National Agricultural Library Assessment Report
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Appendix F
 
USDA BLUE RIBBON PANEL FOR ASSESSMENT OF THE NATIONAL AGRICULTURAL LIBRARY
 
Draft Report from the Committee for Items B and C
April 6, 2001
 
"The NAL should be refurbished so it once again becomes the world preeminent agricultural library. This entails subscribing to more journals, forging greater cooperation with the land-grant universities, having more service personnel to serve the nations science community, and making greater and greater amounts of holdings and assets (databases) more friendly to remote access. It appears to be under-funded..."
[Quote from survey respondent]

 
 
  1. Highlights of NAL Achievements in 1980s and 1990s (for possible use in section 2, Progress since 1982)
     
             The 1982 Panel, while concluding that NAL is a major national resource which must be preserved, made a number of recommendations for improvement. Appendix B provides a complete list of those recommendations and the response to them made by NAL administration and staff. In addition, Appendix C provides a comprehensive list of NAL milestones since 1982 organized into categories: (1) legislative and administrative, (2) collection building, (3) agricultural information access, (4) bibliographic services, (5) collection development, (6) information technology, and (7) Abraham Lincoln Building. The following highlights some of the more significant achievements taken from these two documents and from a partial list compiled by members of a Panel committee.
     
             Administratively, NAL revised its mission, values, and vision statements in 1994 as part of an ongoing strategic planning process. It has made concerted and valiant efforts to heighten its visibility through brochures, tours, exhibits, videotapes, and journal articles, and has made numerous attempts to establish an Advisory Council to assist with long-range planning and policy formulation. Reorganizations and staffing adjustments were made to streamline services and to better delineate USDA and national library functions. In addition, diverse funding options have been initiated through increases in user fees, leasing arrangements, and the use of contractors for certain activities.
     
             NAL has also worked to develop its collection and resources both in terms of fulfilling its promise as a national library for the entire agriculture community and as a specific resource for USDA’s programs and agencies. This has included the acquisition of significant special collections in a variety of formats, such as materials on agent orange and historical USDA documents and multimedia. In addition, NAL has coordinated with NLM and LC on collection development policies for related areas, leading to a 1996 joint collection development policy for veterinary science and related subjects. NAL also joined several national cataloging programs and became an authority for establishing and verifying the names of agricultural organizations.
     
             Another of the 1982 recommendations specified a more active role for NAL in international information activities. This led to close involvement with the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists (IAALD), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its AGRIS database, on matters of coordination and cooperation. NAL also sponsored and participated in a series of U.S./Central European Agricultural Library Roundtables, and recently signed an agreement with the Biblioteca Central Magna of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to enhance access to agricultural and related information.
     
             Previous recommendations also focused on the need for a national agricultural information network for resource sharing, timely processing of information, and equality of access. This resulted in NAL and representatives from land-grant university libraries forming the United States Agricultural Information Network (USAIN) in 1988. Through USAIN, NAL joined with other land-grant libraries in a National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. NAL also has cooperated with NASULGC to advance support of agriculture libraries. Drawing on these collaborative efforts was the 1995 establishment of another NAL and land-grant collaboration, the Agriculture Network Information Center (AgNIC). Although not yet fully realized, the AgNIC initiative is a discipline-specific, distributed network on the Internet envisioned ultimately as a gateway to centers of excellence in agricultural information. It currently offers 28 subject-specific sites on the World Wide Web.
     
             A significant technology achievement was the National Agricultural Text Digitizing Project (NATDP) which resulted in the production of a series of widely distributed CD-ROM products for agricultural research (aquaculture, acid rain, agent orange, food irradiation, and the Agronomy Journal). NAL also has been active in developing multimedia resources, and has made databases, directories, and other resources available over the Internet. In addition, NAL has developed specialized web-based Information Centers which provide in-depth resources and reference services on such subjects as: alternative farming systems, animal welfare, food and nutrition, food safety, rural information, technology transfer, water quality.
     
  2. Polyocular Perspectives
     
    1. Customer and Staff Survey Methods (for Section 4, Methods
       
    2.          Under the auspices of the U.S. Agricultural Information Network (USAIN) and in support of the Panel’s program review efforts, a customer service survey was conducted in December 2000 and the first part of January 2001. This survey was an attempt to touch the pulse of the NAL’s present and future customers to gain input on its current programs and services and to help in determining future directions. Five questionnaires were developed and distributed to USDA personnel through a variety of NAL customer listservs and to other related scientists affiliated with the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. In addition, agriculture and veterinary science librarians were sent questionnaires through their respective listservs, as were library directors at land-grant universities. Extension personnel were contacted by way of a Cooperative Extension Service (CES) Directors listserv and through a CES State Specialist listserv. Questionnaires also were distributed to NAL on-site users at both the Beltsville and D.C. locations. Finally, NAL staff members were surveyed. The total number of returned questionnaires was 739, with an additional 53 from NAL staff members. An analysis of the general survey responses and those of the NAL staff are included in Section 5 of this report.
       
    3. Summary of NAL Customer Survey Results (for use in Section 5, Findings)
       
               Questions in the survey were open-ended, giving respondents the opportunity to describe information gathering activities in their own words. As a result, answers had to be reviewed carefully to identify similar elements that could be categorized and quantified for analysis. Overall, the general survey, largely of USDA employees, reveals 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. What we do not know from these responses is whether users went to the web or other libraries to search AGRICOLA or to use other NAL online services. This suggests there is some probability that the actual number for AGRICOLA use could be much higher than first noted. In this regard, 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 much greater than any other service, including document delivery. What seems clear from the survey is that while AGRICOLA is by far the most used and visible electronic service, on a regular basis customers do use many 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.
       
               Looking into the future, the survey asked for a description of the types of information services they would like to have in 2010. In this the respondents were in the most agreement: nearly 75 percent responded with examples of electronic services such as online journals and journal articles, and specialized and linked databases with expanded search capabilities. Others mentioned faster services in general, followed by those who wanted to see broader and deeper development of collections. 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:
       
               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?"
       
    4. Summary of NAL Staff Survey
       
               The 53 NAL staff members who responded to the survey were employed in either public service, information systems development, or library administration. 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 NAL’s 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. The greatest barrier was seen as budget deficiencies, followed by staff shortages and a lack of strong leadership. Of particular importance here are staff responses in the area of service development as they correspond closely with those outlined by respondents to the survey, suggesting a shared vision for future services.
       
    5. Summary of Library Directors Survey Response
       
               Library directors also mirrored many of the responses made by general NAL users and NAL staff members. They saw the strengths of NAL as primarily its collections, including historical archiving, but also noted online services, including AGRICOLA and AgNIC. The main weakness was seen as the lack of adequate funding for its key functions, a similar lack of visibility, poor placement in USDA, and a location outside the power corridor. 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, NAL’s 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.
       
               Of the nine library directors who responded to the question asking for suggestions for new and improved services, the majority 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 NAL. 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 NAL’s 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 client’s 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."
       
    6. 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 an excellent to very good database. Based on the feedback received, the Interest Group suggested NAL provides an extremely important function by producing AGRICOLA and wanted to see an even greater commitment of staff and resources to it. 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.
       
    7. Overall Impressions from Survey Results
       
               The results of these surveys make a strong case for the continuation of NAL’s role not only as a library service for USDA personnel, but as the centerpiece of a dynamic national agricultural information system. This system would draw on innovative technologies to directly link users to quality content (abstracts, full-text, data, and information packages) in all areas related to the sustainable management of natural resources in the support of agricultural production. Included would be a complementary mix of services including a greatly enhanced AGRICOLA database, a series of comprehensive and topical web sites, 24/7 document delivery, and all interconnected through a powerful search interface providing users with the closest approximation possible to a "one-stop-shopping" reality. Responses from NAL staff members demonstrate they understand these customer needs and have the same interest in providing the high-quality services necessary to meet those needs. What is lacking are the human and financial resources, and the explicit support of USDA, to do so.
       
  3. Analysis of NAL Strengths and Weaknesses as Identified by Survey Respondents and Panel Members (for use in Section 5, Findings)
     
             The responses to the customer service survey questions regarding NAL strengths and weaknesses were similar to the impressions gained by Panel members through this review process (See also Appendix ???). 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 3.5 million items and including 20,000 journal titles. The AGRICOLA database now includes more than 3.6 million records and is available free-of-charge via the World Wide Web. 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. A technology plan was developed in 2000 to plot a strategy for enhancing information technology and information management directions, and a group of staff members are currently in the process of developing a visionary plan for using state-of-the-art technologies to provide users with exactly 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. Both Panel members and users suggested 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. 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 NAL users and Panel members agree that 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, appears to have affected staff morale. Although 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 the state of NAL programs and services.
     
  4. NAL’s Advantages Over Any Alternatives (possibly add this to discussion section describing leadership issues)
     
             NAL has a definite and defined set of natural constituents and collaborators/partners in this country's agricultural (especially land-grant) libraries and it is well known among these constituent groups for the range of resources and services it offers. Capitalizing on this advantage, NAL should play an aggressive leadership role for this group. One example: develop a realistic, holistic preservation strategy for the nation's agriculture literature, including state agricultural documents, extension documents, and the like -- in all original formats.

 
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Last Updated August 13, 2002