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.

Just Add Water: Resolutions for the New Semester

I’m firmly in the midcareer stage of librarianship, but every fall I’m still a little bit surprised by how quickly the campus and library go from quiet intersession to full and busy when classes begin. Our semester started last week at the college where I work. It’s like an instant soup mix: just add water and stir to reconstitute our campus community into a buzz of activity.

Folks in higher education are lucky that we can celebrate two New Years each year if we’d like to: in January and the start of the new academic year in the fall. On the first day of classes I erased my summer whiteboard to-do list and replaced it with our library goals for this year and my other upcoming library and research tasks, a little ritual that both helps me keep track of my schedule and gets me excited about all of the great work we have planned for the year.

All of which has me thinking about resolutions. I don’t make too big of a deal about New Years’ resolutions, though I do try to do a bit of reflection as a new academic year begins (and in January too), considering what I’d like to accomplish during the year and whether I should make any changes to get there. I was reminded that it’s resolution time again by a post last week on the Prof Hacker blog that suggests we ask ourselves “What do we want to make room for this fall?” (It’s a great post — feel free to head over to Prof Hacker to read it, I can wait here.)

Thinking about the resolutions I’ve made in the past, many involve making room in the ways that the Prof Hacker post discusses: for reading, taking breaks, writing, and long-term planning, among others. All are activities that are kind of nebulous and squishy. Typically nothing will immediately go wrong if I don’t do them, and there are plenty of tasks like paperwork to complete and requisitions to approve that have to happen by a specific deadline. It’s easy to let the deadline-driven stuff crowd out the nebulous stuff, a classic problem of short-term vs. long-term gain.

So this year my one resolution is both modest and sweeping: to make room for the squishy stuff on as many workdays as I can. Sometimes that will mean doing one pomodoro of writing before work, and other times it might look like catching up on my reading over lunch, or taking a break, even if only to walk around the block.

Do you have any new academic year resolutions? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And best wishes for a great semester, too!

Starting from the bottom and teaching my way to the top

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jessica Kiebler, Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College.

My journey into the world of librarianship started with my failure to get a job as an elementary education teacher. I’ll never know if that was due to the over saturated job market or my newbie skills, but one would think that with my undergraduate degree in elementary education, I would be ready to take on library instruction like a fish to water. However, I was never truly confident in front of 30 screaming children so while the transition to libraries wasn’t surprising, getting a job as an instructional librarian was a bit daunting. So if I didn’t want to teach, then how did I end up in an instruction position at an academic college instead of a public reference librarian? Good question. After five years as a librarian and one year in my current position as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College, I decided to reflect on my journey from uncertainty to confidence.

You have to start somewhere

More than a year after graduating with my MLIS, I began working as a solo librarian at a small nursing college that needed a librarian to create their library. Yes, create a library from nothing but shelves, an ILS and a computer. Thankfully, the Director of Education had purchased hundreds of books before I had started and I began the task of cataloging them and organizing the physical space. Not only was I in charge of reference, maintaining the collection and all policy creation but also designing an instruction program. It was an amazing opportunity to learn but also very intimidating in my first professional position without the assistance of a mentor or experienced librarian. I took everything I had learned from my MLIS program and my undergraduate pedagogy courses and combined it with my own research to create a basic instruction program to show students how to use the library resources. The resulting lessons were basic but worked for the limited time and prior knowledge of the students.

Smarter, not harder

As any educator knows, the best lesson plans can mean nothing if an instructor does not have classroom presence or presentation skills. My lack of confidence showed through to my students so while my lesson plans were well written, my pacing and poor question prompting did not create a cohesive experience. I was also dealing with a short amount of instruction time combined with a student body who had little to no computer skills. This made getting experience in teaching actual information literacy very difficult because my classes became so much more about getting students to access the library website or about how to navigate a browser. As it became evident that this was not isolated to my first few cohorts, I had to start teaching smarter, not harder. I made notes about common issues students were having so I could create visual aids that would be on the screen while I walked around and assisted. I made time in my lessons for the common computer questions since I knew they would distract students from learning the steps to get the resources they needed. So while I thought these initial problems were distracting me from teaching, it was actually helping me to learn the constant juggling act that is teaching.

Frequently, I would be ready to move on from the initial login process (our students needed to login to the library website to access any resources) and a student would come in late or say they needed help because they had missed the instructions. In my first months that would have thrown off my thought process and I would have paused the whole class to assist. I learned from my mistakes by preparing the classroom beforehand with login information on the board so students could troubleshoot on their own or with the help of a fellow student. I no longer let those distractions keep me from moving on to my next thought or stall the class. Having a fellow librarian or mentor may have helped me make these progressions faster, but doing it on my own gave me the confidence that I could conquer anything. The challenges of working with limited time and support also forced me to get creative and create resources outside of the classroom that I could use to support students in accessing the library. Since we didn’t have LibGuides, I used free tools like Google Sites and LiveBinders combined with physical handouts and a YouTube page of screencast videos. These aids were incredibly helpful to students who felt they couldn’t absorb everything in one session or who needed a refresher later.

While I made steps to improve my lesson plans each term, I felt unable to move past the limitations of my environment. I updated slides, made handouts clearer and created more effective examples but I wasn’t moving towards a more engaging classroom experience. I felt stuck in the rut of assessing with the same handout and seeing the same issues with student responses month after month. I was proud of what I’d accomplished on my own but knew that I might need some guidance to improve even more. I just didn’t know how much more I would come to learn.

Joining the A-Team

In April 2014, I was hired as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College where I currently work. After two years at my previous position, I knew I was capable of standing in front of a classroom, delivering a lecture, and walking students through technical assistance but I wanted more. I was now working at a college with many majors and would be instructing in the schools of Liberal Arts and Health Studies on much more than just how to access the library website. Would I be able to craft effective, engaging lessons on information literacy objectives? Would I be able to deliver these lessons with confidence? My imposter syndrome was on high alert in my new position.

While it might have worked for me before (although slowly), I didn’t want to rely on my own persistence to improve. I contacted our Information Literacy Coordinator and discussed my concerns about my own teaching: “I’m nervous about trying new assessments. I’m not familiar with these classes. And how do I incorporate information literacy into a database lesson?!” He said not to worry and that it would come with practice. I had the core skills necessary and I could see some sample lesson plans that were already created to get used to teaching in this new environment. Having these road-tested lessons did help my confidence a bit but I still struggled with pacing myself and being comfortable with the silence that can follow when you ask a room of students a question. I knew if I wanted to improve I had to once again find a way to learn from my mistakes.

Tools for success

One tool that helped me more than I thought possible was creating an instruction journal. Immediately after each classroom session, I wrote down all of my impressions from my teaching:

  • How many students were there?
  • What did I teach?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where did I slip up?
  • Were there interesting interactions with students?

Getting those ideas and feelings out on the page created a place for me to archive them so I could go back and improve and also a way to reflect on what could have been better. Since I frequently teach the same courses, I would read through the journal before similar sessions and prepare myself to practice certain skills. This helped me to focus my energy on what needed work and just do what I knew how to do for the rest. I don’t share my instruction journal with anyone so I feel confident in writing whatever feels natural for me and to really be critical (or complimentary!). It’s also a great tool to go back to for yearly evaluations so I can find places where I excelled to point out to supervisors. I also made notes on any fun things I might want to try in the future once I felt comfortable with meeting the basic course objectives.

Finally, success

Finally, I had an instruction success that felt like the culmination of my 5 years of work. While doing outreach to English faculty to plan instruction, a new professor suggested a scavenger hunt lesson which she had done at a previous institution. The concept reminded me of a recent article I had read about creating “stations” for students for a library resources lesson[1]. I crafted a lesson geared for our library – from objectives to rubrics – and the professor loved it so we scheduled a session. On the day of the class, I pored over my notes to make sure I had the sequence of events down. I was sure I would mess up some part and have to backtrack. But I was wrong. I focused my energy on the skills I knew were my weakest – pacing, not being scripted or attached to a Powerpoint, giving students prompts if they aren’t quick to answer my questions – and the session was a success. Students not only completed my worksheet, they did so with thoughtful answers and even made insightful comments in our post-instruction discussion. It was a rewarding experience that I hope to continue.

Final reflections

I have now been a librarian for 5 years. I still have not conquered imposter syndrome (many librarians say they never do) and I know I can still improve my instruction skills. But I’ve learned that you don’t always need formal instruction to take on new skills. So much of my journey was done by coaching myself and learning from others – librarian bloggers, education authors, fellow librarians, my own students, and my own mistakes. I also relied on my fellow team members to help me work through ideas I had for future lessons which always bolstered my confidence. I sometimes felt like asking for help would make it seem like I wanted to take my colleagues’ ideas – especially as the newest member of the team. But when you work with a real team, they’ll understand when you’re looking for guidance and not hand-holding. I frequently felt so inspired by their work that it was easy to come up with my own ideas for lessons and assessment. You may also feel like asking for help means that you aren’t qualified to do your job but asking for help means you are willing to do the work to do better. I feel much more confident in the classroom these days and have even created engaging lessons that I’m proud of. Those pep talks and failures can show you that there’s so much more ahead than behind you.

[1] Fontno, T. J., & Brown, D. N. (2015, February). Putting information literacy in the students’ hands: The elementary learning centers approach applied to instruction in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, 76(2), 92-97.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from AJ Robinson, Islamic Studies & South Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some people don’t expect to see themselves in the library.” This comment from Vivek Shraya, 2015 recipient of the South Asia Book Award, was a moment of clarity at the Conference on South Asia in Madison. The conversation among book award authors addressed #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online campaign that has highlighted issues of exclusion in mainstream literature industries. “Diverse books” generally feature characters of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA identities, and/or varying abilities. Many libraries with a strong focus on serving young readers have embraced the campaign with displays, booktalks, and new collection development strategies. There has yet to be significant traction for this campaign in academic libraries, so as academic librarians we must ask ourselves: do our users see themselves in the stacks?

Despite the influx of university diversity and inclusion programs, minority students at many schools continue to report feeling like outsiders. The topic of diverse books exposed a critical gap for supporting my students—a visible collection that explicitly recognizes their presence. Making diverse books prominent in academic libraries is a necessary component for welcoming all users.

At my library, I started expanding the Popular Literature (PopLit) collection with novels and other non-scholarly titles representing authors, protagonists, and themes related to South Asia. PopLit is located on the main floor next to study spaces and arranged by genre for browsability. I also noticed other gaps in the collection, including a need for representation of my other subject specialty, Islamic Studies. Working with PopLit had the benefit of collaborating with other bibliographers, reducing strain on subject-specific collection budgets, and (most importantly) placed the books on shelves more accessible for casual browsing.

The push for diversity in books speaks to wider issues in systematic exclusion, including standard selection tools such as mainstream publishers and reviewers. Booklists such as the South Asia Book Awards and blogs like Arabic Literature (in English) have been instrumental in building a core collection. I also sought out alternative publishers such as Arsenal Pulp Press, Other Press, and Seven Stories Press. In selecting books, I prioritized finding authors who speak directly from personal experiences to balance popular journalist, travel writer, or ghost-writer accounts. I also sought materials with a wide variety of genres and formats, such as graphic novels and poetry.

To reach a wider spectrum of genres, my most useful tool were lists on GoodReads. Lists like “Desi Chick Lit,” “South Asians in Contemporary YA,” “Fiction featuring Muslim Women,” and “Queer Islam,” among others, were useful for identifying novels appropriate for pleasure reading, and the user-submitted reviews helped evaluate literary and content quality. Although GoodReads is now owned by Amazon, it’s possible to change the interface to easily check availability through BetterWorldBooks or IndieBound.

In processing new titles, student workers curate books for display on the centrally located New Books Shelf. The YA novels have eye-catching covers that draw interest to the shelves even from a distance. I also found an opportunity to promote the books through collaboration with the campus Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is housed on the second floor of the library. We arranged to display a monthly book exhibit related to their programs. New PopLit titles complemented and balanced relevant academic texts. Books circulated from the exhibit each month, and several students expressed appreciation for the display.

If students immediately recognize that the library is intended for them, they are far more likely to see the rest of the services we provide. As librarians we must be deliberate and proactive to “meet users where they are.” Building and promoting the collection has challenged perceptions of the library to open conversations and outreach on campus. While a book collection alone cannot address the deep inequalities embedded in higher education, it is an important opportunity to show users that we see and value them in the library.

August Thoughts on the National Diversity in Libraries Conference

As the school year is about to begin, it seems like August is the month to scramble. At least, that’s how it feels for me. It’s been a month of deadlines, projects, vacation, but also conferences.

I had the opportunity to attend the National Diversity in Libraries Conference (NDLC) at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Libraries and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). The purpose of NDLC is to “highlight issues related to diversity and inclusion that affect staff, users, and institutions in the library, archive, and museum (LAM) fields.”

I was fortunate enough to not only participate as a panelist, but also as a poster presenter.  While it was my intention to write about the panel I presented with, I kept thinking of the whole conference itself. I have decided to divert just a little bit. Please bear with me, my thoughts might be a little scrambled.

I want to write about how great, insightful, and inspiring the National Diversity in Libraries Conference (NDLC) was. My favorite library conference so far, NDLC brought together a diverse, intelligent, and amazing group of librarians. The participants were met with warm welcome by not only the librarians and organizers of NDLC, but the UCLA staff that kept the campus running and beautiful.

The opening keynote was given by Lakota Harden, who is an organizer, poet, and activist. As I listened to Ms. Harden’s keynote, I was blown away at the honesty and the passion that Ms. Harden gave. The keynote by Ms. Harden set the stage and mood for the rest of the conference.

“If you walk out of this, know this: You have power.”

The night before, I sat down with the NDLC program and wrote out my schedule. Looking through all the sessions and panels, I saw a variety of topics, issues, and librarian presenters and participants from everywhere in the country.

Like many other librarians there, I chose sessions/panels according to my duties and research interests. One of my (many) memorable sessions was the very first one I attended after the opening keynote. “Discovering and Accommodating the Needs of Target Communities in Academic Libraries” was a session that was composed of lightning talks from librarians throughout California and the rest of the United States (and one librarian from Canada!).

When I attend conferences and pick my sessions, I want to be informed and learn about how other librarians are serving their students. That was the thing, “students.” I am ashamed to admit that I have (i am working on it) tunnel vision. I was so focused on what the students need, what they want, and what we can provide them with, that I completely missed others. I had missed faculty, community users, and staff.

One of the lighting talks that really exemplified serving the needs of all people at their institution were the librarians at Loyola Marymount, Raymundo Andrade and Jamie Hazlitt. Andrade and Hazlitt designed some workshops for underserved staff members at Loyola Marymount. These workshops, taught in both English and in Spanish, were library orientation sessions that were held according to the Facilities staff schedules.

Like any other workshop, it had its challenges, but also brought success and allowed the librarians to form relationships with other groups on campus. This presentation made me think of the power and impact of libraries. Not only for students, but other communities within the university. These workshops not only provide a gateway to information literacy, but they provide a deeper connection to the institution. After all, a university is not just composed of students and faculty, but staff who cook, clean the buildings and dorms, and work on the landscape to keep the university beautiful and welcoming.

There were so many great sessions and panels, but the work that the librarians at Loyola Marymount are doing stuck with me for the rest of the conference.

This is what libraries can do. This is what we should be doing.

I reflected on my own work and what I can do to further engage other communities on campus. I am still brainstorming, but more to come this semester. The rest of my time at NDLC was filled with sessions and panels about archives, community outreach, and many other topics. Of course, no library conference is complete without networking and getting to know your fellow librarians. NDLC truly felt like home to me. It provided a space where I was able to marvel at all the other librarians who are doing work that inspire me. Of course, this conference was made possible by a couple of people who I think deserve a huge thank you:

-To UCLA, UCLA Libraries, and ARL for hosting this great conference and giving us all a warm welcome.

-To the people with the blue t-shirts standing around campus, giving directions to the attendees, thank you. Without you, I would have literally walked around in circles.

-To the librarians who presented, I hope you continue to do the work you are doing. It’s important and should not be put aside.

Finally, to the librarians who I presented a panel with. I was so glad to finally meet you in person and I am glad that NDLC was the place for it.