Friday, July 10, 2009

Databases, part 3: The bottom line

I'm learning to really like three-day weekends.

That's mostly because I had time to finish up Cormac McCarthy's The Road and think about it afterwards. It's the story of a man and his son in a postapocalyptic America; an unexplained disaster has wiped out pretty much every living thing on the continent, except for the people who were lucky enough to be sheltered. The weather has devolved into endless winter and the land to an ashy grey. The man and boy embark on a long journey south along a highway (the eponymous road) in search of warmer, friendlier climes, and encounter some truly disturbing things along the way. It's less science fiction and more fable, a look at human nature in a state of constant privation. This is the guy who wrote No Country for Old Men, and if you've seen the movie, this book probably won't surprise you much. If you're into mindless books with happy endings, I'd avoid this one; otherwise, it's utterly absorbing. I put it on the display table by the East entrance (facing JSAC) if anyone else wants to pick it up.

I seem to be making a habit of mentioning Library books that I've read over the past week. Truly, the Library's a great place to spend time if you're a book addict. Fortunately, I'm not greedy; I'll put any books I've read up on display if any of them catches anyone's interest.

Back to what I'm really supposed to be writing about: databases.

Among all the questions we've gotten about database access over the past few years, there's an ongoing undercurrent of curiosity about why we limit access to Gallaudet students, staff, and faculty. I've already explained most of it by boiling down all the various kinds of subscriptions available to two basic types, but so far I haven't explained why we have to pay for access to knowledge. It wants to be free, right? Not exactly ...

Time to boil the issue down some more: we usually have to pay for access chiefly because of copyright. It's like paying for a DVD: when you buy a movie, you aren't actually paying for the movie itself. You're paying for the right to watch it. The same concept applies to all of our subscriptions. The issue of copyright ensures that the people who did all the work get paid for their efforts, and also means that we have to negotiate licenses with all of the indexes and publishers we use to gain access. Those licenses outline what rights we have to look at their material and use it for academic purposes, as well as the cost of doing so.

And here we arrive at the bottom line: how much do databases cost, anyway? The answer is that it all depends on the pricing structure negotiated upon in the license that allows us access to a particular database. Here are a few different ways we can pay for access:
  • Pay per view: This is pretty elastic -- it can change from year to year based on how much use the database gets. Usually, we pay based on how many articles were downloaded in the database over the course of a year. It's also the kind of plan we use with ScienceDirect, which I explained last week. This can be pretty cost-effective, especially for databases that aren't used quite as much as the two biggies, ProQuest Research Library and Ebscohost Academic Search Premier.
  • Pay per user: This is generally based on how many full-time students are enrolled in a given year, among other statistics -- this way, we pay for everyone who could use the database. This also changes from year to year as the student population varies, but is less elastic than pay-per-view plans. Pay-per-user is a good kind of plan for the most heavily-used databases because it lets us pay for everyone's rights to the material without actually paying for the sheer amount of material itself, which can be intimidatingly mountainous.
  • Flat rate: More or less self-explanatory. The price can only vary in one of two ways: if we decide we want to change how much access we have to the database, or if the vendor decides to raise the price, which can happen when they add more material to the database. One usually sees this sort of pricing with more specialized databases; either it will not see enough traffic to charge per view, or it will appeal to such a small percentage of the student population that charging based on total full-time enrollment will be unrealistically expensive.
Generally speaking, though, regardless of whatever payment plan is set up, a good database will run into the thousands of dollars per year. The biggest and best, like ProQuest, can get up into the tens of thousands.

This is the point at which I usually have to scrape people's jaws off the pavement. Yes, databases are very expensive. No, it doesn't bother us. It's what we're here for. And yes, we do, in fact, freely provide them to Gallaudet students, staff and faculty -- it's all funded at least in part by student tuition. It's also one very important way in which Gallaudet continues to be as academically competitive as possible. Trying to do research without this kind of access would be like watching a single fifth-season episode of Lost and trying to understand the entire show based on that one hour and a few old TV Guides.

Besides, when the math is done, databases are terrific bargains on general principle, because they allow us to get you access to just over 36,000 electronic publications, and that number grows a little bit every year. I've used this word before, but that's an astronomical number! We always do our best to budget for annual subscriptions and even manage to find room in our funds to hunt for new ones to try.

So what new electronic subscriptions might we get over the next few months? Hold on to your seats -- that's next week. After that, we'll have another librarian profile, and then we'll start a back-to-school series that'll collect some older posts and add in a little more of "What You Need To Know ... " for students both new and returning.

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