Indexes, old and new

One of the central resources an academic library has to offer is access to scholarly literature. In times past this access came in the form of subscriptions to paper versions of academic journals, trade journals and popular magazines.

Trying to find specific articles presented problems, as in “Ok, I see the library has 25,000 bound volumes of nursing literature. I’m very happy for the library, but what I need are articles from 1999-2002 on care of the patient with congestive heart failure. What do I do?”

Enter the print index. These are weighty books of a very interesting sort. They are books that require instructions for use. They might be arranged chronologically or by subject; there might be a series of appendices in the back listing complex subject terms rendered in very terse abbreviation. There might even be such exotica as a KWIC index, brainchild of the analog computing genius Hans Peter Luhn.

These have become much less common, and for the most part we are better off for it. They were difficult to use, expensive to obtain and were available only at research libraries, and only then when the building was unlocked and the lights on and possibly a more or less heavy-browed index tender available.

The way most libraries of our size get most of their access to scholarly literature now is by subscribing to what we’ll call article databases. These are specialized databases that include material that is for the most part not accessible on the free web.

In many ways the earlier problem persists but is turned inside out. Now it is phrased like this: “Great, you have a database that includes full text from 5000 journals. I only want to browse the May 2006 issue of the American Journal of Nursing. What do I do now?”

Note that having all the material in print makes that trivial – just follow the dates on the spines. The article databases make it easy to do precise subject searches that were quite difficult using the print resources, but for exactly the same reasons they make it harder to browse specific titles.

THAT is the problem that we are hoping a new service called AMS will help solve.

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Filed under databases, digital_collections, e-resources, infolit

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