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FreePint BlogJournal Lifecycle: Keeping Track of Periodicals

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By Joelle Lea


Joelle LeaWhen I asked through the FreePint Bar back in December 2006 whether anyone had practical solutions to dealing with journal circulation, I only received one response. I took this to mean either that someone had found a fantastic solution and didn't want to share it, or that everyone else was still battling with circulation issues.

I joined the London Development Agency (LDA) shortly after they moved offices across London back in autumn 2006. Once I settled in, I noticed the journals that came into the agency were labelled up and dispatched, only never to be seen again. I found this surprising. Shouldn't journals be returned so that they could be collected and stored for future reference?

The problem in depth

When the LDA had moved offices, the set-up of the small library was one of the last things to get done. Until January 2007 there were no shelves in the library and a disorganised collection of library material was still residing in large grey packing boxes. As a result there was nowhere to put journal back-issues, and staff were reluctant to chase them, knowing that they had nowhere to store them. Unfortunately, this led to the creation of staff serial hoarders.

My other concern was that there was no system in place to track whether journals were reaching all their intended recipients. In addition, the labels being used were created when the LDA was still in its old building. Employees were now no longer sitting near the same people, due to the office restructure, and several members of staff had since left or joined the agency.

The LDA subscribes to approximately 100 journal titles, for which there are some multiple subscriptions. Some titles are required by staff as soon as they come into the agency; The Economist is one such highly sought-after title. Because of this, it was necessary to find a system that was as efficient as possible.

The one reply I received to my posting on the Bar mentioned the old-fashioned Kardex system, whereby notes could be written on the card, checked and erased. Unfortunately, I soon realised that this would prove to be too slow for the agency which requires information as soon as possible, and I would face a mass riot if staff had to keep posting journals back to me. Plus it would double the workload for a small team of four. I knew this wasn't the solution for us.

On investigating other journal management practices, I found there to be few that had a solution for circulating subscriptions around organisations. Whilst you could go through subscription suppliers to order and manage your journals there seemed to be very few solutions once you received the journals.

The solution

In identifying a solution, I needed something quick, manageable and able to be updated easily (to take account of our joiners and leavers). So I decided upon the simplest and easiest solution: I created an email alert system.

I arrived at this decision by way of time and financial constraints. It was not possible to buy in a solution. I also wanted to respond to feedback from staff regarding access to the circulation lists. Back in January I undertook a two-week review of the journals' lifecycle in the agency by conducting interviews with staff regarding their experiences with the circulation list system. The results of these interviews helped to shape internal policies and procedures.

First I created a spreadsheet detailing all the journal titles the agency receives, making sure that all multiple copies of the same title were included. Each title was linked to the corresponding circulation list, with staff names listed in descending order to reflect their place in the circulation list. This was so that when the emails are sent out, recipients would know who appeared before them on the list.

After the creation of the spreadsheet, a generic email was created to be sent out when new journals arrived. This also gives journal details, including the journal title, circulation guidelines and contact details for the Knowledge Management team. This was then passed over to one of our consultants, Matthew Farley of MQF Consultancy Services Ltd, who programmed the spreadsheet to pick up the text and use it to create emails to those listed in the relevant cell.

Image 1

Body text created by Matthew Farley, MQF Consultancy Services Ltd

According to Farley, 'Behind the scenes of the Excel workbook are a couple of simple macros. The main one scans through the list of titles on the "Periodicals and Recipients" and composes an email addressed to the individuals on the circulation list informing them of its arrival. This code makes use of the fact that under the covers an email can be written in HTML; it uses the template on the "Body Text" sheet and customises it with the journal name then displays it for review and sending. The second macro simply creates the toolbar button to enable the user to start the process (and removes it when closing the workbook).'

How the system works

As soon as a new journal has been checked in and labelled, an email is sent out via the spreadsheet informing staff that the latest issue has been received. This allows staff to be kept up-to-date as soon as new issues become available. The spreadsheet can also be easily edited when staff join or leave the agency, request to go on a new circulation list, or to be taken off a list.

To send out email alerts you simply click on to the title for which you are sending out an alert. For each issue received of the same title you choose the corresponding circulation list, such as Economist 3 for the third Economist mailing list. Once the correct field you want in column A is highlighted, click on the 'Send Notification' button. This generates an email to all the names in the corresponding cell, inserting the pre-written text into the email. The process is quick and simple, and a number of email alerts can be sent out in a matter of minutes.

Image 2

The periodicals and recipients spreadsheet, note the 'Send Notification' button in the top left hand corner.

We check any Out-of-Office emails that are generated in response to email notifications for mentions of extended leave, so staff names can be temporarily removed from the list to help the circulation flow around the agency. This has proved extremely useful, as through this process we have found out about staff who are going on paternity or maternity leave and have not informed us. This could have resulted in journals sitting on their desks during their leave, preventing other staff from being able to read them. In addition, when staff have left the agency, email alerts have prompted them to inform the knowledge management team of their impending departure. All of this is vital information for ensuring the system remains current.

The email system works both ways, and also allows staff to contact us. For instance, if a member of staff urgently requires a journal, this enables them to know as soon as it comes in. Staff also use the emails to notify us if they haven't received a title, or if it has been slow to circulate. More frequently they have been sending out emails to the rest of their circulation list asking them to pass on magazines, a practice which, until the email alert system was created, was not possible.

The emails also serve as a reminder of the guidelines for publication circulation times. They have been used to send on additional messages to staff regarding a particular publication and allow us to be specific about which circulation lists we target and disseminate information to.

Image 3

Email example sent out to staff.


Staff used to become frustrated when they did not receive journals, but they did not know how or to whom to communicate this frustration. The email alert system has opened channels of communication both to and from the Knowledge Management team and staff across the agency. Staff on the circulation lists are now better able to communicate directly with the team and this has resulted in noticeable improvements in the way in which lists are devised. Staff insights prove invaluable and without a more transparent contact this would not have been possible.

Overall the results have been positive. During the staff interviews one director was pleased at the way journal lifecycle was being looked into. The Knowledge Management team has become more transparent about the way in which journals are circulated, and staff now have more control over the way in which the journal lifecycle operates.

Setting up the email alert system is relatively easy. Once the initial data has been input and a programmer has created the necessary coding then it requires very little maintenance and upkeep.

Lessons learned

The most important lesson I learned is that members of staff are not very forthcoming if something isn't working. Unless you approach them they will never tell you if they are dissatisfied. Staff are willing to accept that systems may be not be perfect and are willing to put up with something even if it frustrates them. Library and information professionals need to challenge this assumption. By physically going out into the organization and speaking with staff, you can answer queries, concerns and explain situations. Once lines of communication are set up, staff are much more willing to approach you directly.

Additionally I discovered that sometimes the simplest solution can be the best suited to your needs. The answer doesn't have to be complex or expensive.

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