Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Curiosities of the library-publisher-vendor marketplace


Now that the Charleston Conference (and the pre-conf workshop that I helped lead), I’ve had some time to catch-up on my readings.  One article that is not exactly new (2012) and so does not exactly pose new ideas, did get me thinking.  Despite my rather technological bent, I still print out my articles and read them.  The main reason is that I like to take notes and the easiest way is to write in the margins.  And I tend to write the most when the article provokes the most thoughts to me.

This article, by Tim Collins of EBSCO Publishing, was published in the Journal of Library Administration.  It summarizes data from surveys of librarians and publishers/vendors from three consecutive years (2009 through 2011).  EBSCO has uploaded a pre-print for free viewing.  This article is referenced in a number of presentations and articles, and like I said – it’s no longer new information.  So my summary of the content will be rather short.

Generally – EBSCO surveyed library administrators and publishers/vendors separately to find out how they were coping with the falling economy.  They started their surveys in 2009, and by 2012, the economic conditions for the mostly-academic library respondents was such that most were looking at flat budgets or cuts of less than 10%.  Interestingly, 2012 was the year our cuts really started – a sort of delayed-reaction that is only indirectly related to the economy.  Not surprisingly, library administrators were loathe to cut staff positions, so most budget shortfalls were made up in the collections reductions.  And also not surprisingly, even in 2009, librarians were reacting to these reductions by cutting print, eliminating duplication of content, seeking more Open Access content to fill the gaps, and renegotiating the multi-year packages.  I’m not sure what was meant by that last tactic – it appears to include both breaking up the packages and signing up for another multi-year contract to save money.

I was a bit more surprised by the results from the publishers & vendors, perhaps because I’m not as astute on microeconomics and business practices.  All respondents indicated a decline in their business – about 30% each indicating <5%, 5-10% and >10% declines.  No surprise there – especially for the respondents who may be more inclined to voice their concerns.  What surprised me was their planned responses – raising prices, and increasing cost per unit.  Hmmm, libraries are decreasing how much they spend, so the publishers react by raising prices.  I understand how easy this would seem to fix the business problem – if 100 libraries used to pay $100 each in 2011, but only 90 are planning to renew, that gives the business $1,000 less; hiking the fee to $111 would fill that gap.  But if only 88 are willing to pay $111, they would have to hike the price to $113, which could mean fewer would be willing to pay that.  So you see the cycle starting?  Of course, the question is, what is the most a library is willing to pay for that resource?  That is the market value.

Now, what I was really surprised about was their next response to raise revenue – adding more titles to their collections.  Not just acquiring more titles via buyouts and mergers, but actually creating new titles.  Um, libraries are buying fewer titles – publishers are creating more titles.  Divide and conquer?  Again, maybe I need more education in this area.  It just doesn’t make enough sense to me.

One hopeful aspect of the survey was the agreement of all three parties in this marketplace on the need to increase usage.  While publishers & vendors had only had a distant interest in what happens to their products after the purchase, it was only enough to ensure that the librarians were satisfied.  And while librarians have always had their patrons’ interests in mind when selecting and renewing content of any format, actual usage was a measure that seemed a distant second to quality.  Indeed, while circulation studies go back well into the 20th or even the 19th century, they did not form a key part of the collection development strategies until this century.  Now, in our current “audit culture” (I love this phrase from Sabina Petersohn in her report on bibliometric services), librarians are incorporating usage data of all types directly into selection and, most importantly, de-selection decisions.  And now that we have actually canceled the uncancelable, the publishers and vendors are starting to take a deeper interest in how their products are and are not being used.  Most importantly, from my viewpoint, is the emphasis on improving discovery through robust metadata and an effort to shore up partnerships with Discovery platforms.  To be used, the content needs to not only be accessible, but also findable, and through more than one portal or gateway.

The author did mention that “overall collection usage” did increase with the implementation of a discovery service (well, at least their service); this is something I’ve considered investigating more thoroughly with our implementation, but I’ve had concerns.  First, our implementation is defaulted to find full-text articles only.  We are not happy with this, but that is how it is and how it has been for nearly three years.  However, our Web site gurus have been working on a different approach, the “bento box” model, which could change everything.  Now, instead of seeing only a list of full-text articles, the user will see results from different collections segmented on the page – in little boxes.  I will be especially interested in how this will affect usage of the non-full-text resources (A&I and print books), as well as the non-journal resources (online reference & A/V).

Rather disconcerting was the apparent disconnect between the ebook models that librarians are interested in and those which were more likely to be pursued by the publishers & vendors.  While most librarians were interested in an unlimited users model, fewer than half of the business-side respondents indicated this to be likely to be pursued.  Now, since our recent re-evaluation of electronic resources, as well as my recent experience changing cell phone services, I’ve come to reconsider the value of an “unlimited user” plan.  Such a plan is tempting to the customer – no limits on use, which could lead to greater value (in the sense of decreasing cost-per-use).  But there are just some resources which will never have the extensive usage enjoyed by others.  And unlike some cell phone users, I will never make more than 200 calls in any month – so why do I need to pay extra for unlimited use?  As a customer, I would like to pay more per minute but less per month.  Similarly, as a library customer, I would prefer to pay more per usage session (as in, limited number of seats, or the 1 book/1 user model) and less overall.  For many resources, this will be a savings.

So, what was not an option in this survey, but what I think is on the wishlist of most collection development & acquisitions librarians is more flexibility.  We need to be able choose models for our resources – some will inevitably result in greater usage and thus, requiring a model that provides increasing value of decreasing cost-per-use.  Others will never be used as much, and a model that restricts or meters usage may be a better solution for all parties than simply dropping subscriptions.

Despite the relative age of this article, it did provide me some insight into the viewpoints and ideas of at least some of the publishers & vendors.  I try to keep an open mind, recognizing that a moderately-free market is likely the best economic model that we can come up with at this time, and thus reconciling the inherent drive for profit.  But ideally, this market requires the participation of all parties, as well as the free-flow of information in order to make informed decisions.

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2014 by in Academic Libraries, Collections, Publishing.
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