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Research & Scholarship

HathiTrust: Insights from Behind the Scenes on the User Support Working Group

June 25th, 2014 by Rachel Fox Von Swearingen

Reference and collections librarians evaluate tools and resources. They consider what a particular database indexes, what content is unique or useful for different information needs, or even what services are offered by a special library or department. The librarian is a user for other libraries’ and companies’ products, who in turn provides user services at her own library.

A previous blog post, HathiTrust: What’s in it, and what’s in it for us?, discussed HathiTrust through the lens of its users, describing content and services available for both individuals as well as partner libraries. Recognizing the faceted role of any librarian, what type of insights might a librarian have from the perspective of providing user services for HathiTrust?

Behind every library is an army of people. And for HathiTrust, that army is supplied by partner institutions.


From governance to front-line user support, everyone has a professional role at their home library/ IT department as well as a service role to play for HathiTrust. The University of Michigan is a large supporter, with their employees serving as internal contacts for administration, website/catalog design, login support, accession of digital content, copyright review, and many other services.The metadata management system was developed with support of the University of California. Quality issues with cataloging and content are administrated by user support and by the University of Michigan who in turn rely on individual contacts at partner institutions to make corrections or re-submit content. In all, it is a League of Extraordinary Librarians.

The organizational structure and internal activities are conceptually not unlike those of a physical library.

By examining HathiTrust’s functional framework, you can recognize many familiar department and service names such as mission/planning, collection development, access, and user services. As a member of the User Support Working Group, I handle front-line inquiries from end-users and partner institutions via the feedback form and feedback e-mail. (Summary statistics and inquiry categories are released in monthly HathiTrust updates.) Providing support involves functioning on many “traditional” library service levels, but with some differences:

  •  Circulation & access services. While the act of circulating in HathiTrust roughly translates to viewing and downloading full text, user support deals with login problems, requests for PDFs, inter-library loan, or for a volume to be reviewed for public domain status. Additionally, authors and rights holders will work through user support to provide permissions to open access to their works or to supply take-down notices.
  •  Collection development. Users contact HathiTrust and ask for specific titles to be digitized. While HathiTrust itself does not digitize materials, we can sometimes request that a partner library digitize a volume and deposit it in response to a user request. Authors will also sometimes offer content to HathiTrust, and user support processes these requests as well.
  •  Reference & instruction. User support helps end-users with instructions, search tips, and other general “how-to” questions in searching and downloading in the digital library.
  •  Acquisitions. Partner institutions work with user support to deposit new content and metadata. Also, if a user reports that a scan is faulty or has OCR or image quality issues, a request is sent back to the contributing institution for them to re-scan or re-upload the volume.
  •  Cataloging. Bibliographic information is submitted by partner institutions when they submit digital content. However, user support has a sub-group of librarians who work with contacts at partner institutions to report and correct typos, mismatches, and other issues stemming from bibliographic data.  
  •  IT/tech support. Webpage outages, requests for datasets, feature requests, and other technical questions are also handled by user support.
  •  General information. User support fields general questions across a wide variety of areas, including partnership information, partnership setup, collections descriptions, requests for re-use, and pretty much any other inquiry that a website might get.  Including spam.

Copyright, rights management, and metadata quality run the show.

Catalog record quality doesn’t just affect a volume’s discoverability through keywords – it also lays the groundwork for access rights to HathiTrust’s content. Evaluating over 10 million volumes for what should and should not be full-view is a daunting task, and a large portion of rights determinations are automated based on bibliographic data. This makes metadata quality of utmost importance for opening volumes published in the US before 1923, volumes published worldwide before 1873, and US Federal Government documents. If a volume is found to be closed and it shouldn’t be according to the automated rights management, a corrected catalog record is requested from the contributing institution.

HathiTrust also opens volumes through other rights determinations and requests. These include permissions forms submitted by authors and rights holders, user requests for manual copyright review (this is especially common for non-US works where the author has been dead for more than 70 years), and determinations from the Copyright Review Management System, United States (CRMS-US) and Copyright Review Management System, World (CRMS-World) projects.  For example, volumes can be opened if the copyright holder failed to renew the copyright (for works published in the US between 1923 and 1963) or failed to include a valid copyright notice (for works published in the US between 1923 and 1977). For more information, see HathiTrust’s pages on copyright, the rights database, and requirements for submitting author death dates to possibly open volumes worldwide.

 If you are a librarian at a partner institution who is interested in the HathiTrust User Support Working Group, they are currently taking nominations for new members. Consider serving in this unique and dynamic way, and learn more about digital libraries and projects.

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