Let me preface this by saying that when I first started my job over a year ago, I was a big fan of EBSCO. Students found their interface easy to use, they were always improving their interface and offerings, and our local Rep was really responsive to our e-mails and questions. But something has changed. EBSCO made a lot of internal tech changes this summer and I was never entirely clear about why or how it benefited the end user. But that’s fine; as long as it runs ok, I’m happy. However, I started noticing that I was getting a lot more error messages and sometimes I would click on an article link it wouldn’t go anywhere (the same page would just reload). Ok, annoying, but I still got to where I wanted to be at some point.

Last week, EBSCO A-to-Z went down for at least two days (Monday and Tuesday, so I’m not sure if it was ok on the weekend). We received no message from EBSCO during that entire period. Our Systems Librarian told me that people on the e-mail lists he subscribes to were frantic, wondering if they had broken something or if other people were also experiencing an outage. Finally, at almost 5 pm on Tuesday, EBSCO A-toZ sent an e-mail to their customers stating “Thank you for your patience. EBSCO A-to-Z(r) service is restored.” No mention of what happened. No mention of what they did to fix it. No mention of how they will prevent it from ever happening again. No even “we’re so sorry for inconveniencing you.” When A-to-Z again went down yesterday morning, I called their customer service line only to hear that yes, it’s down and no, they can’t give me an estimate on when it will be back up. I asked if they had a failover server and was told that one of their two servers has been broken and the second one is having a hard time dealing with all of the traffic and keeps crashing. So what they’re telling me is that they don’t really have a failover server because they need two servers running to handle the traffic and that’s all they’ve got (on a good day). Maybe the rep gave me incorrect information, but it certainly didn’t fill me with confidence. Yikes!

Without an explanation of what went wrong, how they fixed it and how they will prevent it from happening in the future, they are basically leaving us to assume that they are unreliable and are not doing anything to prevent outages from happening in the future. And when our contract comes up for renewal in a few months, how will all this affect our decision about whether we will renew or not? I’m sure you can guess.

When companies are having problems with their servers or with their database or any other tech-related thing that affects performance, the best thing they can do is be completely candid about it. PBWiki was having some problems recently, and, while they were down, they put up a message about exactly what was going on. And once it was fixed, they went into even greater detail about how they fixed it and were extremely apologetic. And this is a product most of us aren’t even paying for!!! And for that candor, people were much more understanding of the outage. It’s that sort of transparency that makes us forgive occasional outages, because we know they are working to fix it and prevent it from happening again, and they respect us enough to keep us informed about what’s going on. Transparency is key in business (and in libraries)!

It led me to start thinking about the fact that we (at least here) never ask questions like this. When I was choosing a host for the off-campus server I run for the library, I asked all about uptime/downtime, backups, etc. When we’re contracting with a vendor (either for a database or any other online product), do we ask questions like that? Do we ask them, “how many hours have you been down in the past three years?”, “do you have a failover server(s) and is it located geographically distant from your other server(s)?” Nope. And maybe we should. Because without A-to-Z, it is completely impossible for us to figure out which database a specific journal will be in (unless we already happen to know). So when I was trying to create persistent links for readings in the graduate program courses and A-to-Z went down, I was left totally unable to do my job. When so much of what we do is dependent on our online resources working, we should be asking these questions.

If a technology that you’re responsible for goes down, don’t just hope that no one will notice. Be candid about it. Show your humanity. Give people information. Because it’s a lack of information that will lead people to assume the worst. Saying you’re sorry is a very powerful thing. Being real is a powerful thing. It can give a face to a faceless company and make your customers much more understanding of the occasional problem.

Update: By the way, on a slightly related note, has anyone ever been able to get EBSCO RSS feeds to work? I was talking with Paul Pival today and he has been having the same problem with EBSCO, which is that we create a feed following their instructions and never get any content out of it. Mine was a keyword search for “international relations” so you’d think there would be one or two or several hundred articles on that subject. I’ve tried it numerous times in numerous different ways and have never gotten anything out of the feeds they’ve given me. Paul has also created numerous search feeds with EBSCO as well and has never gotten any content. Has anyone had any luck with it? Is there some magic trick we’re missing?