With the current interest in browser extensions like Unpaywall to help access open access material, it may be easy to forget that the majority of scholarly content is still locked behind paywalls and there is a need to provide seamless access to them for our users. One interesting solution to this is Lean Library’s browser extension. Below is a guest post by Johan Tilstra, founder of Lean Library, also former librarian at Utrecht University Library explaining the background of Lean Library and the functionality of the browser extension.
It’s been more than a year since Aaron Tay and I got in touch with each other, when Aaron wrote his blogpost “5 Extensions to help access full text when starting outside the library homepage”. At the time, I was working at Utrecht University, where I came up with the idea for one of those extensions mentioned, namely the UU Easy Access browser extension. A lot has happened since then, and Aaron has kindly offered me the opportunity to expand a bit further on those developments.
The conviction that university libraries lost their role in discovery didn’t come out of the blue, of course. It was based on changing user behaviour, as pinpointed in many articles and blogpost. Think for instance about Lorcan Dempsey’s 2005 blogpost ‘In the flow’, where he notes that “the library needs to be in the user environment and not expect the user to find their way to the library environment”. Or Tony Hirst’s “Assume that discovery happens elsewhere, and focus on fulfilment” (2007). Of course, these trends have been picked up by Aaron as well.
When reading Lorcans ominous warning that “[t]he message for libraries is clear: be in the flow”, it’s a small step to start thinking ‘browser extensions’. One could argue that with the advent of bookmarklets, libraries already were present in the users’ workflow. However, we had something more convenient in mind: we wanted to see whether patrons would accept and adopt a solution that would notify them proactively, by their library, in their browser. We had a hunch that patrons who are off campus and who land on a domain or database with pay walled material, would appreciate being handed the correct EZproxy link automatically. That way, we figured, we’d eliminate the need for the cumbersome steps of having to dig up that special link on the library website. Better yet, we’d eliminate having to know that there’s a subscription.
It turns out we were right: from the very first prototype (that hardly worked at all), users were hooked. Without a lot of marketing or PR, the number of active users at Utrecht University has steadily risen, to over 4000 now. Feedback from those users has been amazingly positive. Think, for instance, a graduate telling me just the other day how the browser extension ‘absolutely saved his thesis.’ Understandably, they simply value the extra convenience that it brings.
All that positive feedback made me realise that it would be a waste if such a well-received tool would only be available for Utrecht University patrons. Their library setup – direct access on campus, with access through a proxy server when off campus – is in no way unique, and the issues their patrons have with getting access aren’t either. Then, after stumbling across Roger Schonfelds presentation at the STM Frankfurt Conference (2015), where he succinctly lays bare the size of the problems with getting access, I made a decision: I took the step to found Lean Library, a start-up dedicated to get this tool into the hands of patrons worldwide.
With the help of the Utrecht University incubator UtrechtInc, Lean Library has now turned into a flourishing start-up that offers a professionally developed production version of the browser extension.
This production version does differ in some distinct ways from the original Utrecht University prototype. One major difference is the inclusion of the library’s look & feel. This quite literally puts the library in the users’ flow, in the most recognisable way. In the case below, it’s Wageningen University & Research:
Another addition is the option to help patrons with other information than just EZproxy links. For instance: a patron who, after Googling, by accident lands on the corporate gateway site ‘lexisnexis.com’ can be notified of the link to LexisNexis Academic – without that patron having to go to the library website. This feature can for instance be used to notify researchers, whenever they are looking at publication criteria, about Open Access deals that exist for that specific journal. Obviously, there are many more uses.
Other features that weren’t available in the prototype are connections to link resolvers, for more granular licensing info, and links to Open Access versions of articles – much like the excellent Unpaywall browser extension.
Furthermore, our production version supports all major browsers, including IE11.
Last – but surely not least – we’re dedicated to academic freedom. That’s why we gather as little usage data as possible, and we’ve made sure that the little data that we do gather is not traceable back to individuals. Even more, ownership of that usage data stays with the library. This way, librarians can recommend using our browser extension to their patrons with full confidence.
Of course, we’d love to get in touch with librarians who are interested in implementing the Lean Library browser extension, or would like to know more! We’re reachable via leanlibrary.com or simply by mail via email@example.com.
Founder, Lean Library