Category Archives: Technical Services

The Rock and the Hard Place (Part 1): Renewal Season, No Big Deal?

The following is the first in a series of posts on the subscription-based model and open access alternatives, and how each get stuck from their respective ends of the scholarly information supply chain.  As a reminder: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer or of ACRL.

September is renewal season when the largest percentage of a typical academic library’s collection budget is committed to the hands of publishers and vendors, thereby determining the largest part of what research is accessible in January of the following year.  This four-month lag between getting what you paid for is just one of the many problematic examples of the slow-churning scholarly information supply chain.

Here’s another.

These problems have been raised by a crisis of economic sustainability most commonly blamed on the serial subscription model.  The movement toward remedying this problem, however, often comes from the perspective of authors, copyright, and open access.  I think shedding light on some of the practical economics at play in the subscription renewal process can help show where both the subscription model and open access movement get stuck in this process, and may reveal ways to join forces for change.

“No big deal…”

In the grand scheme of the subscription renewal process, four months is not really too much to ask considering a subscription vendor must have time to process its multitude of customers’ orders from a further multitude of publishers, and all by the start of the calendar year. In a typical renewal year library staff must also build in sufficient advance processing time to meet that September deadline.  Accounting for fiscal close, data gathering and normalization, as well as faculty review and input, means renewals can require anywhere from 9 to 12 months of advance preparation.  Without any problems you might have a 3-month breather between January and March before the full cycle of renewal processing begins again.

Significant exceptions to  a typical cycle occur with the renewal of what’s called a “Big Deal” package.  These packages are so named because they are, well, big, both in terms of number of total titles and the fact that the titles represent most, or all, of a publisher’s content. The deal, beyond the size of what you get, lies (pun intended!) in the unique way in which the package is priced. Traditionally this is based on a library’s historic total spend with a publisher at a given time, rather than the title-by-title value of the list.

Another exception is these deals are often negotiated in multi-year contracts, requiring a comprehensive review only every 2-5 years, as opposed to annually. Yet all of the annual renewal steps above must still happen in a multi-year contract renewal.  If your library budget is under close scrutiny, that more comprehensive analysis probably involves more people, such as deans and directors, sister campuses, and often consortia. More than likely the analysis also involves more data, such as usage, interlibrary loan (ILL) or other article level access options, overlap analysis, or citation analysis.  A communication plan may also be necessary whether the purpose is justifying continuing expenses or considering cancellations.

“No Big Deal?”

When looking for savings these packages seem a reasonable option for cutting costs, given their large portion of the budget and the number of included titles, sometimes hundreds of which get little to no use.  Unfortunately, however, because the Big Deal is not designed according to title-by-title spend, attempting to subscribe to fewer titles at list price can mean paying more in the end.  Outright cancellation is not without risk either, since in addition to a major loss of revenue for the publisher, this can translate to unpredictable and shifted costs for the library.

Some publishers sensitive to the workflow and economic challenges of libraries — usually those with MLS degrees or a background in libraries — make an effort to negotiate for alternative solutions rather than lose large sums of subscription revenue.  Such alternatives, however, rarely include an ability to cut costs through cancellation or by swapping out underused titles.  Nor has there been much effort to limit the amount of content publishers may acquire that libraries must take on in additional spend.

According to a longitudinal ARL study on the topic of Big Deals, however, this model persists because “[n]either market studies or market forces have produced a sustainable new strategy for pricing and selling e-journals” (Strieb & Blixrud, 2014, p 587).  Or in words heard from some of the big names in the business:

“Our business model is not designed to save you money.” – Elsevier

“As long as we’re making money, we’re not inclined to change.” – Springer

Without an on-the-ground budget crisis or other disruptive force, institutions often continue to renew, stuck in a mess of our collective making.  I observed a parallel “stuck” reasoning on the open access side of things when I reported on Garnar & Knox’s ACRL 2015 conference session, “Ethical Issues in Open Access” (tweet above).   This shared state of paralysis led me to wonder how advancing scholarly communication and negotiating subscriptions renewals could work together to get ourselves unstuck.

New Dealings

On the surface these two areas appear to work against each other, since perpetuating renewal of subscription-based models can diminish purchasing power or investment in open access alternatives.  But there is evidence that this is changing both organizationally (MIT) and in the evolving models for open access (see OAWAL, NISO).   As my library prepares to renew four big deals in the near future there is real incentive to explore alternatives.

I would love to hear others’ experiences working with subscription renewals or open access workflows.  What intersections do you see?   Where are you are most stuck?  What alternatives have you tried? Anyone you making inroads to jointly address these issues?

Feel free to share responses in the comments, or email them to



Emery, J., & Stone, G. (n.d.) APC Processing Services. OAWAL: Open Access Workflows for Academic Librarians, 2.6. Retrieved from

MIT Libraries (n.d.). About Scholarly Communication & Collections Strategy. Retrieved from

NISO (2016). Managing an Open Access World, Part 1: Open Access & Acquisitions. [Webinar] Retrieved from

Strieb, K.L., & Blixrud, J.C. (2014) Unwrapping the Bundle: An Examination of Research Libraries and the “Big Deal” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14 (4), 587–615.

Put a Process On It!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Angela Rathmel to the ACRLog team. Angela is the head of Acquisitions & Resource Sharing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her research focuses on libraries’ organizational response to changes in scholarly publishing, acquisition, and access, particularly with respect to organizational communication, information seeking, and knowledge management.

Working in acquisitions and resource sharing, I sometimes struggle to navigate my unique and shared place in the various communities of this profession (ACRL, ALCTS, LLAMA, etc.). I’m often characterized as a “technical services” librarian, but this does not always adequately describe the work I do. In the past 15 years that I have worked in this part of the library, I have seen dramatic changes as a result of the material transition of print to electronic resources. Beyond just the physical format, these changes have meant that technical services staff now work more directly with library users and no longer just process behind the scenes. Our work also involves direct and frequent interaction across more areas of the library than ever before.

I genuinely enjoy working with people. Discovering new ways to communicate across the library, especially through radical change, fascinates me. In spite of these interpersonal interests, in many ways I fall right into the technical services stereotype. I’m a cautious communicator, and my go-to mode of thinking is to solve every issue with a systematized process. Give me a problem and I’ll “put a process on it”!

A particularly cogent example of this tendency occurred recently with some of my colleagues in “public services” (another phrase that no longer adequately describes their work). We were discussing our campus-wide initiatives in diversity, equity, and social justice and how the libraries could support these initiatives throughout all of our services, not just at the service desk.  I saw this as a perfect opportunity to once again lower the barriers between technical and public services. But I worried because I found myself expressing the challenge many of us in technical services face even initiating discussions about our own day-to-day work conflicts. I was fearful about my ability, especially as a leader, to initiate a productive conversation with my staff about conflicts, like microagressions, of which individuals may not even be aware. So, I did what I often do when faced with uncertainty — I put a process on it! I suggested that we solicit the help of trained facilitators from the libraries’ organizational development unit. As one of those trained facilitators, this seemed both a safe way for me get involved, while at the same time satisfying the requirements of scale.

I was amazed at how my colleague’s response could all at once genuinely honor my approach and also persuasively encourage each of us to find our own (maybe different) path. This was not the first time I have questioned the appropriateness of my knack to put a process on things. But that discussion was moment of clarity shaping everything I’ve encountered and thought about since. It has prompted me to examine more closely and even question this tendency that has served me well so far in my path in technical services. I thought I’d begin my introductory post to ACRLog sharing my experience as this kind of librarian, and hopefully in the process discover more about a path forward.

The draw of process

When I talk about process in this context, I mean the way in which I think through the steps of workflow, understand cause and effect, and most efficiently move from point A to point B, all while accounting for the connections in between. For acquisitions and resource sharing, the overarching process we are concerned with is the scholarly communication supply chain and its ability to get the resources users need as efficiently as possible. Individual motivations for this work vary, of course. Some enjoy improving these processes for the economic reasons: the joy of saving money, cutting costs, and demonstrating a return on investment. Some like the ever present source of a puzzle to solve. Many still are motivated by service and how the process makes it easy for other people. Some like fighting for our core values through the process of negotiation with vendors. For the more introverted among us, it seems that processes at their root help create predictability where a thing might otherwise be or feel out of control. This certainly describes the environment in which libraries and we librarians of all types have found ourselves ever since change became the new normal.

The benefit of process is not just for the individual coping with change. It has a direct benefit to the organization as a whole. In my experience, process helps me discover and understand how to use new technologies effectively.  Process has been the language I use to help others through ongoing training. In my library as whole, that language enables me to translate the impact of larger change on our work. Becoming a trained facilitator, I’ve learned better processes of communication between individuals or groups, made meetings run more smoothly, facilitated strategic planning and assessment efforts, and contributed to larger organizational change. How each area within the library addresses their own particular management of perpetual change has brought about all manner of processes, frameworks, assessment models, and mission statements. It seems librarians of all types can put a process on just about everything.

Process in the extreme

The consequence of taking process thinking too far is that it can get in the way of actual doing, or worse, overlook the human need in all of us for deeper meaning and connection. Technical process efficiency taken to its extreme is automation. Even the rise in library automation processes, however, has not eliminated the need for human aspects in the most technical of workflow processes because the environment is filled with people serving people.  I tend to perceive my own process as an act of creativity. As my leadership responsibilities move me from introversion to ambiversion, I prefer to process with others, creating new things and building new relationships. Additional research, suggesting that our minds do not even process or recall like computers at all, supports the notion that there is a more creative present and future for our work.

Processes involved in addressing continual change on an organizational level are essentially human-oriented. These can’t achieve the extreme of automation because they too require ongoing attention for the people involved. How our relationships change, how we communicate across new organizational structures, and how we respond to actual people, are a necessary part of our response to the rapid changes in our work. People and their relationships certainly don’t want to be processed; they need to be seen, understood, and valued.

Process to path

The conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • we need both technical process mindedness and relational mindedness
  • these are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Getting myself to that point means rediscovering the areas of research that piqued my curiosity and inspired my passion for this profession from the start – Devin’s sense-making and research around the reference interview. This research speaks directly to how our systematized human processes and automated systems can and should be relational. The fundamentals of communicating in our profession are constructive,  “tied to specific times, place, and perspectives” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p.5). This applies not only for dealing with patrons, but for dealing with one another, inside and across library departments.

I intend to stay involved in interactions and discussion like the one that prompted this reflection. I may not have the capacity yet to effectively communicate, or know how to take action, on issue of diversity, equity and social justice. But I know enough that it is my privilege to learn. My awareness and willingness seem small to me, but I can accept them as important and necessary steps on my larger path.


Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.