Saturday, 2 February 2013

Walk-In Access Wales Event

The Carmarthen Campus of University of Wales Trinity Saint David played host to an excellent event reviewing progress and experience gained in providing walk-in access to members of the public to subscription electronic resources within university libraries. A wide range of librarians, mostly from higher and further education and public library authorities, attended the event providing lively and informed debate.

I tweeted during the event using the hashtag #wiaw and a record of these and associated tweets is available in this TweetDoc

It seems that many university library services have had Walk-In Access (WIA) on their agendas since the publication of the SCONUL / UCISA  HAERVI (HE Access to e-Resources in Visited Institutions) report in 2008. However, only in more recent times have factors coincided to enable some university library services in Wales to establish pilot WIA schemes. Recent focus on open access to the published outputs of public funded research  and the Finch Report have perhaps helped to swell the impetus for open access more widely, and in this context WIA too. 

Coincidentally, I think that most would agree that WIA isn't an ideal solution, and it most certainly isn't a desired end-point for open access. Enabling non-HE Library members on-site access within a University Library to e-resources still doesn't make it really easy for members of the public to access and use these  electronic subscriptions. But this is one stage further forward, and the learning  gained will be invaluable in devising and adopting easier, more ambitious solutions for the future. There will also be additional bonuses of  helping universities with goals of greater community and alumni engagement, improving usage and return from costly subscriptions, marketing and promoting the institution, and building on links with other library and information providers within their region.

Three sessions from colleagues at the University of Wales, Cardiff University and Cardiff Metropolitan University did much to discount some common myths relating to WIA and to highlight some different technical solutions used in providing access. 

Some myths: 

  • Subscription licenses won't allow us to offer WIA. True in some cases, but also several large subscription deals such as NESLI and EduServ do allow access. Even some big publisher packages such as EBSCO allow WIA as a standard condition in their licenses. The list appears to be expanding. Check with other WIA schemes to see what they are providing and then double-check your equivalent subscription's license agreement.  (For instance: SWRLS - Libraries in the South West of England; or Scotland SCURL Walk-In Access Project). 
  • Purpose of usage may be a problem as WIA is generally restricted to educational /  non-commercial use only. All walk-in users are asked to agree and sign a terms of use document. With appropriate documentation, support, training and guidance then this process should minimise the risk of infringing WIA use to the host institution.
  • HE Libraries will be inundated with WIA requests, and that these users may  pose challenges to staffing / service standards. However, the reality is that WIA users are likely to be very low volume: tens per year, rather than hundreds or thousands. (In many cases university library services haven't yet actively marketed WIA arrangements, preferring to take a  "soft launch" approach for these pilot projects). Furthermore, the majority of the most likely WIA users will be ex-higher education students, and so will already have lots of search experience and knowledge, and so may not require extensive support. Institutions may also be able to control access times and manage user expectations by asking potential users to contact the organisation in advance. 
Some technical stuff:
  • Most pilots WIA schemes have focused on providing access to IP authenticated resources. The   control of appropriate access via IP authentication guarantees to database providers that the resource has been used "on-site" and so is a straightforward access criterion to us. Other authentication systems, such as ATHENS or Shibboleth, haven't been successful for WIA so far.
  • In many cases WIA users are provided with guest accounts to access to OPAC machines or other specified quick-use machines. These tend to be sited in libraries, close to service / help points. 
  • All have developed local and different routines for allocating guest access, verification / ID checking etc. It would be good to standardise these in the future for the benefit of users. Similarly, some allow access with printing, whilst others allow downloading to USB memory sticks, and again consistency may be beneficial in aiding users' expectations and usage experience.
  • Buy-In and support from Institutional IT Services has been essential. 
These are only very quick notes, and I hope that the presentations will be available via the project's blog shortly. There were also two parallel sessions in the afternoon which I haven't commented on here. Again the blog may provide notes from these. One output from the project will be a WIAW Toolkit which will help other institutions to roll-out WIA in their organisations. 

Some concluding thoughts:

  • WIA should only be considered as a way-marker, and not an end in itself. We should also think about where we would like to be going in the future. A Utopian dream?  A wide range of HE subscription e-resources collaboratively procured for HE, FE and public use across all of Wales? Compare this with E-Books Wales or Public Libraries E-Resources offers and perhaps this isn't so Utopian! We should capitalise on our small nation status to provide such innovative, resource sharing solutions.
  • Need to focus on user experience: reducing barriers and hurdles to usage wherever possible. This means standardising as far as possible. Standardisation would also enable economies of scale through pan-Wales marketing, evaluation, metrics etc.
  • We should continue to use WIA as a  opportunity to develop an improved understanding of our local partner services, their collections and resources, and their user groups. Perhaps we can easily identify key user groups where initiatives may provide big wins. For WIA might this include U3A groups, local alumni, local historians / local studies experts? Similarly WIA could form a useful topic of continuing bilateral discussion and action between the Welsh Higher Education Libraries Forum (WHELF) and the Society of Chief Librarians in Wales. 
This was an excellent event and I know that this blog is far from a complete summary of the key learning points from the day. But this may spark comment, further debate, or links to other reports and accounts from the day. 

My thanks go to Alison Harding and Bronwen Blatchford for organising the event, and to the speakers who provided fascinating accounts of their own experiences to date.

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