In Friday’s Inside Higher Education, Steve Kolowich gives a summary of a report by the Advisory Board Company (report not publicly available) on trends in Higher Ed libraries. The main focus of his article (and possibly of the report) is on the cost efficiencies of Patron Driven Acquisition, or PDA. The particular model he discusses is one facilitated by the E-Book Library (EBL). The report evidently focuses on one university library’s experience using this service, and finds significant cost savings relative to other models of acquisitions. Aside from the fact that this feels like a piece of PR (via a paid consulting group’s non-public report shared with the journalist) masquerading as journalism, the arguments in it are pretty shoddy. I have two main problems with this piece, but my primary concern is that this is not really “Patron Driven Acquisition.” In fact, the real news here isn’t that PDA might be worthwhile, but that EBL is offering discounted access that would possibly save schools money.
First of all I understand the reason for PDA. Rick Anderson from Utah has been advocating this for several years. The idea is that, instead of so-called speculative acquisition—where librarians try to estimate what recently published books will be of use to their patrons—there should be some sort of patron-driven model where the library instead finds only books people at the university want. According to Anderson, speculative collecting is wrong about half the time: ”About 50 percent of the time, the things we pick don’t get used or don’t get used in 10 years.”
The counter argument is that the life of a research library is longer than 10 years: deep collections create a long tail of resources which might be valuable further down the road. Anderson’s argument against this, mentioned in the Q&A at the ARL/CNI conference last week, in this blog post in 2009, and probably many other places, is effectively that Amazon serves the long tail (and Google, etc.)
While older books that were once difficult or impossible to find are now often both easy to locate and cheap to buy through online sources like Amazon and Bookfinder.com. And there is no longer any need for a book to go out of print. Millions of books that were until recently lost to the public’s view are now freely available online, thanks to Google; current books that are still in copyright but can’t be distributed normally in an economically sustainable fashion can be sold one at a time through print-on-demand utilities like the Espresso Book Machine
Technology has made keeping fully stocked catalog of possibly valuable books virtually obsolete. If you don’t buy that apparently useful scholarly monograph for your collection, it will likely be available in some digital format someday in the future. Anderson notes, “not all publishers make their books available in this way, of course, but the option to do so now exists where before it did not.” More on this in a moment.
I see the logic to PDA, but on the other hand, there is something to be said for thinking of a library collection at the institutional level. On the one hand, contrary to Anderson, there is the long tail to consider. Most of the IHE is focused on the year to year circulation data. So, for instance, we have the heart of the article, bulging with cost-benefit efficiency porn:
Grand Valley State students can browse the full texts of 50,000 e-books from the EBL catalog. The price of those e-books operates as a series of “triggers”: If a student spends less than five minutes in one e-book before moving on, the library pays nothing. If a student spends longer than that, it triggers an automatic one-day rental, and EBL charges the library between 10 and 20 percent of the list price. The fifth daylong rental triggers an automatic purchase of the whole book, at which point students can use it at their whim at no additional cost to the library — unless usage exceeds 320 hours per year, which triggers the purchase of a second electronic “copy.” [… .] Purchasing all 50,000 e-books in EBL’s catalog would have cost Grand Valley State’s library $3 million. Buying all 6,239 EBL titles that patrons used in 2009 would have cost $550,000. But only 343 of those were used enough to trigger a purchase. The library paid only $69,000
This is important to consider, and it is useful to be able to parse the usage out like this (though I wonder how much they pay for students who open a book, leave it that way, and forget about it because they are chatting with a friend or watching a video in another window.) But what we are really talking about is a new form of access to a particular database on a year to year basis. The library doesn’t “acquire” the book in any sense of the word: it merely pays a service for digital access on an annual basis. So long as the service finds this profitable and the licensing of a particular book is available on their platform, it sounds simple enough.
Anderson has faith in the market to provide access to a book for which there is demand, but as the record industry has shown time and time again, the fact that a good can be digitally distributed or archived is almost completely unrelated to the reality of its future distribution. Even records with a historical significance, and popular demand (linked here is the “We Are the World” CD, which is #8 out of all 1980s records in Amazon’s catalog and has been out of print for some time) are no longer distributed by anyone official: used distributors will send you a premium priced copy, but that’s about it.
The orphan works problem in the Hathi Trust scanning project would seem to be the most instructive case in relation to books. Here we have a massive collection of digital works which could reasonably be distributed - or access provided - possibly to the profit of whoever the official legal owner of the work might be. However, instead of asking that Hathi to work with them to figure out how to do this, the Author’s Guild has simply demanded that these digital versions be completely impounded until there is some future legislative action that would clear up their status. For the libraries that own the hard copy version of the digitized file, this is not as much of a problem. But if acquisitions going forward are primarily digital and primarily on a year-by-year basis, this would seem to be a serious flaw in the overall plan. While Anderson and others want to argue that their patron driven system is better than a speculative, librarian driven system, it fails to acknowledge that both are trumped by what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls the “lawyer-built system.”
If EBL doesn’t provide access to a particular book (next year, two years from now, five years from now) then that book will simply fall out of the collection—of both EBL and any library that relied upon its service for its book selection. At that point, there would be no way for patrons to demand either access or acquisition and unless there was a separate catalog of possible books published at a particular point—books that had a particularly strong demand in the first years of their publication—there would be no connection between the vendor catalog and patron demand per se. If no one provided access, that book would become a sort of POW in the IPR war. In other words, being able to have a little pocket or two of (hard copy?) depth in your collection, stuff that might not be used year to year, but eventually could be important, seems reasonable, particular without some confidence that you’ll be able to find a vendor who will carry the specific books from year to year. In a sense, then, there are two separate issues: do you have Patron Driven Acquisition? and Do you use a digital vendor? For instance, you could have a massive hard copy collection which is the result, primarily, of patron requests of some kind or another. Or, as in this case, you could use a digital vendor which would provide a pre-selected list of possible works from which patrons could choose.
Even assuming you use a digital vendor for one component of the collection, the benefit of having a collection that is somewhat supervised by the librarian is that, from year to year, you don’t have to monitor the collection to make sure that it is all there. One year, a few very important books come out; you buy them; put them in the stacks; and forget about them. They are there and when patrons want them, they will be there. The same thing happens year after year and eventually you get a collection which has some character specific to the institution. The only maintenance that is required is to make sure the books you started the year with are there at the end. To be sure, there are costs, but you don’t have to remind yourself of all the books the library once bought because they are in the library.
But if, every year, or every five years, you have to change digital vendor distributors of the majority of your collection, then this process goes out of the window. Though it is really speaking only about a single digital vendor, the upshot of the article (and of the argument for PDA in general) is that this should be the new model of acquisitions going forward. The article assumes you can get whatever book you want—and that patrons will get whatever books they want and or need—through a digital vendor. But this is in no way guaranteed—and the only way to check it would be to have a particularly onerous collection process whereby each individual library had to keep track of the books patrons had previously enjoyed (and vigorously used) in the past and compare it to whatever digital vendor collection exists in any given year.
You would have to have some master list X- “these are the books that our library/patrons would like to have access to” - which you could then compare to the lists of whatever competing vendors there are at that point. Assuming you can make this comparison with any degree of accuracy (the database comparisons between two collections with hundreds of thousands or even millions of volumes as well as the master list of books you’d LIKE to have access to) eventually, you’ll have to choose between two or three (or ten or twenty) vendors who can provide access to most of list X, but each having some lacunae—subcollection A, B, or C. No one vendor will have all the books you’d like and so you’ll have to choose, from year to year, if subcollection A or B or C is more or less important—even if it is based on previous patron driven access data. (A possibly worse scenario is that only one for-profit vendor provides legitimate access to every book every printed—and therefore, like journals today, they have a monopoly over access for which they can charge premium fees.)
All of this points to the fact that what the article is really describing is not really Patron Driven Acquisition. The library doesn’t acquire the book: it just gets access to it through a digital vendor. On the other hand, if the system was truly “Patron-Driven” then the list of possible books would not be limited to 50,000: it would be a list of every book ever published—or, say, every book in the current WorldCat catalog (which, IIRC, is something like 28 million unique volumes for US libraries). What EBL is actually offering is for patrons to choose from the books it is offering.
Instead of the praise heaped upon the EBL collection and its access model, we could look at it in a starkly different light: the fact that only 343 of its 50,000 books were accessed enough to trigger purchase sounds like their collection contains a very small percentage of actually useful volumes. In fact, only a little more than 10% of its catalog was even accessed by patrons. Those stats are decidedly worse on a year to year basis than the “only 50% are accessed within the first ten years” of the previous model. This is why I say that the only real news in this article is that EBL is providing a package of access that actually represents its value to patrons, not that this model is scaleable yet.
I believe in the need for more common digital repositories and I think Anderson is on the right track in thinking about Patron Driven Acquisition in a digital environment. But we should be leery of deciding to rely on vendor access in the meantime. Constance Malpas’ CLIR report on cloud libraries, which Anderson recently cited as inspiring, is indeed important, but I think the takeaway is not so much that this is an inevitability. Instead, it is that we have amazing capabilities emerging, but they are currently crippled by the legal system in place. What this means for collection strategy in the meantime is up for argument. But whatever librarians decide, I’d recommend getting the same deal with EBL as Grand Valley.