|National Agricultural Library Assessment Report|
5.1. NAL: A National Library by Law
The , officially made a national library by Congress in 1990 in PL 101-624, in the "Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990" (), is to serve as a National Library of the United States and as the Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (7 USCS 3125a 2001). Thus, the Library has a legal mandate of mission, management policies, administrative accountability, budgetary requirement, and user satisfaction, all of which contribute to what one may judge as a successful operation or not.
The Panel, therefore, spent considerable time in debating the current role and future direction of the NAL, not the law which is clear on this matter, but whether evidence over the years since the 1982 review would indicate that the Library is succeeding in its first mandate to be a national library and whether it is also successful as a Library of the USDA alone. The Panel is convinced that the NAL has been and is insufficiently supported to achieve its legal mandate. User response indicates a more satisfactory response to the NAL from USDA personnel. There are, though, clearly defined and growing weaknesses identified through user surveys, NAL status reports and Panel site review of facilities. Whether or not the Library "provides leadership in information management" for the rest of the country is, charitably assessed, in serious doubt. Reasons go partly to funding that is inadequate for its diverse mandated responsibilities, and to the lack of advocacy groups and actions internal and external to the USDA. Either management has been ineffective in communicating the Librarys needs to administrative and funding agencies, or, if well communicated, have not been recognized with realistic appropriations. The records show that NAL management proposed and justified annual budgets over 50 percent larger than actually received. The Panel regretfully concludes that budgets actually received were insufficient to achieve the legal mandate.
5.2. Disparity in National Libraries
The Panel discussed the parallel situation, in time and mandate, existing between the NLM and the NAL: Both started as special services to a particular agency in government, but were later declared federally funded national libraries: the NLM in 1956, and NAL in 1962 and again in 1990. Both, with histories into the nineteenth century, are required to specialize as life sciences libraries with major commitments to human medicine and agriculture, respectively, both are committed to serving national interests and clientele; both are programmed to be leaders in information technology for their specializations; and both had similar budgets in 1975-1978.
In 2001 the NLM is an unquestioned world leader in medical information, the hub of a structured regional library network, and a producer of internationally recognized databases (Medline, PubMed, Entrez, for example), which are fundamental to science, even with extant competitors from the private sector (such as Excerpta Medica and specialized genomic databases).
The same cannot be said for the NAL leadership. While the NAL has worked to build the database as a resource for agriculture, it has not been able to capitalize on its potential, or to utilize technological advances to develop the enhanced capabilities desired by its users. Rather, the NAL has chosen to initiate a number of pilot projects, virtually all of them with inadequate support, and, consequently, with limited achievement of the anticipated effect. The NAL collection and staff are in a decline in numbers, yet the Library is, unrealistically, expected to have the same or better reliability as a national resource.
What went wrong? Given the generally lukewarm reception to Library needs by agency budgeteers and legislative appropriators, why was the NLM, but not the NAL, able to successfully pursue its mandated mission?
Perhaps of greatest influence and impact, the NLM utilizes a very effective Board of Regents. That Board has helped to develop NLMs service horizon, providing rigorous long-range planning advice to the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Past reviewing panels of the NAL all recommended a similar Board of Regents for the NAL to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on Library matters in a capacity analogous to the NLM Board of Regents. These recommendations were not enacted for the NAL, either in Congress (1990) or in Agency review (1995). This Panel once again addresses the need for a Board of Regents later in this report. As the complexity of the digital information age grows exponentially, it takes a very short time to drop from a world leadership position to one of becoming obsolete.
The library operations budget for the NLM ($240M) () is now about twelve times the size of NALs current library operations budget ($20M) (). During the past decade, NLMs budget has increased significantly each year; NALs has remained flat (, , , ). This budget disparity easily accounts for the dramatic disparity in products and services these libraries are able to provide.
Through natural evolution of needs and purpose, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) now also supports the NIH Library in Bethesda, in support of the NIH hospital personnel, while the NLM provides services to the entire national biomedical community. The NAL, by comparison, remains charged to do both: departmental and national service, serving other libraries and individuals nationally as well as serving more than 90,000 USDA employees as a departmental library unit. Both the NLM and the NAL cooperate with other library systems outside the U.S. to provide training for information scientists and to assist in locating information about U.S. agriculture or medical practices, although the NAL has had to reduce this involvement for budgetary reasons. Library services budgets for NLM Div. LO/NIH Library and the NAL are compared in .
5.3. Comparison to ARL Library Budgets
It is nothing less than startling to compare NALs operations budget to that of a typical Association of Research Libraries (ARL) library in the U.S. Comparable figures for 1998 give the average ARL library operations budget at $15,440,758; the NALs budget was $19,208,000. This is especially striking since ARL libraries typically serve a localized academic community, while NAL is expected to serve the entire country and, as well, produce an easily accessible database reflecting all of the major U.S. interests in agriculture.
To say the least, the level of support does not match the requirements of the Librarys national mandate. For FY 1992-2000 the net number of pad subscriptions at NAL decreased from 7,108 to 5,123. Based on this history, NAL projects a decrease of 300 subscription titles per year if there are no increases in materials budget. The decline affects the value of the collection and the reliability of the indexing of U.S. agriculture that NAL attempts to be doing for AGRICOLA.
5.4. Summary of NAL Customer Survey Results
Questions in the survey were open-ended, giving respondents the opportunity to describe information-gathering activities in their own words. Answers were reviewed to identify similar elements that could be categorized and quantified for analysis.
Overall, the general survey, largely of USDA employees and nationally distributed scientists, reveals a strong need for new information and a widespread use of electronic services for finding information. In response to the question of where information is most often obtained, 28 percent identified the World Wide Web, 25 percent noted either NAL or AGRICOLA, and another 23 percent specified university, agency, or other libraries.
Some users may have gone to the web or other libraries to search AGRICOLA or to use other NAL online services, while others indicated that they had to go elsewhere because of the gaps now evident in AGRICOLA and the failure of NAL to serve their needs. In any case, the most used NAL service was identified by 26 percent as AGRICOLA, closely followed at 24 percent by document delivery; whereas, the most critical service was considered to be document delivery at 25 percent, and AGRICOLA at 14 percent. However, if all electronic-related access points were combined with the AGRICOLA percentage (such as NAL web sites, AgNIC, and CALS) the overall number for electronic access would be greater than any other service, including document delivery. That is, while AGRICOLA is the most used and visible electronic service, on a regular basis customers do use other NAL services, from document delivery to the various NAL web sites. This suggests a need to continue to develop and maintain a variety of delivery systems and customer services if NAL is to meet the full range of its users information needs.
Others mentioned faster services in general, followed by those who wanted to see broader and deeper development of collections and interlinking of articles.
Similar response results were given to the question about what new or improved NAL service would be desirable. Greater electronic access to information and resources, particularly online journals and improved databases, was listed by 65 percent of the respondents, with another 16 percent requesting broad collection development activities. Responses to the question about what other library or library system is useful to them provides insights into potential models for future developments. The National Library of Medicine, and particularly PubMed and Medline, was most often mentioned by respondents as the system to emulate. The following quotes illustrate user interests (see also , User Survey Sample Comments):
Visions of the future: "A fully integrated linkage to every major university library system worldwide so that resources can be downloaded or sent electronically to where they are needed".... "a perfect information gathering world would be... to find relevant citations on any topic by searching in one mega-database"... "upgrade AGRICOLA... [with]...abstracts for more entries, sources of documents clearly indicated, and back it up with a service that leads the users more reliably to the "indexed information"... "impeccable indexing and online links to government publications what more could we ask?" and "finally a prophetic statement for the AgNIC system."
"If NAL wants to provide national agricultural information services by 2010, certainly they need to go to the people to find out what information they are seeking. Then NAL must create or compile content, not just indexing... I find our users, faculty and students...[and] the general public, increasingly less willing to wade through pieces of the puzzle. They want packages: mosquito eradication in wetlands or farm ponds... can NAL become a provider of information packages related to agriculture instead of just indexing? Can it become a gateway to information being churned out by its own as well as other agencies?"
5.5. Summary of NAL Staff Survey
The 53 NAL staff members who responded to the survey were employed in public service, information systems development, or library administration. Not surprisingly, a majority of the respondents considered a knowledgeable and dedicated staff as a major strength of NAL. This was followed by a nearly even split between collections and electronic access points, such as AGRICOLA. Weaknesses were largely grouped around management issues, budget problems, and outdated databases. Critical services were identified as reference services, access to electronic services (web AGRICOLA, AgNIC, and NALs web site), and document delivery. Suggestions for improvements included a variety of electronic services beginning with both content and web accessibility enhancements of AGRICOLA, and followed by various types of web site development.
5.6. Summary of Library Directors Survey Response
All of the library directors were familiar with or had used the AGRICOLA database. In addition, the NAL web site was widely known, as was the document delivery service, NALs historical collections, AgNIC, and the online reference service. Similarly, the most important NAL service was identified as either AGRICOLA specifically or other databases that provide access to all-important agricultural information. This was followed by those who identified preservation activities and access to hard-to-get materials, and those who listed document delivery as the most important service.
The majority of library directors who responded to the question asking for suggestions for new and improved services, focused on greater digital access to information, full- text, document delivery, and AGRICOLA links. Also, similar to many of the customers surveyed, there was an interest in expanding the subjects covered by the NAL since newly created areas of knowledge are becoming of increasing importance to participants in agriculture. This line of thinking was consistent in the responses to the question on how information services were envisioned for the year 2010. Many offered ideas for providing digital access to all types of information, particularly full- text materials. Included were suggestions to greatly expand and upgrade AGRICOLA and AgNIC. Other suggestions were to build the NALs coverage in related fields such as the environment, to improve visibility, and to expand reference services. One revealing quote outlined "a perfect information gathering world from the clients perspective: 1) to find relevant citations on any topic by searching in one mega database; 2) the citation/abstract links directly to the article or book cited; and 3) if the book or article has interesting references or footnotes, they link directly to the items cited."
5.7. Summary of USAIN AGRICOLA Survey
The U.S. Agricultural Information Network (USAIN) AGRICOLA Interest Group conducted a survey of AGRICOLA users in February 1999. Most survey respondents rated AGRICOLA generally a very good to excellent to database.
Areas identified for emphasis in the survey and through AGRICOLA Interest Group discussions were to: (1) include abstracts in as many records as possible; (2) include indexing for as many book chapters as possible; (3) index all USDA publications including regional publications which are sometimes missed; (4) facilitate the inclusion of state experiment station and extension publications; (5) give special consideration to the importance of timeliness in indexing all materials; and, (6) improve the interface and searching capabilities of the free internet version of AGRICOLA.
5.8. Analysis of NAL Strengths and Weaknesses as Identified by Survey
Respondents and Panel Members
The responses to the customer service survey questions regarding NAL strengths and weaknesses were similar to the impressions gained by Panel members throughout this review process (See also ).
Major areas of strength include extensive and unique collections, the AGRICOLA database, and dedicated staff members. Specifically, NAL has the largest collection of agricultural information in the world, numbering more than 4 million items and including 20,000 journal titles. The AGRICOLA database now includes more than 4 million records and is available free-of-charge via the World Wide Web.
The NAL staff members actively participate in national preservation activities for both print and digital resources, and have taken the leadership in developing specialized information services such as the various web-based information centers, and the collaborative AgNIC initiative. In 2000 a technology plan was developed to enhance information technology and information management directions (). Staff members are currently developing a plan for using state-of-the-art technologies to provide users with what they want when they want it.
However, there also were similarities in responses identifying perceived weaknesses. AGRICOLA was at the top of both lists due to problems with timeliness, difficulties with the web interface, lack of abstracts, and a need for broader content coverage. According to both Panel members and users, the NAL has not kept up with new information technologies or with new directions in scientific research, in terms of both collection development and electronic access to such information. Further, due to budget stringencies, AGRICOLA has developed serious gaps in its internal continuity, frustrating frequent users of this database. A lack of awareness of NAL services and a need for greater publicity in general were mentioned by current NAL customers, while Panel members also saw a need for greater overall visibility and for more effective collaborations within the research library community.
Whereas both the NAL users and Panel members agree that the NAL offers valuable services, Panel members identified more organizational weaknesses (lack of funds, advocacy groups, and collaborative arrangements), while users understandably focused on weaknesses in products and services (limitations of web accessibility and content, decreasing journal subscriptions, and collection gaps in rapidly growing fields, such as biotechnology).
Panel members also noted the cancellations of hundreds of journal titles, and the staff cutbacks, in spite of increasing demands for greatly expanded services, particularly in the area of electronic access. The lack of funding for new initiatives, and the general lack of external advocacy, vibrant partnerships, or a visionary plan to guide the organization into the frontier of knowledge management, appear to have frustrated staff. Although the NAL has accomplished much since 1982, user needs have increased exponentially and concurrently with revolutionary improvements in technology; there is a growing gap between what is possible and user groups expectancy and the state of NAL programs and services.
5.9. Private Sector Users
A quick survey of NAL use by 107 agribusiness mid-managers (45 percent response) gave a snapshot of NAL utility in the private sector. From among nine possible answers, no one chose "I use the NAL regularly, at least once a week," one in ten never heard of the NAL, 19 percent never use the NAL, 29 percent use the NAL less than once a month, and 27 percent do not use the NAL, but know that people who work with them use the NAL occasionally.
Last Updated August 13, 2002