Academic libraries are shrinking, while content is growing. How did we get here?

New Zeoli

by Michael Zeoli

Academic library staff has been shrinking for 2 decades, while the quantity of scholarly content has grown exponentially.  In the 1960s Richard Abel & Company began the Approval Plan service as a systematic approach to help libraries manage the volume of new books published.  Libraries rely on vendor services (i.e., companies catering to libraries) to discover and acquire much of scholarly content.  Since the 90s, libraries have also depended on vendors to provide shelf-ready services for print books, customized cataloging, to manage financial transactions electronically, and to maintain online interfaces to support collection development and acquisitions processes.  Ebooks brought another layer of labor and complexity to library workflows.

Ebooks elbowing their way into the landscape

Within a decade of their birth, ebook aggregators entered mainstream library collecting.  Initially, the ebook appeared as just another format or manifestation of the print book; the library choice expanded beyond paper or cloth to include ‘e’ versions (in many cases PDFs).  Technology changed this: ebook models have upset the balance in traditional library collecting and continue to challenge traditional understandings not just of collection development, but of the role of the academic library.

The ebook aggregators’ business models exist outside the realm of print books – except as a distribution model on which to piggyback for just as long as necessary (think ‘the scorpion and frog’ fable).  The business of the aggregator is to sell ebooks, not books.  Aggregator ebook platforms are designed for this purpose.  Each is different from the others in design (technical as well as strategic):

  • User interface & experience
  • Library acquisition models
  • Library control of patron access
  • Publisher control over: 1) Library acquisition models; 2) License terms for each model; and 3)  ‘Triggers’ to purchase and loan (Patron-Driven Acquisitions – PDA / Short-Term Loan – STL / Evidence-Based Acquisitions – EBA)

‘Standards’ in the industry exist only to the degree necessary for one company to compete with another (‘not-for-profits’ are not exempted!).  Focus has been split 3 ways:

  • Competition to win market-share
  • Sustainable development of the market
  • Alternatives to ‘unsustainable models’

To a large extent, the futures of libraries and publishers live at the margins of these considerations.

Competition is driving complexity.  Beyond complexity, competition does not always favor clarity or transparency, even when possible.  Libraries and publishers struggle to gain full vision into some of the forces acting under the surface of a rapidly evolving landscape.

Siloes and Library Acquisitions

Treating print and digital content as alternate universes was until recently common across all parts of the ecosystem: publishers, libraries and vendors.  Two factors made this approach unsustainable:

  • academic libraries do not duplicate title purchases – as a rule just one copy of a title will be acquired, so comprehensive vision of titles acquired, regardless of format, is essential
  • digital acquisition and access models escape print book constraints in many significant ways

How do acquisition models impact each other?

How do libraries ensure their materials budgets are providing the best service to their institution in the near-, medium- and long-term?  The graph below shows the ebook acquisition trend for one research library over 6 years.  Including print, the library was acquiring roughly 1,200 fewer print books and ebooks each year while expanding significant funds on Short-Term Loans.  While meeting short-term demand, a gulf was opening in resources available for the medium- and long-term.  The library recently adjusted use of vendor/aggregator collecting tools to find a better balance.


Needless to say, every publisher wants every title to reach as large an audience as is potentially interested.  How does the publisher align their participation in and calibration of ebook models to ensure the best results?  The graph below shows the ebook sales trend for a major university press over 6 years.  In 2014, their ebook orders had begun to decline notwithstanding the steady production of new titles.  DDA sales were not compensating for overall revenue loss, including sharp print sales decline.  STL was the fastest growing category of use, however, the value of that use was inadequate.  The press adjusted terms of participation in ebook distribution models and has returned to a sustainable position for the first time in several years.


Strategies in navigation

Publishers and libraries need to pay careful attention to the suite of distribution tools available and understand the impact of one model on another in managing decision-making processes, from point of new title discovery through acquisition and patron access.  Which models best meet institutional requirements and under what terms?   How do we recognize when supply chain partners may be using diversions to support their own strategy that do not put long-term library or publisher interests front and center?

  1. How is the content discovered by libraries (not patrons)?
  2. How does patron discovery of content intersect with new ebook acquisition models?
  3. How do various acquisition methods fit together?
  4. How do libraries and publishers decide to use various formats & models?
  5. What role does each sector play in managing content distribution & access?
  6. How do changes in participation in models in one sector affect decisions in another sector?

With ebooks, we’ve moved from playing checkers to chess.  Let’s look at each of these questions.

  1. How is content discovered by libraries?

The Approval Plan remains the most common vehicle academic libraries use to discover new book titles and initiate acquisition decisions.  The current function of the Approval Plan is widely misunderstood – sometimes deliberately.  In the 1960s, Approval Plans delivered [print] books to libraries automatically.  The library could ‘approve’ or return the titles to the approval plan vendor (it is worth noting that a large percentage of print books are now delivered shelf-ready to libraries, so are non-returnable upon shipment).

How does the Approval Plan work in 2016?  The Approval Plan is the primary discovery tool academic libraries use to initiate the acquisition of new book titles.  The library writes an Approval Plan with a service provider, which is essentially a matrix of standard and custom metadata identifying library content interests and a hierarchy for automated library decisions for new titles.  The Approval Plan vendor systematically places orders with a list of Approval Plan publishers for all new titles, pre-publication.  At this point, the titles appear in the vendor system, however, nothing makes them discoverable.  Three to six months later, as the titles become available, they are catalogued and profiled. Profiling is the process by which the vendor creates highly specific and often unique metadata; it is the heart of the Approval Plan.  The new title metadata is matched with the library Approval Plan to trigger the complex automated library decision processes.  It is the Approval Plan *push technology* that effectively makes the book *discoverable* to the library, i.e. it is not the metadata itself, but the process the metadata enables (it is important not to confuse patron discovery of content with library discovery of content here).  Current Approval Plan function is well beyond the old-fashioned idea of simply an automatic book-shipping utility.

The current Approval Plan is tasked first with identifying appropriate titles for a library or consortium, and then determining the appropriate library output, which could be:

  • publisher ‘send-all’ instruction (e.g. playscripts from publisher X),
  • instruction to send a title as part of a series standing order or an addition to an eCollection
  • ship the book “automatically,” print or ebook [DDA is an option within this category]

In all cases, where the decision was once simply between paperback and cloth, or U.S. and U.K. editions, a library may now also include ebooks which requires instructions designating desired providers and models, in order of preference.

It is important to understand is that the Approval Plan and DDA are not co-equal or operating on the same level: the first is the mechanism that underpins the second; the first is a discovery and automated decision-support system, while the second is an output – an ‘acquisition’ model.  This is often misunderstood and easily miscast.

  1. Why are business models underpinning patron-driven models changing?

Much has been written on patron discovery, but how does discovery intersect with new ebook acquisition models?  When a patron is driven to library resources via a search, it is important that they find the relevant information as directly as possible.  In the case of DDA, if the purchase/loan trigger mechanisms are high and the user is in-and-out of the book quickly, i.e. the search was ‘optimized’, then excellent metadata may have effectively led to the loss of a sale for the publisher even though the book provided precisely what the user required.  Usage data would report this as a ‘browse’.

Current DDA/STL purchase-trigger mechanisms have not changed since the appearance of the models over a decade ago.  Discovery in and of itself is not a business model though the two are often conflated.  Discovery must also satisfy business requirements.  Unless we want to believe that these models were born in pristine perfection, it is easy to understand that they must continue to evolve until reaching a sustainable point for all parties.

  1. How do various acquisition methods fit together?

The Approval Plan initiates content decisions for the library – which may include blocking content if the library has purchased the content elsewhere.  If the library’s preferred model to acquire a title is available, the Approval Plan output will follow that path in the decision tree.  There is no back-tracking.  If the preferred pathway is not available, then a second designated pathway is followed, and so on until the cascading decision process has exhausted all possible options.  This is an automated mechanism libraries have designed to provide as much relevant book content to their institution as possible.  Publishers are pro-active with aggregator and vendor partners to ensure that their content flows to all appropriate decision-tree channels.

DDA bends the equation for traditional content acquisition and publishing.  When a library has indicated that it prefers a DDA Record for a title when DDA is available, then the vendor prepares a cataloging record for the library with a link to the full text on the library’s preferred platform.  When a DDA Record is shipped, the library has decided not to purchase the title (a patron may, later).  The book has effectively been added to the collection.  As a rule, duplication is not permitted.  Neither ebook nor print will be sent automatically.

  1. How do libraries decide to use various formats & models?

The library mission is to ensure access to relevant scholarly content for their community.  New technology, aggregators and vendors provide libraries with means to fulfill their mission under economic constraints.  Economics and technology have helped shift the mission of many libraries from collection building to providing access to relevant content.  While ebook technology allows inexpensive access models for books, there are always trade-offs.  More models are entering the mainstream thanks to technology.

  1. What role does each sector play in managing content distribution & access?

All parts of our ecosystem have an active role to play; none should act out of fear or remain passive.

Libraries work closely with Vendors and Aggregators (and more and more directly with publishers) to determine which tools to employ in order to maximize benefits at the lowest cost.  Aggregators (and some publishers) provide libraries with various levels of control over the models patrons may use.

Publishers and Aggregators sign license agreements.  Owing to the complexity of aggregator models and strategic interests, publishers strain to consider fully the details of the terms and how participation in various models will impact their overall sustainability – including print, which still represents about 75% of sales in the Humanities and Social Sciences and close to 50% of STM book sales.

Questions for both libraries and publishers to consider are:

  • If a new title is not available in DDA, does it disappear?
  • If STL is not available, will the title disappear?
  • How are purchase and loan triggers changing?  And to what effect?
  • Does the library have control over any of the triggers mechanisms for loans or purchases?
  • How is Evidence-Based Acquisitions likely to change?

Enough data has accumulated to model what in fact happens.  Some libraries (as well as publishers) have recently made effective changes based on a review of this data for their library.  These decisions must be made rationally, based on the evidence.  Our world is rife with outdated information.

  1. How do changes in participation in models in one sector of the market affect decisions in another sector?

Short-Term Loan (STL) provides a good example of how a change to one model affects another.  STL has been in decline in libraries for more than 2 years.  This is not an accident.  Just over 2 years ago, publishers began to raise rates for loans and to withdraw from the model, or parts of the model, i.e. 2-week & 28-day loans, or to impose embargoes on new titles from the model.  Less content became available for loans and at a higher cost, influencing libraries to reduce their STL-triggers or to drop STL altogether as we saw in an example above.  This has been well documented in library publications.  In short, a new model led libraries to change acquisition models which, in turn, caused publishers to change their terms, which led to library reaction.  It has all functioned, not surprisingly, like any other market.  The process continues rapidly.

The greatest challenge facing the market currently is steady retraction.  This is unsustainable for libraries, publishers and vendors.  Vendors and aggregators serve at the pleasure of libraries and publishers.  Without content and libraries as a market, the vendors and aggregators serve no purpose.

It is worth entertaining the analogy of the car industry, where once the only option was to purchase a car – which most of us have done, determining that the car was an essential resource.  The industry developed a rental model to serve our short-term needs such as vacations and business trips.  The cars sit in airport garages – our ‘DDA carpool’ – until the moment of need.  The industry has worked out a sustainable financial model as well as convenient discovery and access.  The lease has also appeared, offering us longer term use of the necessary resource at a lower cost to purchase (but with a purchase option).  More recently, car ‘clubs’ like Zipcar have appeared offering another flavor of ‘shared access’ to transportation.  In all cases, the industry has provided benefits under sustainable business terms – though flirting more than once with bankruptcy.  The car market is growing.

The library book world is shrinking, even as more content is created and new technologies are implemented, which raises serious questions about the academic library of the future – and the roles of the rest of us along with it.

Michael Zeoli is VP, YBP Library Services and Publisher Relations.

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