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Stevens Institute of Technology: Electronic Access, Not Subscriptions

Stevens Institute of Technology Electronic Access, Not Subscriptions


Stevens Institute of Technology is an urban university located in a park-like setting in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. Stevens offers baccalaureates, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering, science, computer science, and management, as well as a baccalaureate degree in the humanities and liberal arts. It enrolls some 1,400 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students, who are taught by 102 full-time faculty. The institutional budget is $65 million, of which about $823,000 goes for library operation. There are five librarians and four support staff. Together with graduate student assistants, they provide services to Stevens students and faculty.

Stevens has a reputation for innovation and leadership in the use of computers in engineering. It was one of the first campuses in the country to be fully networked, to require that all entering students have personal computers (1983), and to offer online searching to all faculty and students as a fee-based service.

In 1991, at the direction of the Board, the university administration imposed an austerity program that included a reduction of $250,000 from the library’s budget. That amount was about what the library was paying for its journal subscriptions. Library Director Richard Widdicombe and his staff, encouraged by the president and supported by the faculty, decided that only a radical new means of delivering information would allow the library to continue supporting teaching and research. The library would drop all research-oriented periodicals and supply the information by acquiring more electronic media and buying documents. (The library still subscribes to some 150 general-interest magazines.) With a network-connected computer on the desk of every faculty member and student, it was time to experiment with a new way of delivering journal articles to the Stevens community.

The decision to rely completely on electronic access is still controversial, as it certainly was in pre-World Wide Web days. But it was preceded by more than 15 years of research and experimentation, inspired by curiosity about what research tools were being used and budget limitations on subscriptions. The periodicals list had long been held up to rigorous scrutiny, and the college had been winnowing its subscriptions for some time. Beginning with some 1,500 titles, the list was down to just over 500 by the time the decision was made to drop paper-based research periodicals.

In its efforts to cull periodicals, the library had employed several strategies to identify the most effective core for supporting chemistry, physics, mathematics, and the engineering curriculum. It used the database and hardware of the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) to compare ISI’s Science Citation Index with the holdings at Stevens and with the titles cited in Stevens journals. Titles were ranked by frequency of “hits.” Journals not cited and little used at Stevens were eliminated.

Subsequent efforts included asking faculty for candidates for weeding and affixing cards to periodicals urging browsers to mark each use. Combined circulating and browsing statistics were compared with those of other libraries that supported engineering programs, to learn which journals had the highest use by students and faculty. The experiment revealed that use of periodicals is quite specific to an institution and that most journals in an engineering college become dated only a year or two after publication. The library staff also surveyed publications authored by Stevens faculty for source citations. They found that a wide variety of sources were cited, but no identifiable core of journals.

During the process of trying to assemble the best collection of periodical titles for their purpose, new notions of library service began to surface. As Library Director Widdicombe has written, “This led us to two conclusions. It is more important for college libraries to devote themselves to the user needs of their own faculty, staff and students than to theoretical concepts of building a great, well-rounded journal collection. Also, a ‘just in time’ acquisition philosophy was imperative. So we instituted a rapid purchase plan for new books, monographs and journals.”


The idea of switching to machine-accessible information was more than acceptable to both the library staff and the library’s primary clientele. The library staff had been noticing that even when library users were told the online versions lacked the accuracy or depth of printed indexes, they abandoned the printed versions anyway. But the groundbreaking decision to drop several hundred subscriptions to technical journals at a technological university required a safety net. That net was provided by an existing resource base, the libraries of Manhattan, and by an additional resource, the not-for-profit Engineering Information (EI) Company from New York City, which relocated to the Stevens campus. (EI was subsequently acquired by Elsevier Science, Inc.)

Engineering Information, in particular, was a bridge between promise and reality. After the budget cuts, Stevens was unable to provide effective just-in-time or on-demand delivery of journal articles, either through interlibrary loan or commercial document delivery services. With its broad access to articles from engineering journals, EI agreed to provide its services free of charge to Stevens. Its presence on campus and willingness to experiment with document delivery produced a powerful synergy that provided the backup the library needed to begin its technological revolution.

Even in the current Web-based environment, abandoning journals central to the curriculum and research activities of a college or university is controversial. And in 1992 the resources now accessible online were not yet available. Starting with a combination of article identification and delivery services such as UMI, CARL, FirstSearch, and various CD-ROMs, and the presence of EI, Stevens launched its experiment.

The decision to switch to the new system was made by the library director, who by 1992 was a 25-year veteran at Stevens. His decision was based on the following:

  • Data that he collected over 15 years convinced him that his clientele had very specific needs and would not care where the information came from.
  • Stevens Institute, with its emphasis on technical training and practical research, did not need the broad categories of information traditionally associated with liberal education.
  • It was clear that the budget would never allow the purchase of sufficient resources-books or journals-to meet the needs of Stevens faculty and students.
  • With the advent of searchable electronic databases, those libraries able to identify specialized information needs of their clientele could be at the forefront of a paradigm shift in which quick access to information would be more important than owning it.

Considerable planning was done before the periodical subscriptions were dropped. The deputy director, the faculty library committee, and the president participated in the process. Both supporters and critics on the faculty were visited by the librarians, who explained and then demonstrated how to use online searching. In one case, members of a highly critical department were convinced by the power of online searching when a librarian produced an ample bibliography on a subject that they believe to be of interest to relatively few scholars in the world.

Concurrently, the library discontinued its attempts to build the book collection in a general way. Instead, based on the kind of usage studies conducted earlier on journals, the acquisitions strategy shifted to buying specific books as they were needed. Users were urged to recommend books, which were then purchased. Similarly, with a librarian’s permission, students and faculty could go to Manhattan to purchase books they needed. When the books were turned in to the library, the buyers were reimbursed.


Under the new system, research processes have been expedited. Students and faculty can look quickly at full-text articles. Students can create electronic bibliographies, check the full text, and then rework their research path, moving forward in the same or new directions.

This experiment is more than seven years old, and much has changed since 1991. Faster and more comprehensive databases have appeared. Other academic libraries relying on digital-based information are ending subscriptions to paper editions of reference books and journals. Few, however, have been so bold as Stevens.

The people at Stevens know their actions were controversial and are proud of that fact. They were aware of outside doubts, but believed their situation called for a transformation of library services because the old ways were not working. They believe they are future-oriented and are willing to take risks to be at the forefront of what they believe will be a major paradigm shift. They predict that research information will no longer appear in published articles, but will be juried and rated by scholarly centers and then distributed electronically. Stevens staff members believe they have left the print-based industrial age and moved squarely into a world where information will be decentralized and transferred by high-speed telecommunications and computers.

Impact on the Library

The library has had to make trade-offs in order to provide electronic resources. Fewer people come to the library. Librarians miss the contact with students and faculty, but they are aware of similar trends elsewhere as libraries offer more electronic resources. The number of books in the library is not growing much and back issues of journals are gone; consequently, space is less of a problem and the library staff plans to establish clusters of workstations in the freed-up spaces. Dropping research journals suggests large cost savings, but some of the savings in subscription costs were lost to subsequent budget reductions. On the other hand, dealing with the cutbacks made cost transfers easier to accomplish. As one would expect, budget lines for journals and monographs fell off sharply, but since 1991, costs associated with electronic resources have risen, as have expenditures for personnel.

Most important, the library staff believe that their model of information delivery is better than the traditional model, in terms of the range of information services they can provide. They are quick to point out that their model would not work for everyone. But if data on the information needs of a library’s clientele are collected, if the technical infrastructure is present, and if the users are open to change, then bold leadership can transform the way information is provided, as Stevens has shown.

Adopting this model, the librarians say, has changed the way the staff is organized and carries out its responsibilities. Because there are fewer visitors to the library seeking traditional reference services, the two informational services librarians spend less time in the library and more time in faculty offices and classrooms, demonstrating new databases, teaching their use, and soliciting suggestions for additional resources. Users also do more work from home, since everyone has a computer and most reference services can be delivered online.

The librarians at Stevens are keenly aware that their early, just-in-time model stretches or even breaks some of the time-honored tenets of academic libraries. For example, the Stevens model is based on the following premises:

  • It is more important to provide students what they want on demand than to emphasize the development of bibliographic skills for searching older literature.
  • It is more important to concentrate on expedited service than to develop a broad range of materials to support the curriculum.
  • It is in the library’s interest to reduce its collection for the sake of expanded access.
  • Archival or preservation responsibilities are not an important part of the library’s work.

The Stevens librarians justify their approach as follows:

  • Their model provides access to many more articles than the old model because money is spent on what people want, not for journals that sit idly on the shelf.
  • Since it is impossible for the library to support research and teaching using traditional collection development, it will put its resources where they are most effective.
  • The few demands for non-current historical information can be acquired through interlibrary loan.
  • Although Stevens cannot help large research libraries archive or preserve historical data, the library will encourage them to do so by paying fees for an archival product.

The Industry Connection

The EI connection has brought an immense benefit to Stevens and provided a safety net for its decision to drop the journals. Equally important, EI brought a corporate culture to an academic institution. It provided high-level technical jobs for students, along with its willingness to experiment with new computers and document delivery. Hence the library became the beta site for new programs. The pool of motivated students, matched with computer resources, was able to provide the library with all the technical support it needed.

Eric Johnson, Executive Vice President of EI says that the organization also benefited from the move to Stevens. In exchange for EI’s services (for example, EI pays the copyright fees for documents delivered to the Stevens community in printed and electronic form), Stevens provides space for EI’s operation.

User Satisfaction

Everyone interviewed-members of the Library Committee, elected and appointed faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and the director and deputy director of the library-clearly supported the Stevens Library project. They spoke of making the best of fiscal realities and of quick retrieval of up-to-date information for themselves and their students. They said that, by and large, everyone is motivated; although they will not know for some time whether it will work in the long run, they believe there is no choice but to make it work. “History will judge us,” said one professor, and the others agreed. Stevens faculty send out a lot of grant requests, and the reduced library collection has not hurt grant writing. The proposals simply list the databases available for the research.

The committee members consider Stevens to have astute, forward-looking librarians who are open to suggestions, particularly when it comes to database selection. They miss Friday afternoon browsing through journals in the library, but understand it had to be one way or the other. When asked if all faculty feel as positive as the committee, one member said, no, that there are a few who complain, but that they are the ones who did not use the resources anyway.

The committee members reiterated that Stevens is unlike most colleges and universities. Many of its students are first-generation Americans who pursue an education to get ahead financially. They have exceptionally high math and analytical skills and are willing to work hard because the curriculum requires it. They know Stevens graduates have an advantage in the job market because they are well prepared. They use technology; indeed, they demand it. Thus, Stevens students are naturally supportive of a just-in-time strategy. The faculty has not only led the students, but sometimes followed them.

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