if they didn't realise libraries are gnerally champions of free access to information that we continue to be despite shrinking budgets and huge subscription rate increases.


Addendum: I received this rebuttal/clarification to the article in my e-mail and am posting it here with the author's permission.

I am writing this message to provide background and clarification about the issues relating to University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Library System discussed in Scientific American, Sept 03 issue, pp 24-25 article titled: "Public Not Welcome: Libraries cut off access to the scientific literature".

I was present at Mr. Gibbs' interview, which was quite cordial. We presented an overview of the dilemmas faced by academic libraries in the transition to the electronic environment. Mr. Gibbs compacted a great deal of information into a few paragraphs, and while his quotes are accurate, they are misleading and used out of context.

A few points to consider when reading that article:

University of Pittsburgh is not a public university. We do not have a mandate to serve the public, nor do we receive support from the state to do so. However, since neither our library nor the main University library screens users or checks ID's at the door, there is a mistaken perception among some members of the local community that Pitt libraries
are public libraries.

The problem has increased now that we can no longer afford to retain print copies of every electronic journal received. This trend to offer access to journals only in electronic format will accelerate as costs continue to rise. We serve a very large and grographically widespread user community that includes everyone affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, and the 19 hospitals of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. We have more than 12,000 registered users, and still others may access the system through hospital IP access without registering. Our users are overwhelmingly supportive of (indeed, they demand) electronic access over retention of print journals.

For us, the issue of public access is not a licensing issue, but rather a question of resources, and a question of network security. We did not discuss the specific terms of our licenses (e.g. presence or absence of walk-up clauses) with Mr. Gibbs. Though we have a large number of public access computers in our libraries, they are reserved for authorized users, and public computers at all University of Pittsburgh libraries are password-protected by University policy for network security. In addition, offering access to the public would be a drain on the library's human resources as well - as we all know, very few members of the general public are able to enter a library, walk directly to a public computer, and search and access electronic resources without substantial assistance from a reference librarian or other staff member.
Finally, we are already spending very big bucks to license a wide variety of e-resources that are heavily used by authorized users - we do not want to increase the load on our system with unauthorized users.

There are many ways that the public can access scientific and health-related literature - PubMed Central and other open access projects like Public Library of Science, as well as interlibrary loans and membership document delivery that we can provide from our print and most of our electronic titles. HSLS also has many initiatives in consumer health information outreach - we have had funding from NLM to train public librarians, have an extensive CHI website (www.hsls.pitt.edu/chi) with its own OPAC called "PITTCat for the Consumer", and maintain a staffed consumer health library at one of the larger UPMC hospitals. With NLM funding, we are experimenting with providing service and collection access to our local health department. We also have a new initiative with foundation funding to develop a "recommended" collection of consumer health books, that are being
donated as special collections to several smaller public libraries in our county.

Finally - even though we are not mandated to serve the general public - if someone from the public does come in, our reference librarians don't turn them away - they provide brief assistance and/or refer them to the main branch of the Carnegie public library just down the street. UPMC patients are referred to our consumer health library.


Barbara A. Epstein, MSLS
Interim Director
Health Sciences Library System
University of Pittsburgh
Email: bepstein@pitt.edu
Phone: 412-648-7850

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