As I have noted on the Kitchen before, I have been working with colleagues on some of the implications of patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) for publishers, university presses in particular. It was in this regard that I picked up “Patron-driven Acquisitions: History and Best Practices,” which was edited by Davis Swords and published by De Gruyter. This is a useful book, which I recommend to everyone who is interested in the topic. It is also in some respects an incomplete book, which may not be surprising considering the rate of change in the world of PDA.
The book consists of twelve chapters. Swords wrote two of them plus the introduction. Swords himself is the head of sales at EBL, one of the leading suppliers of PDA services. The volume has something of an EBL slant: besides Swords’ pieces, one other is by the EBL president and EBL is regularly mentioned in most of the other chapters as well. The chapters themselves are not wholly integrated into a single argument; indeed, sometimes they outright clash. So, for example, at one point we hear that PDA is for both print and digital books, at another we read that PDA is for e-books only. We also have a chapter on PDA in the schools, which takes as its example a private boarding school, which no one would say is representative of American schools as a whole. And that chapter is largely devoted not to PDA but to purchasing e-books from Amazon, which does not at this time have a PDA program. Particularly odd is that there are two histories of the origin of PDA, and they don’t agree.
I don’t mean to pick on the book because I learned a great deal from it. The case studies are very useful. The opening chapter by Rick Lugg really does lay out just about all the critical issues in a concise manner. But my favorite section is the concluding chapter by Dennis Dillon of The University of Texas. Dillon hits on some themes that have appeared on the Kitchen, in particular the evolving role (I would call it the loss of centrality) of the academic library and the incursion by consumer technology companies into what was formerly an ivory tower. Dillon also wrote an excellent chapter on Texas’s experiments with PDA, but I wish the conclusion had served as the introduction to the book as a whole and framed the discussion of PDA in a broader context.
Out of these essays (for that is what they essentially are, not chapters), a coherent picture arises of why libraries are pursuing PDA, and it’s not just about the money. Okay, it’s partly about the money; let’s call that the first point. But it’s also about aligning a library’s offerings with the demonstrated needs of its constituencies. Of note is the fact that PDA makes it possible to present to those constituencies a much larger set of titles than would be possible if the library had to purchase every book just in case someone might request it.
As the theme of the broader offering of titles to patrons was repeated over and over, I began to think of how number-crunching can create a convincing picture of plenitude in other industries. For example, the corporate jet rental market is able to make a plane available to all its customers whenever they want one, despite the fact that the companies don’t have one jet per customer. The rental companies do this through statistical analysis: they know just how much demand will be asserted at any given time and build their fleets accordingly. We will be seeing more of this in our society — demand satisfied by a smaller physical plant because of the wonders of mathematics — and librarians and PDA are part of this emerging trend. The bridge from just-in-case to just-in-time is paved with statistics.
But what about the publishers in all this? This book fudges this point, and I think that’s a weakness. From a narrowly financial point of view, PDA is a zero-sum game: if libraries save money, publishers lose money. Publishers like just-in-case collections because libraries buy more books and they buy them sooner. But PDA is just-in-time, which exposes some of the waste in the supply chain. Were PDA to be implemented across the board, it would transform the academic publishing industry, driving up prices for those titles that find demand, eliminating titles where demand is not assured. I don’t think anyone is arguing for such a comprehensive implementation of PDA, however. In all likelihood, PDA will be but one of several ways that books, print or digital (mostly digital), find their way into libraries. It is a significant refinement of collection strategy, not a revolution. Furthermore, not all libraries are alike. The mission of a large research library is different from that of a smaller university library, which in turn differs from that of a liberal arts college. PDA will be implemented in different ways and to different degrees across the span of libraries. All this is part of the broader context of PDA.
How broad should that context be? I have over the past few years been closely following the e-reader and e-book space, and it is a matter of astonishment to me that, as innovative as PDA can be, most studies of it don’t seem to acknowledge the transformations in how people read and on what. To be a bit impish, let’s take the very book under consideration. It’s offered in print (which is how I read it) and in digital form, which you can get by going to the De Gruyter Web site. But a look at the Amazon Kindle store showed only the print edition. No Kindle edition? How about the Nook? Google Ebooks? Kobo? Is it in the Apple iBookstore? These are serious omissions, and they come about because the academy and the academic library are still being viewed as though the ivory tower were a tangible part of the contemporary communications environment. Yes, you can get this book as a PDF, and if you are clever and diligent, and if you have the eyesight of an 18-year-old, you can read it on a Kindle. But it’s a pain in the neck to do this. I read books on my Android phone, Kindle Touch, and iPad all the time, but there is no chance in the world that I will ever be willing to squint long and hard enough to read a PDF on them.
Can somebody, please, take the PDF outside and shoot it? It is a technology designed to mimic print. If we want digital books and digital libraries, we need digital formats.
Libraries, of course, are doing heroic work to make their materials as useful to their patrons as they can. But this should not have to be. And it’s not only the technical issues, but the business issues as well. You can get a hard-to-read PDF book onto a Kindle, but you cannot get a Kindle book onto a Kindle unless you buy it from Amazon. How does PDA help us here?
The basic problem is that although PDA makes intelligent use of digital technology, the assumptions about reading and commerce are still anchored in the analog world, where libraries stuffed with books sit at the center of universities, which in turn are set off from the society they serve. No one noticed when Jeff Bezos drove a bulldozer through the ivy-covered gates.
While researching PDA practices, I had an interesting conversation with a senior representative of the university press community. I mentioned that part of the motivation to build PDA systems was because by some estimates, 40% of library collections never circulated. (I am not myself entirely confident about the accuracy of that number, but it’s reasonable to say that a large fraction never circulates.) His comment was that if PDA did not take into account how reading is evolving — with mobile devices and consumer technology companies leading the charge, and discovery increasingly migrating to social networks — we could end up in a new environment where 40% of the books remain unread.
And so we have the broader context of PDA, an evolving landscape with new players, new technologies, and new sets of user expectations. I suspect that we will be revisiting many of our assumptions about scholarly communications and how we read in the years ahead.