[Editor’s note: Chefs Rick Anderson and Joe Esposito have been studying patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) from opposite sides. Rick, a librarian, has been working with PDA as a way to improve the collection strategy at his institution. Joe, a publishing consultant, has been speculating about the impact of PDA on publishers. You can see some of Rick’s comments here, here, and here. Joe’s posts on the subject can be found here and here. As some of the Kitchen posts on PDA have elicited a number of comments, this dialogue may yield a sequel or two.]
Joe Esposito: What has surprised me about discussions of PDA to date is how controversial these programs are among librarians. Some librarians apparently view PDA as something that will undermine the integrity of library collections, while others see it as a useful tool for lowering costs and providing materials that their patrons will actually use. Do you see a way to reconcile this argument?
Rick Anderson: Maybe, although I think it’s worth pointing out that those three propositions are not mutually exclusive: PDA can, conceivably, simultaneously undermine the integrity of the traditional collection, help the library realize cost savings, and give patrons better access to the materials they need. One thing that leads librarians to respond negatively to PDA, I think, is the assumption that the library’s collection is an end in itself. If your goal is to build a great collection, then PDA is clearly no way to go about it. If, however, your goal in building a collection has been to give your researchers access to the materials they need in order to do their scholarly work, then PDA may be a better strategy than traditional collection-building. The bottom line, I think, is that each library needs to decide what problem it’s trying to solve with PDA. This suggests a need to decide what the “A” in PDA will stand for in your library: if you want to build a better collection, then you probably want to do patron-driven acquisition, and PDA is likely going to play a relatively peripheral role in your collection-building strategies. If you want to make the collection itself less of an issue, and instead focus on giving your researchers dynamic and real-time access to relevant and useful content, then your focus should be on patron-driven access, only some (if any) of which will result in the acquisition of permanent access rights. These aren’t mutually exclusive strategies, but it does matter where you focus your money and energy.
Joe: So it’s really not a binary thing: this way or that way, with nothing in between. I anticipate that as PDA grows (as I believe it will), we will find different libraries using PDA in different ways. There will be a continuum: at one end will be those libraries, perhaps the largest of libraries, where PDA plays a small role, at the other end, perhaps the smaller libraries, where PDA is at the center of a library’s strategy for acquiring books. There will be other factors besides size, of course; for example, a large library may use PDA in a particular area that the library views as nonstrategic for whatever reason. PDA would appear to be a customizable tool, not an all-emcompassing solution.
Rick: Yes, I think that’s right. We need to avoid the easy assumption that all research libraries are fundamentally the same. There are some (very few) that are charged, funded, and housed in such a way that they can both build and care for truly monumental, functionally comprehensive scholarly collections. As you suggest, these libraries are less likely to have much need for patron-driven programs because they can pretty effectively meet the needs of their patrons by preemptive purchasing; the speculative nature of traditional collection-building is less of a problem for them because the collection is meant to be a cultural monument, not just a tool for researchers, and if a significant percentage of the books they purchase don’t get used in the foreseeable future, that’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum are the much smaller research collections that are not intended to act as comprehensive records of our culture’s intellectual patrimony, but which instead serve almost exclusively to meet the real-time needs of real-time scholarship. These libraries are (and should be) under much more pressure to deliver content that is directly useful to today’s researchers, today. But these libraries have historically collected according to the same general strategies (on a necessarily smaller scale) as the comprehensive ones — not because those strategies made much sense for them, but because a more dynamic approach just wasn’t feasible; instant access was impossible in the print era. These are the libraries whose patrons stand to benefit the most from a more complete shift towards patron-driven access. In between those two extremes is a very broad and highly varied spectrum of research libraries whose needs and resources cover a wide range. All of these libraries, I contend, would benefit from looking seriously at patron-driven models and figuring out to what degree one or more of those models would work well for their patrons.
That said, I think it’s important not to underestimate the fundamentally disruptive nature of any patron-driven acquisition or access plan. To the degree that any research library adopts such a plan, it is in fact displacing a role that librarians have always considered central to their jobs. This is one of the main reasons PDA is so controversial in libraries, I think. It really does amount to an abdication of pretty foundational librarian tasks.
Joe: PDA (whether we mean patron-driven acquisitions or patron-driven access) is disruptive not only to the culture and processes of libraries but also to the publishers who hope to sell their books to libraries. In its crudest form, PDA will reduce sales (all those books that never circulate will now not be purchased) and delay the timing of sales for books that patrons request. It may be that the feedback from PDA will come to influence editorial policies; whether for the good or bad remains to be seen. A potential offset to this bad news for publishers is that library catalogues where PDA is used will be much more extensive, potentially serving as a means of discovery for books. So it’s possible to theorize that over time, PDA may actually help to sell more books. I am using “sell” here generically, to refer to any exchange of money, whether an outright sale or a lease of some kind.
Rick: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. Scholarly publishers have always been able to rely on libraries to buy books based on their quality and their relevance to the library’s academic mission. By so doing, libraries built solid, high-quality collections and made it possible for many presses to publish and sell high-quality books that were of marginal interest to the research community. However, significant portions of the resulting collections were never used — partly because the books were of marginal interest (despite their quality) and partly because the relevance of a book to an academic discipline is no guarantee that it will be relevant and useful to any specific researcher. To the degree that a library shifts focus from collection comprehensiveness and quality to actual use by patrons, publishers who relied on traditional collecting will suffer, at least in the short term. In the long term they may benefit from libraries’ increased ability to give patrons access to the long tail of low-readership books — the question is how many of these publishers are equipped to wait out the short term. (Those with the deepest and most fully-digitized backlists are probably best positioned for survival, I think.)
This reality raises very difficult but fairly urgent questions about the degree to which libraries ought to play a supporting role for scholarly publishers, especially university presses. How should libraries balance their obligation to meet the real-time needs of scholars with their role as participants in a delicately-balanced ecology of scholarship that includes publishers? Sandy Thatcher, in the SK comment forum and several other outlets as well, has raised these questions thoughtfully, and although I’ve offered answers to them I think the questions are still open.
Joe: There is another scenario for publishers. If a library wants to use a PDA program for print books, there is nothing a publisher can do to stop it, as once the book is sold to a wholesaler, the publisher has no control on how the book ultimately shows up at a library. But if we are talking about ebooks, every transaction requires a license. A publisher could simply not permit its ebooks to be made available for PDA. PDA, in other words, is inherently a publishing program, not a distribution program. The possibility of controlling the flow of ebooks through licenses is a distinct possibility.
Rick: It is indeed. Another possibility would be for the publisher to allow PDA for its titles, but to charge high prices for books acquired that way and lower prices for books acquired in bulk (through approval plans, standing orders, etc.). That’s the model that journal publishers generally use; the unit price of an individual article is typically very high unless the library buys a subscription or a bundle of subscriptions. For books as for journal articles, that strategy will work to the degree that the publisher’s offerings are both unique (and therefore unsubstitutable) and in high demand (and therefore indispensable). Scholarly books do tend to be unique, but it will be interesting to see how many of them are considered indispensable by actual readers who are trying to accomplish scholarly tasks, as opposed to librarians who are trying to build high-quality collections.