The Approval Plan: A Sorting Hat That Discovers the Right Books for the Right Libraries

At a time when academic libraries are investing more time and resources experimenting with models that place user demands at the center of library acquisitions (via such models as DDA), there seems to be confusion and misunderstanding about which methods compete and why. Publishers and libraries spent a significant amount of time pitting the print book against the ebook in the early years of digital reading—at the time very few were pointing out that there was no real competition between the two formats to begin with, at least not to the extent that one should cancel out the other. Similarly, librarians have been tempted to decipher the maze of book and ebook buying models as a zero-sum game, i.e., that some models must clearly stand in opposition to others.

While it could be argued that some ebook models do, indeed, encourage ownership while others encourage access (making it easy to distinguish between purchasing and subscribing to provide access), or that some models encourage purchase of a whole book while others ask for micro-transaction payments based on use, such arguments become problematic when applied to methods of discovering and acquiring content that were intentionally designed to adapt to the changing needs of libraries over time rather than to compete with new models. Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in the case of the Approval Plan—the many decades-old method that thousands of academic libraries around the world use to discover and acquire scholarly books.

Has the Approval Plan stood the test of time, many now ask, as some libraries move away from buying to own to embrace the access-based services. Does the complex process of profiling (books and libraries), which stands at the core of Approval Plans, still make sense in the age of advanced technologies that track user activities in order to provide proof of what is needed without guess-work or prediction? Does the emphasis on thoughtful curation rather than on the immediate—and perhaps momentary—demand of the user put libraries at risk of developing collections that won’t be used? Not only has the Approval Plan stood the test of time as a highly effective book buying tool—especially with the integration of ebooks—it has evolved with libraries consistently and to the point where it may not even be appropriate anymore to consider it a ‘traditional’ method. In fact, there are more Approval Plans running in academic libraries today than ever before. How is it possible, one wonders, that a method used to support buying scholarly books for over half a century continues to adapt so well to new technologies and not appear outdated?

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Every argument for the necessity of alternative acquisitions and collecting methods begins with the awareness that libraries are overwhelmed by the amount of content produced every year and need help from outside sources to keep up with the onslaught of new materials. Hence, the proliferation of ebook business models offered to libraries. According to recent GOBI Library Solutions data, over 70,000 new titles are published each year by some 1,400 scholarly publishers, and this in English language alone. About half of those titles are available simultaneously in print and digital format. With library staff being trimmed and assigned more often to work with patrons, how able are librarians to cope with discovering and selecting each and every book that might possibly be of interest to their faculty and students? While various acquisitions models have arisen to solve this dilemma today, the Approval Plan is the result of similar thinking many years ago, when academic libraries began to recognize the need for a system—a discovery mechanism, to be more precise—which would allow them to keep up.

The story began in the early 1960s with Richard Abel, owner of a library book-selling firm, Richard Abel & Co., and his idea that book purchasing habits of academic libraries could be predicted once the subject areas of interest to each library were identified and understood. In order to achieve accurate predictions, a method needed to be developed that would make it possible to streamline the discovery process for relevant new titles published. That’s essentially what the Approval Plan remains today—a complex, sophisticated, and precise discovery mechanism that libraries use to anticipate and ultimately meet the needs of researchers (in cooperation with faculty, of course). Robert F. Nardini described it in more technical terms in Marcel Dekker’s The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science as “an acquisitions method under which a library receives regular shipments of new titles selected by a dealer, based on a profile of library collection interests, with the right to return what it decides not to buy. Titles that fit the profile less perfectly are announced by the dealer [the vendor] with paper or electronic slips or forms, which the library may use to place orders.”

A more imaginative way of understanding the Approval Plan is to think of it as a giant Harry Potter Sorting Hat, involving the following: books are poured into the hat each week; incoming books are profiled by knowledgeable and experienced subject specialists; relevant titles are sent (in print or digital format) to libraries based on elaborate ‘profiles’ of their collections, which are created (and updated) by the vendor’s collection development managers (often librarians themselves); titles may be reviewed by librarians, sometimes in cooperation with faculty, and decisions are made whether to keep the books or send them back (i.e., reject them). Other components may be incorporated into the buying process, such as Demand-Driven Acquisition (DDA), which allows libraries to eventually acquire those titles only if they are used sufficiently. The goal most often, of course, is to purchase the book and grow the library’s collection of titles in certain subject areas—and to own those titles in perpetuity.

To understand the benefits of this complex mechanism, which, in the words of Tony Horava (Univ. of Ottawa) is an instrument involving many players and many expectations both from libraries and vendors, we need to first recognize that the Approval Plan has evolved over time and it has grown with, rather than moved away from, libraries’ collections and acquisitions needs. We also need to bear in mind that just as the Approval Plan of today (which includes ebooks) is not the Approval Plan of 1990 (which only knew print), the Approval Plan of 2030 will likely have evolved in ways we are not able to predict yet. That said, its benefits for libraries are as evident today as they were decades ago—especially in the context of the ever-expanding universe of digital content. Benefits include, among others: awareness of and the ability to acquire books immediately upon publication; the ability to create balanced collections; the comprehensiveness of new title coverage; the ability to reallocate staff to other duties in the library; more time to focus on identifying titles that require expertise (while relying on vendors to handle that vast number of titles from publishers that are easily identified); the ability to build timely collections comparable with peer institutions, thus remain competitive; and the ability to rely on knowledgeable human beings at least as much as on sophisticated technologies to ensure the buying process always leads to the building of stable and wide-ranging collections.

Indeed, one of the key traits of the Approval Plan is the human factor. The amount of human knowledge required and the frequency of communication needed between vendors and librarians at every step in the process is probably greater than with any other method of acquiring books. Ashley Bailey, Director, Collection Development and Workflow Solutions (GOBI Library Solutions), who has spent the past decade helping libraries develop profiles to ensure their long-term goals and research needs are understood fully by the vendor supplying the books, points to the level of trust that needs to exist in that synergetic working relationship: “The approval plan is a constant dialog between the two parties,” she says. “As a librarian on the vendor side, I have great respect for the librarians in the institutions we work with and have always felt that they, in turn, value our suggestions and the work that goes into approval plan management.” This work on the vendor side that Bailey refers to—and that takes place in that giant Sorting Hat day in and day out—is multifaceted and comprises a small army of experts employed by the vendor—among them bibliographers, book profilers, and collection development managers—who, working together with librarians, create approval plans that can easily run up to 150 pages-worth of metadata. This process, says Bailey, is not only highly dynamic but flexible enough to provide core content to a small library and powerful enough to aid in a larger universe of collecting for a large research institution.

Eric Wedig, Coordinator for Scholarly Resources for the Social Sciences at Tulane University in New Orleans, a Carnegie I research university, attests to the value of approval plans in a library with extensive research activities but a small collection development staff: “Without our approval plans, many important resources would not be in our library [which currently houses four million titles in print and digital format]. Further, they remain vital to collection development because they allow the library to build collections that do not include random materials. If collection development is relegated to ‘just in time’ and does not take into account the future research needs of scholars, the resources will appear random and incomplete.” Although Tulane piloted a DDA program and still uses it for smaller presses and peripheral materials, Wedig says that its long-term strategy is to rely on the Approval Plan to provide a foundation needed for the continued building of its wide-ranging collections.

This foundation has for decades revolved around building print collections. In the past decade, however, the Approval Plan has evolved to include digital content, and now options for institutions like Tulane—which already owns over a million ebooks—range from purchasing individual titles to purchasing comprehensive ebook packages (either by single publishers or aggregators) to incorporating DDA. This is where the original Approval Plan evolves into the so-called E-Approval Plan, which usually points to even more advantages for libraries than the original Approval Plan. In their Information Today article, “Ebook Approval Plans: Integration to Meet User Needs,” Michael Buckley and Deborah Tritt shared their experience of piloting an E-Approval Plan at Nova Southeastern University’s Library (FL), concluding that a major benefit of the E-Approval Plan over the traditional one was the power of the selector to refuse a title on approval and preview the full text of the ebook prior to acquisition: “Combining the model of the Approval Plan with the benefits of immediate access [i.e., the use of modern technology] to preview the item gave us considerable control in regulating the purchases.” For libraries that opt for shelf-ready processing of print Approval Plan receipts to save time, the benefit of returning unwanted books is only there if the books are damaged or fall outside of their profile. Buckey and Tritt also noted other benefits of the E-Approval Plan in this article, namely the ability to fine tune (“one could study the rejected titles and determine patterns or characteristics that might warrant adjustments”); the ability to see which ebooks had the highest usage and make further decisions based on those statistics; and the ability to better manage duplication between electronic and print formats.

The E-Approval Plan also exists in the form of an E-Preferred Approval Plan, which simply means that the library prefers an ebook over a print book but will purchase a print copy if an e-version isn’t available. Texas A&M University (TAMU) Library, whose acquisitions strategy was thoroughly described by its staff in CRL’s article “E-Approval Plans in Research Libraries,” reported that as a result of implementing an E-Preferred Approval Plan “weekly print approval shipments declined, mitigating ongoing space limitations; duplication was minimized, and oversight of ebooks by subject selectors and collections personnel has improved.” The challenges that existed in the early years of E-Approval Plans, which librarians at TAMU alluded to as considerable drawbacks, are no longer disadvantages today, since conditions under which e-content is offered to libraries have improved. For example, more titles are now available in ebook format, whereas a few years ago limited availability of titles, especially new titles, was a constant barrier for libraries; publishers do not embargo titles as frequently as they used to (in order to protect print revenue), which means more titles are now available simultaneously in both formats; prices of ebooks are not as unstable as they once were; and vendors’ relationships with publishers have evolved to a point where very few are now not represented in the vendor’s Approval Plan, whereas in the past the absence of certain publishers in vendor ebook pools resulted in visible gaps in collecting.

The Demand-Driven-Preferred Approval Plan (DDPAP) allows the library to make new titles available for patrons to use and will only purchase if they see significant use. One such library is the Pollak Library of California State University, Fullerton. “Everything that matches our profile and is available for DDA will be added to our catalog for potential purchase,” says Ann Roll, Collection Development Librarian at Pollak. “If a profiled title isn’t available for DDA, then the Approval Plan kicks in and we may automatically purchase an ebook or a print book or receive a notification for possible firm order later.” This hybrid approach enables the DDA benefits of providing a breadth of content options at an affordable cost and the Approval Plan benefits of automatically acquiring materials that are core to the library’s collecting areas soon after they are published. “Prior to moving to this approach, we found that we were spending too much on the Approval Plan for materials that weren’t being used,” adds Roll. “This method provides the best of both worlds.”

Roll documented Pollak Library’s implementation of DDPAP in a couple of articles, including the more recent “Both Just-in-Time and Just-in-Case,” where she provided insight into her institution’s decision to combine “the strength of approval plan profiling and the user focus of DDA” with the ultimate goal to enable access to more content while spending less. “After revising the Approval Plan to direct titles to DDA whenever possible…the library did, indeed, increase access and reduce cost,” says Roll. “This approach assures that the library will regularly receive new publications in the subject areas of primary interest (the strength of the Approval Plan) and save costs and provide immediate access to unowned materials users may need (the strength of DDA).” It is important to note here that much of these arguments in favor of incorporating DDA into the library Approval Plan is what is making the DDA model unsustainable for many publishers, and so increasingly embargoes on new titles available in DDA are being imposed.

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When we take into account the librarians’ recurrent perception of DDA as user-focused and their perception of the Approval Plan as curation-focused, as implied by Roll, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many now refer to the Approval Plan as a ‘librarian-driven acquisition’ method which anticipates the future needs of researchers. This is true in the sense that the Approval Plan requires highly competent subject specialists and trained librarians to participate in the process but certainly not in the sense that the Approval Plan stands in opposition to DDA. As the evolution of the Approval Plan clearly demonstrates, a more appropriate way of understanding its relationship to DDA is to think of the Approval Plan as the primary support tool for DDA. In fact, it is likely that without vendors having included DDA in that giant Sorting Hat, DDA would probably have become a significantly more challenging model for academic libraries. Further, taking into account that librarians work closely with faculty when selecting titles via the Approval Plan, one can even argue that the Approval Plan itself is a form of demand-driven acquisition, since the titles selected always in one way or another involve the participation of or feedback from faculty—who may be the most important patrons of the library in their institutions.

At its core, the Approval Plan is the library’s book discovery tool able to incorporate various business models over time, and this is a key function in a world seeing well over one million English-language books published each year, many of them inappropriate to an academic library. What libraries decide to do with the content once it has been identified as appropriate for acquisition is dependent on their collection goals, and the options there range from requesting to have a print or ebook sent to them with an invoice to requesting that the book be sent in the form of a DDA record. And because it can adapt to new technologies so well, the Approval Plan is perceived as a living mechanism designed to stand the test of time, not be threatened by it.

As libraries’ needs evolve and new technologies push library patrons’ expectations to new heights, it is only logical to expect that this living mechanism will continue to morph into various incarnations of itself with time, but not at the expense of compromising the purpose of libraries. Stephen Smith, Acquisitions Librarian at University of Illinois at Chicago, which utilizes electronic order processing for both monographs and serials, clarifies: “No technology or format—whether print, fiche, electronic, or other—should drive our purpose as academic research libraries and librarians. Thoughtful, reflective analysis towards intelligent policy should always be our mode of operation. For decades, approval plans, utilizing precise and current profiles which are matched well to institutional needs, have provided comprehensive and timely access to resources in a cost-effective way, significantly reducing title-by-title purchasing. They have consistently offered us a useful degree of flexibility and helped us mitigate fiscally challenging times.”

At its core, the Approval Plan is also a man-made process rooted in communication between vendors and librarians on the one end and faculty and librarians on the other end, and everyone is expected to deliver their expertise in this process so that the right books end up in the right libraries. It is the vendor’s responsibility to stay on top of what goes into that giant Sorting Hat (in cooperation with publishers), while it is the academic librarian’s responsibility to determine what ultimately comes out of it (in cooperation with faculty). And what goes into that hat is an endless stream of scholarly titles that continue to be published at a dizzying rate. If everyone does their part, what comes out is almost guaranteed to be highly relevant content for academic libraries and the communities they serve.

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REFERENCES

Bostic, M.J. “Approval Acquisitions and Vendor Relations: An Overview.” Acquisitions Librarian. Vol. 5. 1991.

Buckley, Matthew & Deborah Tritt. “Ebook Approval Plans: Integration To Meet User Needs.” Information Today. Vol. 31. No. 3. 2011.

Horava, Tony. “A Concurrent Pilot Project Approach to Approval Plans.” Library Collections, Acquisitions & Technical Services, Issue 30. 2006.

Nardini, Robert F. “Approval Plans.” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Marcel Dekker, 2003.

Nardini, R.F. “The Approval Plan Profiling Session.” Library Acquisitions: Practice and Theory. Vol. 18. Iss. 3. 1994.

Pickett, Carmelita, Simona Tabacaru & Jeanne Harrell. “E-Approval Plans in Research Libraries.” College & Research Libraries. 2014.

Roll, Ann. “Both Just-in-Time and Just-in-Case.” Association for Library Collections & Technical Services. 2015.

Roll, Ann. “A Demand-Driven-Preferred Approval Plan.” Proceedings of the Charleston Library Conference. 2013.