CHICAGO — University presses publish plenty of books that are read only by academics.
They also publish plenty of books that are read by no one.
Inventory research has suggested that as much as half of a library’s holdings never circulate.
“We are very good at figuring out what kinds of books our patrons are going to want,” said Rick Anderson, associate dean for scholarly resources and collections at the University of Utah, at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses here on Tuesday.
“We are not very good,” Anderson continued, “at figuring out which particular titles within those categories our patrons are actually going to use.”
And so libraries end up letting the majorities of their handpicked collections collect dust in the stacks while mailing back and forth the books that students and scholars actually use through interlibrary loan programs -- which is not so much a service, Anderson says, as “how we apologize to our patrons for our failure to guess they’re actually going to want to read.”
But the days for apologizing could be numbered. Libraries, including Anderson’s at Utah, are beginning to flip the process of collection-building on its head by striking deals that let their patrons’ reading habits determine which works they purchase.
Instead of guessing what their patrons will need and buying the books upfront, these libraries are striking deals with e-book vendors where the libraries get charged only when their patrons use the digital texts. No need for stacks full of unused monographs, no need to send away for books the purchaser did not think to acquire.
The Spread of PDA
Patron-driven acquisition, or PDA, is not new, but it is on the rise. Approximately 400 to 600 libraries worldwide have switched to a patron-driven system for purchasing new works, and that number is likely to double over the next year and a half, according to Joseph Esposito, a digital publishing consultant who has spent the last nine months studying the implications of PDA with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The rise of PDA is expected to save libraries a lot of money on collections management. In 2009, the library at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, started using the method. Patrons at the library accessed 6,239 e-books that year, but they used only 343 of them enough to trigger a purchase. Grand Valley paid its vendor, Ebook Library, $69,000. If it had bought all the e-books its patrons skimmed but did not “use,” it would have paid $550,000.
But how PDA stands to affect university presses -- the subject of Esposito’s Mellon-funded research, which he plans to release in full next month -- is harder to predict. If academic libraries pay only for what their patrons use, will university presses still be able to afford to publish obscure monographs that nobody reads?
Nobody truly knows the extent to which academic libraries prop up university presses that dutifully churn out hyper-specialized monographs and adapted dissertations in addition to their more popular titles, said Esposito. The math on that is fuzzy, he explained, since the majority of press titles are sold to libraries through intermediaries and wholesalers.
But based on what little information he was able to glean through his research, Esposito did some admittedly rough accounting and estimated that 25 percent of university press sales go to libraries. University presses do about $320 million in total sales. That would mean $80 million in sales to libraries. PDA would theoretically eliminate the full sale of all library books that end up merely sitting on the shelves in testament to the supposed folly of librarian-driven acquisition -- roughly 40 percent at your average general research library, said Esposito.
That means university presses could be looking at a $32 million loss, or about 10 percent of total sales. "So a big enough number to be concerned, but it's not going to topple the business," said Esposito in an e-mail after the panel. He added that this was an extreme scenario in which libraries buy absolutely none of the titles that never get checked out of the stacks.
The point is that university presses might stand to take a hit if they do not adapt cleverly, said Esposito. “The challenge is for the libraries’ gain not to be the presses’ loss,” he said.
Aside from the business problem of adjusting to a demand-driven economy for scholarly literature, some in the audience sensed a moral dilemma in moving away from a model whereby university presses jointly subsidize the valorization of rigorous, if obscure, scholarly literature.
Pragmatism vs. Principle
“I think we’ve always had this feeling that we’ve been partners with academic libraries in creating such things,” said Charles Watkinson, director of the Purdue University Press, during a Q&A session after the panel. “We know they’re not going to be used [in the short term] -- that’s almost part of it,” he said.
But university presses, Watkinson said, recognize that a monograph about an archaeological dig, for example, could resurface as a crucial node in a future scholar’s research effort to map a civilization.
“When you describe the current situation as a partnership between libraries and university presses, that makes it sound very good and noble,” said Anderson, the Utah collections dean.
“Here’s another way of expressing it,” he continued. “University presses publish books that are no freaking good to anybody, libraries buy them and put them on the shelves, where they sit and are never used by anyone, and with the money that we used to buy them, university presses publish more books that are no use to anybody.” The crowd chuckled nervously.
Anderson apologized rhetorically for putting it so starkly, but he did not back off his point. While a monograph may indeed turn out to be the missing piece of somebody’s research decades down the line, he said, there is no way to predict or quantify that when it comes to making decisions about how to spend increasingly scarce library dollars.
“The question becomes what should be the criteria according to which we discriminate,” he said. “Should it be on the basis of what our patrons demonstrably need, or should it be on the basis of what we consider to be of high quality?”
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