December 11, 2007

Bringing Knowledge Online

As director of strategic planning, Heidi McGregor Bartolacci ’94 helps internet-based JSTOR archive expand its reach in academia

By Vera Carley

After the library has closed for the day and its lights turned off, researchers are still perusing journals in their never-ending quest for knowledge. But they aren’t tripping over card catalogs in the dark. Instead, they are jumping online at their desks and turning to JSTOR.

Giving relief to dedicated academics and procrastinating students at Lafayette and other institutions, JSTOR is a not-for-profit digital archive of important scholarly journals, providing wide access to back issues through a searchable database. The earliest journals date from the mid-1600s.

“It has opened a whole new way for academic scholarship,” says Heidi McGregor Bartolacci ’94, director of strategic planning for JSTOR.

The process of digitizing journals has done more than connect scholars with vital information in their academic quest, Bartolacci says. It has unearthed unexpected treasures as those digitizing documents have stumbled upon interesting material long since buried. Unwittingly, academics also have become explorers of sorts, mining the rich data through keyword searches. Among the findings, she says, have been writings of Martin Luther King and Benjamin Franklin’s notes on his kite experiment.

Those exciting discoveries just begin to tell the story of JSTOR’s success. The database archive contains the complete back runs of more than 700 journal titles, over 164,000 individual journal issues totaling more than 23 million pages of text representing 47 disciplines. The first publications to join JSTOR when it was founded in 1995 included the American Economic Review and William and Mary Quarterly. More recent additions include titles such as Third World Quarterly, The Women’s Review of Books, The World Bank Economic Review, and Environmental History. Providing unprecedented access to these journals, JSTOR is available to academics, researchers, and students at over 4,000 institutions in more than 100 countries.

“It’s having a really positive impact on the academic world,” Bartolacci says.

In addition to allowing scholars to leverage the internet, JSTOR is aiding libraries by preserving the content of these journals for the long term. It allows them to forgo the costly process of maintaining local print collections and frees up shelf space by providing a shared, centralized digital archive. It also frees the information from the shelf, allows it to be viewed and shared globally, and ensures its future availability.

Not surprisingly, JSTOR has become extraordinarily popular in the academic world. That has led to tremendous growth in the number of visitors to the web site, and its audience promises to get even bigger now that Google is indexing the articles in JSTOR’s database.

Bartolacci says the venture has already helped increase web site visits and now “anyone can find it on the web.”

The online journey for JSTOR wasn’t always easy. Getting off the ground in the 1990s, the organization faced skeptics who questioned whether it could really help libraries cut costs and save shelf space. There also were questions about whether publications would allow their works to be posted online.

That’s where Bartolacci stepped in. She had read about the database in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in 1996. Eager to help JSTOR get its footing in the academic world, Bartolacci went to work as associate director of publisher relations.

In her new role she developed relationships with publishers to convince them to let JSTOR archive their journals. She also faced the reality that many users could have problems with accessing the articles because of limited bandwidth and usage complexity. Over the years, innovations in technology eased many of these issues. At the same time, Bartolacci found success and the archive began to swell with information from a broad range of academic disciplines.

Now as director of strategic planning, Bartolacci is working to ensure that the site continues to grow. Her focus has switched from adding journals to the database to understanding and anticipating the needs of researchers, for example by applying Web 2.0 concepts to the site and supporting new research initiatives such as using algorithms to mine the archive for thematic trends in scholarship. She also faces the challenge of growing the site internationally in places like Africa where bandwidth continues to remain an issue. Despite such problems, Bartolacci enthusiastically notes that, through a program where access to JSTOR is provided for free, more than 100 institutions on the continent are already accessing the site online. And, not only is JSTOR gaining an international presence, Bartolacci says, it also is becoming a major research platform to support scholarship around the world.

Upbeat about the organization’s future and its contributions to the academic world, Bartolacci is thrilled by the idea of giving people the opportunity to access important works and open up scholarly dialogue. That love of academia, she says, became entrenched in her while studying at Lafayette, where she enjoyed the advantage of small class sizes.

“Because the majors were small, I could personally interact with the professors,” she says. “My love for higher education and desire to work with academics had to do a lot with interacting with professors.”

That love has been returned as scholars have embraced both JSTOR and Bartolacci. Literally.

“I’ve been hugged on the streets by strangers,” she says. “It feels great knowing that JSTOR is making a difference in their lives.”

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