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‘Digital Commons’ aims for increase in library access

September 11, 2008 By Brian Mattmiller

A proposal for a “digital commons,” developed by the UW System Libraries, would give students and faculty across the UW System a more expansive set of keys to the “gated Web,” linking them to online commercial databases that are indispensable for serious scholarship and research.

The proposal, discussed at the August Board of Regents meeting, is included in the system’s biennial state budget request for fiscal 2010–11. Known as the “UW Digital Commons,” the plan calls for a $6 million annual investment that would allow UW–Madison library officials to greatly expand database purchases in a cost-effective way, by negotiating access for all 170,000 students and 30,000 faculty and staff across the UW System.

Photo of Frazier


UW–Madison Libraries Director Ken Frazier says that during the past two decades, university libraries have needed to cover massive increases in journal subscription costs. From 1989 to 2008, the cost of scholarly journals — virtually the only place researchers can access important developments in their field — have risen more than 700 percent.

UW–Madison’s libraries have reallocated about 2 percent every year to cover costs, and have received help from unconventional sources, such as Big Ten Network revenues, in an attempt to stay current.

“We have basically been putting every bit of new money we received into protecting journal subscriptions,” Frazier says.

But with the new proposal, university libraries systemwide could take a huge step forward. By negotiating centrally for licenses to access online journal databases, the approach will allow for both an expansion in the overall volume of databases purchased and in the total number of users statewide. State university systems in California, New York and Ohio have already pursued this approach with great results, Frazier says.

Cost for the shared collection of electronic journals and research databases, spread across all UW System students and employees, would come to $30 per user.

From the humanities to chemistry, academic journals are the prime currency for doing research, because they are the source for peer-reviewed and confirmed findings. But with the growth of online access points for journals, they have become increasingly important to an undergraduate student’s information, technology and media literacy.

“Students enter college thinking they can find everything on Google,” says Frazier. “But by the time students get to capstone courses and senior projects, they will have a real appreciation for using these tools to research content, synthesize information and develop new knowledge. These are skills they carry with them into their careers and future lives.”

William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, is an ardent supporter of the project. While he views Google as “one of the miracles of the modern world,” Cronon notes that it has also contributed to a decline in the research skills of current students, who may wrongly assume that Google puts the known world at their fingertips.

“The reason this project is so important is that so much of our knowledge today is tied up in these commercial databases,” Cronon says. “Much of what the library is trying to acquire is not available on the open Web, and we need to better educate students about how to navigate these hidden databases in the gated Web.”

Cronon’s field of environmental history is being transformed by the online availability of scores of smaller journals that few people would have seen before. It’s an eclectic field that draws from the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, and online databases better allow for this kind of field-shifting inquiry.

As an example, one of Cronon’s graduate students is looking at the historical decline of wild horses in the American West. To do so, the student needs to consult materials from biology, geography, American western history and National Park Service records, plus state and local records across the region.

“The ability to make connections across a wide range of disciplines and literature and try to explain an environmental change in the past is part of the challenge of our work,” he says. “And the electronic databases facilitate that work.”

As for the databases themselves, many contain an astounding density of information. The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), for example, manages a digital library that includes 54,000 online articles from 30 different journals and 900 ACM proceedings. Licensees get access to all aspects of computer research within this portal.

Another gold mine of information can be found in “America’s Historical Newspapers,” a five-part series of databases that includes millions of pages of digitized newspaper archives dating back to 1690. Included are some papers of great significance, such as Frederick Douglass’ famous anti-slavery newsletter “The North Star,” and the “Siwinowe Kesibwi (Shawnee Star),” the first newspaper to be printed wholly in a Native American language.

Or in “Historical Statistics of the United States,” users can search through data culled from more than 1,000 sources to determine anything from the leading American industry in 1903 to the ethnic makeup of America in 1959.

These are only a few of many on the “wish list” of priority journals and databases, says associate library director Edward Van Gemert. Although many of the science-based databases tend to be the most costly, “all of our students and scholars from the humanities and social sciences will see a huge benefit from this” because the online resources have become ubiquitous across nearly all fields. For a field like chemistry, which has been hit hardest by price increases, journal access is as essential as laboratory space.

Another selling point of the systemwide license approach is the elimination of any place-bound restrictions on information access. Faculty, staff and students will be able to access the resources from campus, from home or when traveling abroad.

Van Gemert says the proposal also fits well with the library’s mission to provide direct and timely access to research materials. “We are far and away the leaders in using access rather than ownership, through the interlibrary loans system, to get research material for faculty and students,” he says. “But it’s still very expensive to keep up.”