The Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL) is a set of electronic resources accessible to anyone with an Internet connection in the state of Tennessee. The goal is to serve multiple and diverse constituencies such as public, school, academic, and special libraries and their patrons. The resources offered include large multisubject databases from journal aggregators, test preparation tools, newspapers, language learning activities, genealogy sources, and reference ebooks.
TEL is overseen by Wendy Cornelisen, the Special Projects Coordinator for the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA), a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. The service was formed by collaboration between the Tennessee Library Association, Tenn-Share (a statewide resource sharing consortium), and TSLA. Librarians from these three organizations believed it was necessary to make a set of core electronic resources available to all Tennesseans regardless of location or library affiliation. They lobbied state legislative officials who unanimously passed a bill (http://tntel.tnsos.org/law.pdf) in both chambers providing support for the initiative. Governor Don Sundquist then signed the bill into law and in 1999 TEL was launched.
The bill outlines four parts of TEL:
- Free core resources for all libraries and some niche products paid for by participating libraries,
- Technical support and logistics,
- Server storage, and
Over the years, the number of databases offered by TEL has increased from 18 (through 2005) to 70 (in 2013) as a result of securing funding from both state and federal sources.
Cornelisen reports that TEL resources cost a total of $1.8 million each year, pricing which is mostly based on the state’s population size. About half the funding comes from the State of Tennessee and the remaining portion is secured through the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services, part of the Library Services Technology Act. The state started contributing financially to the initiative in 2006, which helped TEL add several more resources such as genealogy, test preparation, and newspaper databases. Given the current budgetary issues in Washington, it is unclear if and how much funding TEL will receive from the federal government in the future. If TEL were to lose some or all of its federal money, it would seek alternate sources to be able to maintain all its offerings. Cornelisen explained that “in a worst-case scenario, there would have to be hard decisions made about which resources to remove from TEL.” She said that state funding has been “very steady” to date. The amount of money allocated to the program does not provide increases for inflationary costs, a common occurrence with electronic resources. Fortunately, TEL has been able to control these increases through multiyear agreements and a competitive bidding process.
TEL databases are valuable because they provide an extensive set of online resources that libraries can build upon if they choose. Cornelisen said that public libraries save $135,000 each per year as a result of TEL and academic libraries save $125,000. These savings can be directed toward the purchase of more specialized resources to serve the unique needs of each library’s patron base. We must not take this program for granted since some states do not offer sets of electronic resources free of charge for everyone’s benefit. Instead, they might have statewide database programs that are only available to paying libraries and their patrons.
Although Cornelisen is the sole employee who manages TEL, her strategic efforts have led to a greater variety of available resources and continued increases in their usage. She oversees training, marketing, contract negotiations, and the day-to-day management of the resources, which includes corresponding with librarians, fixing technical issues, and reporting problems to vendors. Cornelisen relies on over 200 trainers from across the state who have attended her workshops and can then promote the program to their local communities. She reports that TEL had 37,894,273 searches in 2012, up from 32,862,258 searches in 2011, and attributes this increase to Ancestry.com providing access to Tennessee genealogy records from TSLA. Not a bad return on investment for a program staffed by just one person!
Being part of a military family, Cornelisen moved around a lot as a child, so she cannot call one particular place home. She has a Bachelor’s in Anthropology from Iowa State University. Before entering the world of libraries, she worked at a history museum in South Dakota. She then went on to earn a Master of Science in Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She worked as a paraprofessional at the Nashville Public Library’s circulation department during library school and then served as a reference librarian at the Brentwood Public Library. In late 2010, Cornelisen was hired as the TEL Coordinator. She explained that she stays current on the ever-changing electronic resources landscape by attending conferences and meetings such as ALA, Computers in Libraries, Tennessee Library Association, and LYRASIS, getting together with vendors, and reading the latest literature from journals in TEL.
Many states have similar initiatives to TEL. Some coordinate the joint purchase of electronic resources for participating libraries that have the money to pay for them, some subsidize a set of databases and ask that libraries wanting access contribute to some of the cost, and some provide different collections of resources according to library type. Cornelisen is most impressed by NC Live in North Carolina, particularly because they have seven employees who focus on training and marketing. She also likes how NC Live uses social media heavily to effectively promote its resources and services and has the capability of conducting studies to analyze usage and return on investment.
One of the challenges inherent in managing a statewide electronic resource program is balancing the different and sometimes competing needs of school, academic, and public libraries. Going too far in one direction could make the content irrelevant to a certain group of users. Therefore, TEL offers a set of resources ranging from Kids InfoBits to Business Insights: Essentials. According to Cornelisen, the most popular TEL resource is the Gale research package, which includes Academic OneFile, Student Resources in Context, and the Gale Virtual Reference Library. These databases make up 88% of the searches performed in TEL. It is likely that most of this use is coming from students doing research for assignments ranging from high school to graduate school. If she had more money, Cornelisen would add an auto repair database, educational videos, an automated retrieval system for usage statistics, and a discovery system to allow the searching of all TEL resources simultaneously.
TEL conducts a competitive bidding process when acquiring new resources or continuing existing offerings whose contracts have expired. This is one of the reasons why most TEL databases are currently provided by Gale. The larger the bundles with a handful of vendors, the less time it takes to procure them and the more possibility for monetary savings due to an economy of scale.
Cornelisen develops the request for proposal in partnership with the Bibliographic Services Coordinator at TSLA, three state employees, and some technical advisors from different library types chosen by Cornelisen. The criteria that vendors need to satisfy include providing specific content (depending on what kind of resource is being purchased), 24/7 availability to all Tennessee residents regardless of their location or institutional affiliation, technical support, customizable interfaces, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, discoverability via MARC records, functionality on mobile and tablet devices, usage statistics, training, and promotional materials. Each of these elements is assigned a numerical value and the proposal with the highest total score wins the bid.
Like many states, Tennessee is experiencing growth in its Spanish-speaking population. TEL has proactively made an effort to address the needs of this group by providing several resources with content originally written in Spanish and intended for a Spanish-speaking audience. ¡Informe! includes several hundred full text popular and academic periodicals from the Hispanic world. It is useful to native speakers who want to keep up with current events in their countries of origin as well as others conducting research in the language. World Book has a special version of its encyclopedia called Enciclopedia Estudiantil Hallazgos, which contains brief articles on a rather limited amount of topics. It is ideal for intermediate to advanced language learners and grade school students who are native speakers. LearningExpress Library contains GED test preparation materials in Spanish. Powerspeak Languages, the newest addition to TEL, includes English language learning materials for Spanish speakers. Finally, many of the English language databases include article translation features as well as the option of changing the interface’s language.
An innovative technical feature that TEL offers is authentication by geolocation, making it easier for all Tennesseans to access the databases. This means that the system recognizes any user with an IP address in the state of Tennessee and automatically logs them in. As a result, patrons do not need to use their library barcodes or create separate TEL accounts. Cornelisen explained that most TEL resources work well on smartphones and tablet devices with the exception of those that require the Adobe Flash plug-in (which is not compatible with Apple’s iOS.).
Over the past year, TEL has added new resources as well as upgraded several existing ones. Fifty ebooks were added to the Gale Virtual Reference Library covering topics ranging from American and world history to different areas of the sciences. The new contract with Gale, which is effective through 2017, added Business Insights: Essentials, Career Transitions, Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Small Business Resource Center and Student Resources in Context. More recently, TEL added Gale’s Powerspeak Languages, which provides lessons in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean, as well as English as a second language resources for native speakers of Mandarin and Spanish. The product is completely Web-based and contains many audiovisual and interactive elements. TEL has also upgraded its LearningExpress Library offerings to include software tutorials and preparation for the NCLEX exam for nurses.
Promotion of the service is a pivotal role that Cornelisen performs as the TEL Coordinator. Marketing materials include billboards, posters, and giveaways such as pens, magnets, and bookmarks. She is considering online advertisements as well as the creation of a television commercial. Cornelisen believes that word of mouth is the best way to inform people about TEL. She attends library gatherings such as Tenn-Share’s Datafest and Fall Conference as well as the Tennessee Library Association’s annual conference. In addition, she collaborates with vendors to offer Train the Trainer sessions across the state. These consist of an overview of all resources, an introduction to recent additions to the program, and discussions of effective training techniques. Cornelisen is creating more online training resources under the name “TEL University.” These tools will include three levels: introduction and overview of all resources, an online version of Train the Trainer, and backend management skills such as creating widgets, direct links, and downloading usage reports.
Cornelisen uses a variety of methods to assess library and end user satisfaction with TEL resources. One of the most important factors is the number of searches for each database. “I’m […] trying to get the most bang for our buck. If it doesn’t have good usage, it won’t stay in TEL,” she explained. Cornelisen is in frequent contact with librarians and takes their feedback seriously. She noted that feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” to date. TEL has surveyed libraries and Gale evaluates user perceptions of its products through an annual survey, the results of which are shared with library customers.
Although it is challenging to predict the direction that library electronic resources might take in five to ten years, Cornelisen shared a few of her thoughts about the future. She believes users will continue to use more content on mobile devices. Mobile users will undoubtedly have access to ingenious new features but they also could encounter restrictions as some manufacturers and content providers have demonstrated a tendency to constrain the user experience. Cornelisen also foresees TEL providing “more customized resources on demand, rather than a set group of resources,” perhaps in the form of patron-driven acquisition.
Cornelisen described what makes her proudest about TEL: “It’s equal for everyone across the state. It’s a set of resources that even the wealthiest libraries in the state can’t afford on their own, and it’s available to everyone, any time in Tennessee.” With more and more content providers putting up pay walls on their Web sites, the value of TEL resources only increases. It is important that librarians, especially those serving the general public, make their communities aware of what TEL has to offer. Cornelisen suggests using it as an outreach tool to local groups such as the Rotary and the PTA as well as businesses of all sizes. People who do not use libraries regularly are less likely to know about TEL resources. Once they see the value of TEL, they might become more frequent library users, and, hopefully, library supporters.
We must acknowledge the considerable value that this core set of resources provides to libraries poor and wealthy, small and large, rural and urban, across Tennessee. In this climate of ongoing economic uncertainty, governmental services like this can be susceptible to cuts, especially in the minds of non-users who might not understand their impact on citizens’ lives. Libraries can help alleviate this somewhat by promoting TEL to diverse constituencies who may not set foot in their physical facilities as well as expressing their appreciation of TEL funding to legislators at the state and federal levels. This kind of advocacy would be a small price to pay for such an indispensable set of resources.
The Institutional Review Board of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (FWA00004149) has approved this research project #12-160.