The Coming of Age of Document Delivery

by Paula Eiblum

In 1991 I was asked to deliver a paper about document delivery to a small association of special librarians. I pulled from my files a paper I had given five years before to a meeting of the same association. At that time, I described the process of manually searching reference tools for holding libraries, sending runners to photocopy articles and finding alternative sources for gray or fugitive materials. I emphasized that prompt delivery, responsive customer service and reasonable fees were the most important factors in serving and keeping our clients.

By 1991, having worked in the field for 11 years, I saw very few changes in the ways documents were identified, located or obtained. Although we used expedited delivery services such as overnight mail and fax, we basically were still technologically challenged, compared to our information broker colleagues who pulled reams of data off remote databases and now had access to some full-text journal and newspaper articles online in ASCII format.

The biggest change that I saw in the five-year period between 1986 and 1991 was in the evolution of the role of the special librarian from a supply side to a demand side mentality. No longer was the library a repository of books and periodicals, but instead it was becoming a strategic hub of new technologies allowing for more efficient collection, storage and dissemination of information on which important R&D, marketing and management decisions would be made. The librarian of the 1990s had become a technician, a trainer and a consultant, while keeping up with a plethora of new databases, an increasing number of periodicals and sources of print information and new developments in hardware and software technologies.

At the same time, library budgets were decreasing, and librarians found themselves having to justify their existence. The gap between the demand for services and budget allowances resulted in a movement from a collections environment to an access-based one. In other words, librarians were forced to think in terms of ìjust-in-timeî rather than ìjust-in-caseî when making acquisition decisions. In many cases library personnel cuts resulted in service cuts just when the librarianís role should have been more proactive and more visible.

The concept of outsourcing or subcontracting some library services became not only more acceptable, but necessary. Independent information professionals rose to the task of providing a wider range of library support services than in earlier years. Information brokers augment in-house capabilities not only in times of peak demand, but also in cases when special skills are required. These include specialized database searching, automated systems development, market research, acquisitions and document delivery.

Since 1991 notable changes have occurred in every aspect of document delivery. Identifying, locating and procuring copies of articles is no longer a hit-or-miss exercise involving manual reference sources and runners stationed in libraries throughout the country. Using sophisticated tools such as OPACS (online public access catalogs) and the Internet, document delivery specialists can be more precise in locating sources. Documents can be located and ordered from clearinghouses such as UMI and British Library, both of which provide copyright-cleared delivery of thousands of titles.

Many database producers provide copies of documents cited on their online databases. Independent brokerage firms provide documents from in-house collections from various database producers that choose to house their collections with commercial suppliers. In addition to these traditional avenues of delivery, independent document delivery firms now have access to full-text in a growing variety of modes and delivery options. The number of databases providing ASCII full-text is expanding exponentially, and the advent of electronic imaging technologies has created an explosion of options and opportunities for searching and retrieving documents. Full-text with graphics and images can be retrieved immediately and delivered to the desktop or fax machine of the end-user, copyright-cleared, without the document delivery expert having to see or touch the original hard copy. Tables-of-contents services, stand-alone CD-ROM databases, news filtering services are but a few more of the available options.

On the leading edge of these new developments are CARL Uncover Companyís table of contents and document delivery service with over 16,000 titles covered, OCLC FirstSearch with more than 12,300 titles from their ArticleFirst and ContentsFirst databases, RLGís Ariel technology, which transforms a printed document to an electronic one for delivery via the Internet, UMIís ProQuest Power Pages and new Advanced Document Delivery Service ADDS, AT&T Right Pages, Dialogís SourceOne for full-text and images of patents as well as articles, and British Libraryís Inside Information Service.

The full-text of newspapers articles is available online not only through vendors such as Dialog and Nexis, but now also through consumer-oriented services like CompuServe, America Online, Dow Jones and Prodigy.

When ASCII full-text became available on Dialog, some document delivery companies feared that their businesses would suffer, but in fact the effect was minimal. Coverage was and still is selective, and more importantly, graphics and tabular data, when present in the original article, are missing. Full image electronic technology that allows for scanning of documents for immediate transmission by fax or storage for future transmission has revolutionized the industry and partially responds to collection reduction in libraries. This will no doubt increase as the titles covered becomes more comprehensive. Yet there are thousands upon thousands of titles, as well as conference proceedings, that are still only available through traditional means. The end result is that the variety of ìinformation containers,î the expansion of sources and resources and the complexity of ordering options can and will induce more librarians into subcontracting agreements with information brokers.

Document delivery companies can maintain market share by using all the high-tech tools available in order to rise to new levels of responsiveness. This includes acknowledging that in a customer-driven environment, flexibility is the quality that will distinguish one service provider from another. Keeping up with the literature and with new directions and technologies is a full-time job. Conscientious attention to individual time, budget and other customized requirements are what the librarian will view as value-added services. Working in partnership with librarians, information brokers can provide the product, allowing the librarian to focus attention on the client, thus creating together a new model of knowledge management.


Paula Eiblum has over 15 years experience identifying, locating and obtaining documents for corporate, academic and government libraries worldwide. She founded InFocus Research Services in 1988 and currently employs a staff of experienced information specialists in-house, as well as a network of runners in libraries throughout the country.