Over the past couple of years I’ve been writing and presenting pretty relentlessly on the topic of patron-driven acquisition (PDA) in research libraries, arguing that in a predominantly online information environment it no longer fundamentally makes sense for most academic libraries to build large permanent collections based on librarians’ speculations about patrons’ future needs. For one thing, our speculations are very often wrong; for another, the combination of shrinking budgets and relentlessly increasing prices (especially for scholarly journals) makes traditional collection practices decreasingly feasible from a purely economic standpoint — we just can’t afford to keep building collections the way we have in the past.
PDA is built on a deceptively simple premise: in a largely digital information environment, it’s increasingly possible to let library users find and identify desired documents prior to the library’s purchase of them, and for the library to pay only for what its patrons find and actually use. When a patron’s use of an ebook or journal article passes a certain agreed-upon threshold (a certain number of ebook pages read, for example, or the download of a complete article) the library is charged, the document acquired, and the patron never knows that the document was not part of the “collection” to begin with. Such an arrangement has the potential to be enormously liberating for library users, and to solve one of the library’s longstanding and fundamental problems: the fact that traditional “just-in-case” collections give patrons access to only a tiny (and inconsistently relevant) sliver of the population of documents that are actually available for use.
But like all acquisition and access models, PDA is imperfect, its manifestations are numerous and to some degree chaotic, and its availability raises lots and lots of questions, many of which I find myself trying to answer during the Q&A segments at the ends of my presentations. Several questions arise repeatedly, which suggests to me that there’s broad interest in answers to them. Here are some of those questions, with my attempts at responses.
Q: Isn’t all collection development patron-driven? After all, librarians have always striven to understand patrons’ needs and take them into account when selecting materials for the collection.
A: In academic libraries, we’ve gotten very good at understanding our patrons’ needs in the aggregate: we know the curriculum and we know our faculties and their areas of research interest, and that knowledge has always guided our collecting strategies. This means, for example, that it’s possible for me to know that my faculty needs good books on high-energy physics. The problem is that it’s not possible to buy “books on high-energy physics.” It’s only possible to buy specific books on high-energy physics, which necessarily entails not buying other books on high-energy physics, and my ability to predict which exact books on high-energy physics my patrons will need and use is very limited. Remember that the purpose of the collection isn’t to be a great collection; it’s to connect patrons with exactly what they need (see further discussion of the collection’s purpose below).
Q: Is it really our job to just “give the people what they want”?
A: Where “the people” are the students and faculty members we’re being paid to serve, and where “what they want” are resources that support their scholarly work, then I think the short answer to this question is “Yes, that’s exactly our job.” The obvious corollary to this question is “But what if all they want is comic books and genre fiction?” The answer to that is: while PDA can offer a technically unlimited array of options to our patrons, fiscal reality makes some limitations inevitable. We may have to filter the options we show them; depending on our institutional mission, we might exclude romance fiction or travel guides from the range of options, for example (while leaving the door open to special requests from researchers working in popular culture or related fields). As long as resources are limited, no access model will be perfect.
Q: How will PDA help me save money?
A: It probably won’t. And to my mind, that’s fine. I have no expectation that PDA will allow me to spend less money on books and articles; I only expect it to help ensure that all the money I spend will go to materials that my patrons actually need. Don’t get me wrong; I love to save money. But that’s not why I do PDA.
Q: How can you say that any purchase is a “waste of money”? You yourself said that we never know perfectly what our patrons are going to need in the future.
A: That’s true, but since it’s true of absolutely any document—there is no document about which you can’t say “someday someone might need access to this”—it doesn’t help me make good use of limited resources. Unless I have an unlimited budget, I have to choose between multiple potentially-useful documents, and that means I have to try to pick the ones that are most likely to be used. And my patrons can do that much more effectively than I can.
Q: Won’t PDA hurt publishers?
A: Yes, and that’s unfortunate. I mean that sincerely. But we have a problem, and the problem is that the current publishing marketplace evolved in an environment in which library customers had no choice but to buy lots of books and articles that they didn’t need, because that was the only way to guarantee access to books and articles that they did need. That’s not a criticism of publishers; it’s a criticism of the print-based information environment. PDA has the potential to make the information marketplace much more efficient and rational, which means that publishers will go out of business to the degree that they relied (however unintentionally) on marketplace inefficiencies to keep them in business. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is.
Q: PDA always seems to be about books. Doesn’t the same principle apply to journals?
A: Absolutely. The journal subscription is a fundamentally irrational way to buy access to articles; it’s a way of buying lots of content you don’t need in order to ensure access to some content that you do need (while excluding other big batches of content, which may also contain articles you need). PDA principles apply to journal content at the article level: ideally, libraries should expose huge and comprehensive “collections” of unacquired journal articles to their patrons, and buy only those that their patrons actually download. A certain number of paid downloads should result in permanent sitewide access (on the assumption that multiple uses of a single article demonstrates broad need on that campus). The details of such an arrangement would have to be a matter of negotiation with the publisher; the most important detail, obviously, will be price per article.
Q: How do you control your spending in a PDA environment?
A: This is a huge issue, and it’s one that is being handled in a variety of ways from both sides of the supply-demand divide. One possibility is to use a “risk pool” approach as a throttle mechanism: if the rate of purchase is outstripping budget, then the number of books offered for PDA is reduced until demand slows. On the supply side, publishers and aggregators generally offer management tools that make it relatively easy to track usage activity in real time, and to tighten or relax access as needed. In the article environment, it might make sense simply to ration the number of permitted downloads. We should expect that publishers and aggregators will compete with each other, in part, on the basis of their ability to help us manage spending, so we should probably not expect a one-size-fits-all solution to emerge.
Q: My library subscribes to several comprehensive journal packages from major science publishers. The pricing for these packages is advantageous enough that buying the articles one-by-one would result in a much higher expenditure than simply sticking with the Big Deal does. Surely a PDA approach doesn’t make sense in my case.
A: It’s true that a Big Deal will often result in very low per-download costs. But that doesn’t mean that it makes sense to buy a huge batch of articles, only some of which will get used; it means only that the publisher has set pricing in such a way as to discourage per-article purchasing and encourage bulk purchasing. Such arrangements may be attractive in the short run, but they are objectively unsustainable in the long run. The Big Deal was not (pace Derk Haank) a solution to the serials pricing crisis — it was only a way of kicking the can of unsustainable pricing down the road for a few years.
Q: How can you build a great collection if you only buy what today’s patrons want? Won’t the result be a rather haphazard, possibly even incoherent pile of content rather than a well-rounded, intelligently shaped research collection?
A: This goes to a fundamental philosophical issue on which I and many of my colleagues disagree. I believe it’s essential to the survival of academic libraries that we learn to see the collection as a means, not an end. By this reasoning, an arguably fine (i.e. high-quality, well-organized, and reasonably comprehensive) collection that fails to meet the actual real-life needs of the scholarly population it is supposed to serve is not a “good” collection in any meaningful sense. In fact, I’m not sure we can safely assume that building collections is still the right way to go about meeting patrons’ information needs at all. While it probably makes sense for a few richly-funded research libraries to build and maintain huge and comprehensive collections (I call these the Monument to Western Civilization collections), for the vast majority of academic libraries that kind of collecting has always been impossible and is now increasingly irrational.