When my colleagues and I began to study the impact of patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) on academic publishers, we were specifically asked by the funding body to explore the role that faculty played in these new programs. Were the faculty consulted? What is their view of PDA? The question caught me by surprise, as I had been thinking of PDA pretty much as a behind-the-scenes operational issue, where efficiency and ROI were the relevant metrics. But the question puts the focus back on larger matters, such as why do we have libraries and university presses in the first place? Ultimately, although these organizations go about it in very different ways, they both exist to support the pedagogical and research activities (including the dissemination of research) of the university, so referring new programs back to the philosophical center of the institution makes sense.
Here we should take a moment to consider how, in an economic sense, libraries and presses differ. Libraries are indeed university service departments and they are set up with an appropriate economic model to support their activity. Libraries are cost centers; parent institutions’ expectations for return on their investment in the library center on researcher productivity and student learning. Libraries do have some earned revenue streams that help to offset costs, but that source of income is small in comparison with the funds from the university’s general operating budget and endowment funds dedicated to library collections.
University presses, on the other hand, are set up as profit centers. This does not mean that they make money, though some do; it means that they have marketplace earned revenue, which offsets, and in some cases more than offsets, their expenses. Thus, part of the mission of a university press is to pay the bills. This makes all the difference in the world in how an organization is managed. It is not unusual or surprising, for example, to find a university press director and the head of the library at the same institution taking opposing positions on copyright or to hold different views on pricing, the role of reserve rooms (real or virtual), or Google’s mass-digitization project. A university — any organization, in fact — realizes its mission in many ways and embraces many oppositions as it works toward a broader synthesis.
We should therefore expect that faculty participation in the planning and goals of university presses and libraries would be very different. For presses, for example, the faculty is everywhere evident, typically constituting an editorial board that must approve every title offered for publication under the university’s imprimatur, titles that are often written by authors from other institutions and that are distributed far and wide. For libraries, the faculty represents the local clientele and advises the library as to how best to serve that constituency.
One thing that has become clear in talking with librarians who are working with PDA programs (PDA has now reached the point where it is no longer purely experimental) is that there is a myth about the selection process, though the myth disappears as soon as someone gets any experience with PDA. The myth: library selectors are hanging up their cleats and turning the diamond over to the unruly mob, who will, as a matter of course, select titles of personal interest but no redeeming academic value. If this were true, then the materials budget of the library would simply become a source of funding for pleasure reading, and we would have academic libraries filled (virtually filled, that is) with digital romances, vampire novels, the latest diet secret of the skinniest Hollywood starlet, and a motivational business book that declares it is based on scripture.
Perhaps the very first experiments with PDA suffered from a wee bit of this, but this is no longer the case, if it were ever the case, for a number of reasons. First, the PDA vendors have played this game straight from the beginning, filling their catalogues with titles from reputable academic publishers, for-profit and not-for-profit alike. If it’s not in the vendor’s catalogue, it’s not in the library’s collection — though, of course, there is nothing to stop a librarian from purchasing books in the traditional manner, bypassing PDA, and providing some fun for patrons weary of scholarly monographs and economic reports from NGOs.
But an even more important reason that PDA does not result in a non-academic collection in an academic library is that from the very beginning, librarians married PDA to their approval plans. In an approval plan, librarians identify the parameters for new titles (subject area, publisher, price, etc.), and vendors, most notably YBP, send all titles that fit the parameters to the library, where they are reviewed and either approved or sent back. An approval plan is thus a clever administrative measure to reduce the cost of title acquisition. When one looks at the size of the collections at even small liberal arts colleges, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have made these selections one at a time. Approval plans have been with us for decades (invented by my friend Richard Abel), and the profiles developed for them live on as an essential component of the current PDA offerings.
Thus PDA is not a reckless activity, divorced from the philosophical center of the institution and turning the work of professional selectors over to an unruly mob, but a shrewdly designed program or set of programs that draw on what has worked well before, and then uses those traditions to move forward in an efficient manner. Faculty may not be consulted about the implementation of PDA because they are experiencing no change: approval plans worked before and they are working now. We should expect greater faculty engagement if the approval plan system somehow broke down, failing to present appropriate titles in the catalogue.
It’s useful to step back and view PDA in a larger context. As my colleague Kizer Walker notes, “PDA is one symptom of a shift from local ownership to ‘access,’ which accompanies a shift to licensed electronic resources.” That’s the real question, that secular shift. What is odd about PDA, though, is that the faculty may not even be aware that there is a PDA program in place, particularly if the books in question are digital, as each book is requested, purchased, and delivered electronically to the user without any acknowledgment that up until that moment, the library did not own that title. This may be disconcerting to some, as the clever industrial engineering behind PDA potentially challenges the definition of a library. Here perhaps there is a place for faculty debate.
As Rick Anderson has noted on the Kitchen, PDA presents the library with two philosophical choices for collection development. The traditional manner has the goal of creating as close to a comprehensive resource as possible for researchers, faculty and students alike. Selectors identify the highest quality works and acquire as many of them as financially possible. This is “just-in-case” collection development: books are acquired just in case someone wants them, and that someone may be an instructor on staff today or someone affiliated with the university many years in the future. But beyond the just-in-case aspect of this method, there is the underlying notion that the collection has value in and of itself, separate from its utility to instructors and students, whether of the present day or the future. This view–the collection valued for its own sake–is one that we may carry around with us, usually without reflection. Such a view can lead to certain unchallenged assumptions. For example, someone might assert that the Harvard and Yale libraries are superior to those at, say, Pomona or Dickinson Colleges, despite the fact that those liberal arts colleges have as their missions something very different from what Harvard and Yale set out to do. This makes for an invidious comparison, as the standards of major research libraries may be imposed on institutions that are not anchored in research. PDA may very well be a component, even a major component, of the practices at major research libraries, but the context of PDA is significantly different for them than at liberal arts colleges.
In its most extreme formulation, PDA may assert the idea that a library collection has no merit outside its utility to the current faculty and students. Such a collection may be perceived to have no value in and of itself. It should thus be just-in-time. Indeed, there is no need to own anything if materials can be made available less expensively through rentals — and, as noted above, this places PDA on part of a longer trend away from outright ownership to access. Thus the term patron-driven access, which I heard for the first time from Rick. A library built on the principle of access instead of acquisitions is a different kind of institution.
Here we have an important question, and perhaps it would be best to refer it back to the philosophical center of the institution — that is, to the faculty. Is this the kind of library the university wants? Are these conversations taking place and is the faculty participating in them? In this context, PDA is not mere implementation but a revolutionary measure.
As a practical matter, however, this choice is not so stark. A reasonable projection for PDA is that over a period of perhaps 5 years, most institutions, even the largest, will have some money budgeted to PDA, but most institutions, especially the larger ones, will also do some collection-building. The kind of collection-building will vary from institution to institution. In one scenario, the library of the future has a core collection sitting at the center of the library, with books that are owned outright or licensed for perpetual access; and a ring of PDA titles around the core collection. In another scenario, titles that are now acquired through approval plans switch to PDA, but collection-building continues for titles that are more difficult to source, titles, that is, that require a more artisanal approach. Whatever scenario plays out at a particular institution, the faculty should have a large role in it.