Publishing Fat Cats, Collection Curation, and Serving Today’s Patron

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Heidi Steiner, Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University.

The greatest reflection I find myself having following this year’s LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit is only vaguely about ebooks. Instead my mind is circling around balance. I tuned in to the “Marketing Ebooks to Students” panel ready for ideas about how I can get the online students I work with even more sold on ebooks to fill their immediate needs. I greatly enjoy Library Babel Fish and was excited to hear Barbara Fister’s perspective, which turned out to be: “I’m not quite ready to market ebooks to my students yet.” Barbara raised many questions we should all be thinking about. Her probing questions touched on patron privacy, censorship, preservation, sharing, putting money into yet more temporary licensed bundles, the long-term ramifications of providing patron driven acquisitions for last-minute needs, curating collections for the future, and talking to our patrons, both students and faculty, about what they really want. As a result, my brain is now in a seemingly inescapable conundrum.

While Barbara was speaking, I found myself focusing on her mentions of patron driven acquisitions (PDA) and trying to rectify her well-argued thoughts with my personal mental framework around PDA. Most people probably think of patron driven acquisitions in the most traditional sense: patrons initiating purchases of books for the physical collection. This may be in place via request buttons in the library catalog or some other mechanism. With ebooks in the fold, there are also plenty of libraries experimenting with patron driven ebook acquisitions. In my mind, I go directly to the model of PDA we use at my library, which is built around on-demand ebook rentals. Herein lies where my internal struggle begins. How do we balance standing up to the man, curating collections for the future, and serving the patrons we have now?

At Norwich University we serve an array of unique populations, including corps of cadets and civilian on-campus undergraduates and entirely online students in the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Our online students are on a tight course schedule with most in 6-credit hour, 11-week graduate courses, many with steady research requirements. At the library, we are constantly looking for ways to make necessary resources available quickly and seamlessly for all our patrons, but the online students pose the greatest challenge. This is notably important considering the impossibilities of physical interlibrary loan for books when students are around the globe. Collection and content curation can only take a small library so far, especially in serving such a diverse group of patrons. For us, patron driven acquisitions, specifically ebook rentals facilitated with Ebook Library (EBL), are a stop gap in the hole of needs and expectations. We choose what of the EBL catalog to make visible in our collection, patrons can see five minute previews of any given ebook and then request a loan. Ebook rentals default to a week and we pay a percentage of the ebook’s retail price with each rental instance. A purchase trigger goes off after the third rental to stay cost-effective. In my mind, our model of PDA at Norwich is more easily equated with interlibrary loan than collection development.

I often cannot help but ask myself why we are throwing money at publishers to buy books with roughly a 30-40% chance of circulating, when we can provide students with on-demand rentals thus guaranteeing use. What are we giving up by feeding the fat cat publishers and using collection development policies to make a best guess at what might get used one day? It’s a double-edged sword. We are feeding an industry that restricts knowledge to only those with access, while still curating a collection for the future, but may not be providing the resources our patrons need now; it is impossible to predict each possible need. On the flipside, what are we giving up with PDA in any of its possible incarnations? Depending on the scenario, it could be a lot or a little. PDA could mean sacrificing the integrity of our future collection, but it can also mean a satisfy patron today and knowing money spent was actually used for something. Fister’s short yet very powerful talk definitely provides some further clues to both answers, but it seems to me that nothing is that cut and dry.

We are maintaining balance through a combination of traditional, liaison program based collection development and patron driven ebook rentals at Norwich, but I cannot honestly say we are doing much to fight the fat cats…yet. In her talk, Fister argued we should be reinventing the academic monograph, as we are already spending money on books and just might posses the expertise to make it happen. This is an awesome thought and worthy quest, but where do small libraries fall in scholarly content creation? Certainly we can load open access ebook records into our catalogs, as Fister suggests. We can also work towards open access awareness, encourage and push publication in open access journals with our faculty and practice it ourselves, but what role can small college and university and libraries legitimately play in production?

I want to cultivate services that are right for our patrons now, but also desire building a library that is sustainable into the future. How are your libraries reacting as publishers keep an iron fist and ebooks proliferate, all while patron driven acquisitions meet immediate needs? Where do you find balance?

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

5 thoughts on “Publishing Fat Cats, Collection Curation, and Serving Today’s Patron

  1. I’m not sure the way forward either, but sitting and waiting doesn’t exactly seem the best response either. What contributes to my frustration regarding pring/e- and ownership/rental is that faculty and students that do own tablets/readers want to use them for ebooks, while many others have no interest in us owning or providing access to ebooks at all. Libraries stand in an odd place between the parts of our communities that are/aren’t ready for change, our professional commitment to preserve collections, and advocating for vendor practices that are fair and sustainable for all.

    For now, I’m advocating for us to keep moving forward and trying new things, but I also keep reminding people I’m not the guy who intends to throw out all the print books. Either way, someone’s going to feel I’m not going far enough, and I suppose that’s the balance we’ll have to be happy with for now.

  2. To my mind, the solution for many patrons is pretty clearly going to be print-on-demand, at least one it gets to a good price point. Where are the major PDA packages on POD printing rights?

  3. @Josh – Thanks for the comment. I think all of us actually talking…to each other…about the many elements of this conundrum is important. Agreed on the odd place we stand in.

    @Pete – I don’t really see how print-on-demand as a solution is that much different than PDA when you consider the issues of a broken scholarly publishing and communications system along with the desire to build collections for the future. Still feels like the same set of underlying questions. Regarding printing rights in PDA products, I can only speak to Ebook Library, which allows 20% to be printed and tracks it for you.

  4. I guess I imagine POD as eventually reaching a tipping point where it changes the incentive structures and workflows for all involved. Of course the status quo will be defended vigorously by entrenched interests (us included, maybe!) armed with voluminous legal contracts.

    When we get there, I’d assume the ebook vendors–potential fat cats in their own right, btw!-would want a piece of the action, and so would create separate right structures for POD purchase. But who knows? Not this guy.

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