Measuring E-Resource Use: Standards and Practice for Counting Remote Users

August 23, 2010

Over the years, librarians and researchers have studied the usage of books, journals, meeting rooms, photocopiers, programs, and just about any other resource or service libraries have chosen to provide. The reasons for doing so are simple: Librarians wish to provide their communities with resources and services of the highest utility, effectively foreseeing which materials and services will be popular and which will (literally or figuratively) collect dust. As remote access to library-provided electronic resources continues to become more common, librarians must grapple with determining how patrons make use of the library without entering it physically.

With the explosion of digital resources over the past two decades, standards, tools, and other products have emerged to normalize statistics and improve protocols for transfer and management of such data. Some of these initiatives and products emerged as librarians and content providers worked together to paint a more accurate picture of use and usage. In 2002, in response to the messy situation usage statistics had created, there arose an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating “consistent, credible, and comparable” usage data: Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources, or Project COUNTER, which focused on journals and databases and included definitions for variables such as full-text articles, turnaways, searches, and sessions.

Just as COUNTER moved beyond the database and journal levels to books, it is now involved in initiatives such as PIRUS 2 (Publisher and Institutional Repository Usage Statistics) , which seeks to facilitate the sharing and collection of usage statistics at a more granular level. PIRUS 2 builds on the standards already established by COUNTER and on the results of the original PIRUS project, which demonstrated that it is technically feasible to create, record, and consolidate usage statistics for individual articles using data from repositories and publishers, despite the diversity of organizational and technical environments in which they operate. PIRUS 2 has as its objectives to “develop a set of standards, protocols, and processes to enable publishers, repositories, and other organizations to generate and share authoritative, trustworthy usage statistics for the individual articles and other items that they host.”

The digitization of scholarship has fundamentally changed the way scholars interact with the research they produce and read—the designation of a “journal” or a “book” may eventually be less meaningful than the article or the chapter. Thus, it behooves the library and publisher community to develop consistent ways to capture and share usage statistics at more and more granular levels. The Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative (SUSHI) was created in response to the amount of time and effort librarians were expending in collecting usage statistics from literally hundreds of vendors. SUSHI’s objectives are to solve the problem of harvesting and managing usage data from a growing number of providers, promote consistency in usage formatting (XML), and automate the process.

As of 2010, the initiative has proved at least partially successful, and it is now an ANSI/NISO standard, Z39.93.8. In another example of collaboration among various members from across the information and publishing community, libraries, subscription agents, content providers, and integrated library system vendors came together to create a simple yet extensible standard that has the potential to drastically reduce the amount of manual effort required to collect usage statistics from various sources.

RACHEL A. FLEMING-MAY is an assistant professor at the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. JILL E. GROGG is e-resources librarian at the University of Alabama Libraries in Tuscaloosa. This article was adapted from the August/September 2010 issue of Library Technology Reports.