Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An idea concerning moving library collections from 'ownership' to pure 'access'

Just read through the slides from a 2011 presentation by Colin Koproske entitled "Redefining the academic library: managing the migration to digital information services, part I: planning for transformation and the future of ebooks" and I have to say something:  I am convinced.  I don't know whether it was the slide or just the ideas rolling around in my head finally falling into place, but I think I am sold on patron driven access (PDA) (which was basically what the slides were about).

I had a lot of the usual concerns about PDA:  controlling cost, ensuring a good collection, preventing gaming of the system.  But the one slide about moving from an ownership model to an access model is probably what brought me over to the dark side.  Having read a Rick Anderson article on Scholarly Kitchen a while ago, which was effectively about PDA, the idea of moving from "just in case" to "just in time" has been brewing in my head.  Although I don't agree that librarians are particularly bad at judging future quality (in fact I think we are uniquely qualified, more so than any other professional), the fact of the matter is that there is too much change and uncertainty nowadays to be able to do effectively and sustainably.

You may notice that I actually wrote patron driven "access" instead of acquisition.  Well, I'm not sure I'm sold on the acquisition part.  I mean, if the point of PDA is to provide a resource when demand is there and to not be building a "legacy" collection, why purchase the item?  Perhaps a pattern of patron use does predict future value better than a devoted selector (arguable) but there will be an end to that value.  Even great present patron use can't predict future use far into the future and with the information universe exploding as it is and will be, this will be increasingly true.  If use is required now, then provide access now.

What I'm suggesting is the 'pay per use' model basically.  I have not read much about the effectiveness of this model (more additions to my reading list) but I do see one big straight off:  control of budget.  If you give access to resources to your patrons and are billed per use by them without vetting that use in some way, who knows how much you will be spending per year?  This could be controlled by having an account with the vendor from which fees are withdrawn.  Access is provided (and displayed) when there is sufficient funds in the account and removed when insufficient.  Perhaps, once a certain level of usage of the contents of a package were reached, access would be guaranteed for the rest of the year?  Who knows.

Financials could easily get out of control in this model or at least stay quite unpredictable and difficult to react to (e.g. what to do if your patrons surprise you and use up all the money in the account early in the year?) so some experimenting would have to be done.  The vendors' resources could also be called upon since, because their revenue would be based on usage, they would be motivated to increase usage by your patrons as much as possible.  I am never happy with the idea of injecting advertising into the scholarly environment (ethical considerations here) but the fact is that advertising is already strewn through the information universe and trying to keep companies out of campus seems increasingly futile.  Why not harness their motivation and resources and allow them to sponsor programs, services, staff, etc. on campus and allow them to drum up usage?  Librarians are always bemoaning how hard it is to get the faculty and students to listen to us when we say how useful these expensive resources are...  perhaps we could use some help.

This is just a blast of an idea that I had while eating lunch today, so perhaps I've missed something obviously flawed with my thinking.  Feel free to blast back.

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