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E-book acquisition based on use and demand could save libraries thousands

P.D.A. in the Library
October 28, 2011

Librarians might frown on P.D.A. in the library -- that is to say, Public Displays of Affection by canoodling college couples.

But another kind of P.D.A. might bring a different, more welcome sort of disruption to the library; a disruption that, once libraries pass the e-book tipping point, could save some universities thousands in annual purchasing costs.

That would be Patron-Driven Acquisition, a model of e-book licensing that aims to relieve library purchasing agents from spending thousands on books nobody will end up reading. A new report on the future of academic libraries identifies such demand-based services as an inevitable trend for libraries under pressure to prove that their expenditures are in line with their value. And one university says its own experimentation has produced damning data exposing the inefficiency of tradition collection-building compared to new methods that could prevail in the digital era.

“P.D.A. offers the opportunity to provide a much larger collection of books to patrons at a small fraction of what it would cost a library to put every item on its shelves,” says a report released this week by the Advisory Board Company, a D.C.-based consulting firm. “It also corrects the library’s fundamentally inefficient delivery model in which librarians guess at what patrons will need, rather than allowing the patron to guide the provision and acquisition process.”

The Advisory Board report, a thick primer covering a range of trends in digital librarianship, predicts a shift in the way academic libraries provide book content to their patrons that mirrors a broader trend in digital media. (The report is not public.) Academic libraries will jettison “large collections of physical books in open stacks with low circulation,” the report says, in favor of licensing agreements with e-book vendors that will enable libraries to purchase only those books that are highest in demand, while paying short-term access fees for books that students use a little and nothing at all for books they do not use.

One institution that has been trying out the P.D.A. model is Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. The library there inked a deal in 2009 with Ebook Library (EBL), a company that aggregates e-books of use to academic libraries and sells licenses on behalf of vendors. Under the agreement, which cost the library a one-time “platform fee” of several thousand dollars, 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.”

Doug Way, head of collections and scholarly communications for Grand Valley State, says the library is going to change the units leading up to the purchase from days to weeks after learning that, under their current contract with EBL, publishers do not draw a price distinction between the two.

The initial data from the experiment have been eye-opening, Way says.

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.

In 2010, the library tripled the number of EBL titles its students could browse. The usage numbers grew, Way says, but the number of e-book purchases stayed roughly the same.

Contrast those approximately 350 e-book purchases per year, all bought based on usage, with the 10,000 physical books Grand Valley State acquires on speculation. Of those 10,000 titles, only about half will be checked out by students.

“Academic libraries typically acquire monographs through a mix of approval plans -- established rules that automate purchases in predetermined disciplines or from particular publishers -- and individual selections from specialized librarians,” says the Advisory Board report.

These physical book purchases are made with noble intentions, says Way. But the inability of libraries to discriminate between books that a library should have “just in case” and books students will actually use amounts to jaw-dropping margins of frivolous spending, he says.

“If I spend $600,000 on those 10,000 books, [then] $300,000 of that is wasted money,” Way says. “We picked the wrong book. We did everything right, but we picked the wrong book.” That is not a one-time cost, either, he says, citing a 2010 study detailing the high storage costs of print books relative to electronic versions.

Like those who chafe at the “customer-is-always-right” attitude ascendant in some corners of higher education, some librarians might look warily on a purchasing mechanism that empowers patrons, not academic experts, to dictate the holdings of a library. The Advisory Board describes this as the “Barnes & Noble Problem” -- fear of compromising the prestige of the collection by giving over to trendy populism.

Way says this is a false threat. “What we find is the majority of the time they pick really good content,” he says. “We focus on these outliers and say, ‘A-ha, that doesn’t work!’ But look at the middle of the bell curve and it is dead-on. People know what they’re doing; you have to trust them.”

Large research institutions with preservation mandates might feel differently, he says. But the digital era might enable more academic libraries to focus more narrowly on the needs of their particular population, rather than any larger culture legacy.

“In order to more rationally match print collections with demonstrated demand, some institutions are working together to organize shared storage facilities that eliminate duplicate copies,” reiterates the Advisory Board report, citing consortial arrangements such as HathiTrust. “These facilities ensure access to and preservation of materials and remove excess holdings from collections to free up room for new acquisitions.”

Or narrow them to include only the books that students actually need. Librarians cannot do this part as intuitively, Way says. “We don’t know what our users want,” he says, “because if we knew what our users want, we wouldn’t guess wrong half the time.”

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