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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.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


12 Thoughts on "The Faculty's Role in Patron-driven Acquisitions"

What kind of collection will you have with Patron-driven Acquisitions?
As a librarian I have been in the acquistions business for thirty years
and acquired about 200.000 books. I’m an expert. I don’t buy what
interest me. I just buy the best books that are relevant in a subject.
I creat order and not chaos. I create a collection for all not just for
one patron. Patrons are not librarians. They should do what they
knows best and leave the aquistions of books and journals to the


Jan, I think part of what Joe was getting at was to question the degree to which building a collection should, itself, be seen as a fundamental goal for most libraries. I suggest that it’s possible we’ve come, over the centuries, to confuse the means (a large collection of high-quality, generally relevant books) with the end (supporting the scholarship of our patrons). Everything in your response makes sense if we assume that building a good collection is what we’re all about; librarians are indeed better than patrons at building coherent collections. But if we see the collection as a means to the end of supporting scholarship, and if we acknowledge that options are emerging that allow us to provide that support without building collections as traditionally understood, then things suddenly get much more complex and interesting. Also scary, as many librarians’ responses to the emergence of PDA suggest.

Despite some leading language, this post begins to nibble at the core of what is happening and points towards consideration of some of the unintended consequences. I’m not concerned about the ‘unruly mob’, that’s just inflammatory. Many years ago, when I was a student helper in a library, faculty had the power of the purse for requesting materials, and every year it was the same battle to get them to spend their allocations at all,or to prevent the coordinator from using that position to reward friends and punish enemies, or to prevent the collection from reflection only the interests of those who made the time to ask for materials. Also, the library I work in now is in fact spending a lot of money on E-books ‘for dummies’, by the way, and it is making some of us uneasy, since the enthusiasm for the staff ‘efficiencies’ of PDA are devaluing efforts required for the hard and difficult work of obtaining the so-called ‘artisanal’ materials that are the bread and butter of many disciplines, thus making those materials even less likely to be acquired.
BUT – the punch line here (which should have been closer to the top), is critical for discussion – as our institutions move from owning a capitol asset to leasing a service, many risky possibilities arise, and none of these have been adequately aired out. Mr. Esposito’s cost center vs profit center image is an apt one, as is the (I believe) misplaced emphasis on ROI and other business concepts. Who said those are appropriate in the context of research collections? And, in an environment where preservation and long time frames are part of the structure of the edifice, what definition of ROI are we employing, with what parameters?
Faculty have plenty on their plates now, and they are under even more pressure to quantify the ineffable in education. They have lost almost all of the support staff that used to ease their way, and they are not looking for more challenges. Have our ‘transparencies’ merely kept them from realizing that the library, too, is abandoning them to their own devices? Will all these commercial leasing arrangements really be there for the next generation? Does anyone care anymore? It would be great to have a university-wide discussion on these matters that began with first principles.
Years ago, John Barth wrote a passage in The Floating Opera about transmogrification – about how quantitative change becomes qualitative change, day becomes night, a cucumber, at some point, becomes a pickle. Over the past decade and a half, academic research libraries have been on a constant path of change, At some point, scholars will look up from their work and realize libraries have become – what exactly?

Faculty have plenty on their plates now, and they are under even more pressure to quantify the ineffable in education. They have lost almost all of the support staff that used to ease their way, and they are not looking for more challenges. Have our ‘transparencies’ merely kept them from realizing that the library, too, is abandoning them to their own devices?

I think you’ve missed a fundamental point that Joe makes in his piece. Though this may sound counterintuitive, it’s not necessary for the faculty to be actively involved in PDA at all. PDA is usually about ebooks, and an ebook PDA program isn’t experienced by the faculty member (or student) as an acquisitions program at all, but merely as a larger collection of available books. Where once the library would have purchased a single book and hoped it would turn out to be one that the researcher finds useful, instead the library buys no books, but makes ten or twenty available exactly as if they had been purchased. There’s no burden on the faculty member, only a broader selection of choices.

It would be great to have a university-wide discussion on these matters that began with first principles.

Universities are doing just that. I’ve led a couple of such discussions for faculty on university campuses over the past year or so, and will do so again a couple more times later this year. I’m sure I’m not the only one doing it. If such a discussion isn’t happening on your campus, I’d encourage you to organize one.

I actually read Joe as asking something similar to what BFrank1 mentions here when he said the following “Is this the kind of library the university wants? Are these conversations taking place and is the faculty participating in them?” I’m very interested in this question and would be interested to learn more about strategies for leading such a discussion. As a faculty member, I’m quite concerned, as I’ve expressed before, with what kind of things these licenses allow for, and how clearly that is understood by the people making these decisions – be it librarians or, if only indirectly, faculty. It was actually one of the first things I thought in looking at the surveys you set up on PDA, Joe: there was no place for a faculty member in that conversation. I’m glad to hear that this conversation is coming round to faculty and the mission of the university. I agree that there is a lot of room for experimentation, but it’s always nice to know your part of an experiment, particularly if your actions are being interpreted as support.

It is also interesting to think about the differences between small college libraries and big research collections. As you say there are different goals for each. In general does it seem that PDA fits into the larger schools slightly better because it can sit alongside other forms of collection? Or is that just another outworn assumption?

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I will definitely pass this along to some people who are asking similar questions.

The reason that there were no questions for faculty in the questionnaires for the study is a matter of scope. The project is looking into how PDA affects book publishers. For publishers, it does not matter how the faculty are involved; what matters is the fact that there is a PDA system in place at their institution. For publishers, the question is how to navigate this system. As we have researched this topic, we became aware that many publishers believe that PDA will help their sales because faculty will be requesting their books. In other words, for publishers the PDA question is largely on of marketing.

I raised the question about the faculty’s role because we were specifically asked to. What we have found thus far is that some libraries consult with faculty about PDA, some do not. I concluded that this is not surprising, since PDA incorporates approval plans, which faculty has silently supported for decades. But there remains the larger question of whether or not an institution should be building a collection that is a cultural artifact in itself or simply providing access to materials. I think that that question should be openly debated, though it is beyond the parameters of our current study.

… there remains the larger question of whether or not an institution should be building a collection that is a cultural artifact in itself or simply providing access to materials. I think that that question should be openly debated, though it is beyond the parameters of our current study.

I agree, and would also point out that the answer to this question will (or at least should) vary from library to library, depending mainly on what each library’s sponsoring institution has charged and funded it to do. We have a tendency to talk about “research libraries” as if all are doing more or less the same thing, whereas in reality a library like Harvard’s or Yale’s is asked to do something quite different from what, say, Kent State’s or Caltech’s research library is asked to do. And it may even be time for that question to be asked at the highest levels of each institution: “What do we want our library to do for us? What charge and what kind of funding will best equip the library to help move our institution in the directions it needs to go?” 100 (or even 30) years ago the answers to those questions may have been trivially obvious, but I don’t think that’s still the case.

There has been an interesting study at Bangor University, Wales, UK where PDA has been found singularly successful. One of the points made at a recent presentation was that it both saves money and generates a collection which is precisely what the users need. Ticks for relevance and budget!

Again, a very thoughtful post. You’re always a delight to read, Joe.

You’re spot on concerning the impact that the marketplace has on the two cultures of university presses and libraries and you’re absolutely right that PDA may be creating a tension between the Just in Time Collection versus the Just in Case Collection. Frankly, it’s a bit of a relief to hear from you that what are probably most of the customers of the university press that I work for are fine-tuning the impact PDA is having on those collections. But here’s a question for my colleagues at university presses: If our content is likely to be purchased on approval, why risk PDA? If I don’t offer my content in a PDA platform, will I actually lose any YBP sales? So far, I don’t see it. If I do participate, the danger seems much greater that I will lose an approval sale. Sure, there’s the potential of un unexpected sale at an institution that doesn’t include us in their approval plan profile, but it would seem to me that the likelihood of that happening is significantly smaller than the likelihood that a library that already includes us on their profile, would then switch us to an on demand acquisition, or more likely a temporary access. Is there any reason to believe that isn’t true? I know my librarian colleagues would like to see us participate in PDA programs, but I can’t for the life of me find a reason why I would. For a UP, the greater risk seems to be in opting in, not opting out of PDA. And since PDA is evolving with what is beginning to look like a mandatory short term loan alternative (with less revenue, which I will then have to split 50/50 with the author, rather than paying a 5% or 10% royalty) why would I do that?

As for the larger philosophical question of just what is the function of the library—are they access agents or is the collection the point—I have to say that I really hope that we collectively realize that the collection is in fact the point. A lot of ARLs already do great work in book preservation, but I wonder if the access v. ownership dynamic that PDA, or more specifically which the digital revolution is creating, isn’t going to redefine what we mean when we talk about book preservation in the context of the library. Here at Penn State we just removed quite a few stacks out of our library to make room for a Knowledge Commons. In this context, a Knowledge Commons is a space where students and faculty can work on projects and get access to some spiffy hi-tech tools to do that. Does this mean they’re collecting fewer books? No, not yet, but I worry a little about what it says to the faculty about the library’s commitment to books. Do they really need high tech conference rooms with 3D displays more than they need that just in case collection and the culture it nourishes? Does the physical space’s new emphasis on tools over text impact how the librarians see themselves and their mission? And since we’re moving more and more books out of the library, and into the annex, are we reinforcing a belief that the digital world and its access models are more convenient, affordable, and expeditious than pulp and boards, so let’s just let CLOCKSS and LOCKSS handle archiving? Maybe it’s not just PDA that’s modifying the priorities of the library, it seems like it’s a broader emphasis on all things digital, not only books.

One final little screed, this time about faculty. Yeah, they serve on our editorial boards, but is that the most fruitful relationship between the faculty and their university presses? Why don’t we publish our own faculty? Sure, it happens on occasion when a press’s list and reputation and a faculty member’s scholarly interests and reputation match, but why aren’t we looking at this question more closely? Why don’t presses serve their own institutions, both their faculty and their library, more directly? If we really want to see a revolution in scholarly publishing, one that actually benefits scholarly communication rather than its vendors, we’re going to have to take a long and hard look at that question, and maybe start thinking about models that make university presses less like commercial competitors and library adversaries, and more like university services that directly benefit our home institutions. Under the current model, UPs compete for authors and dollars. Should they? Does competition make for better scholarship? It sure as hell doesn’t seem to be benefiting access. Make me not care about needing a reason to join a PDA platform and then maybe I can offer more access options for more authors and more libraries, especially our own.

One type of book that may benefit from PDA, which is suffering under the current approval-plan model, is the revised dissertation. Penn State published many of those during the time I was director of the press, but it became increasingly difficult to do so as libraries began to cut back on their purchase as long as they subscribed to ProQuest’s dissertation database.

On the question of faculty engagement, let me remind Tony that one reason for the press’s joining the library in setting up the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing was to serve PSU faculty more directly. The Romance Studies series, e.g., was set up at the behest of two PSU departments whose faculty serve on the series editorial board.

Joe’s question about what type of library a university should have, and how faculty might be involved in answering that question, makes me wonder whether the same question could not be asked about university presses. How have faculty been involved in setting up presses in the first place, and what do they think their presses should be doing? Should the press at a place like Penn State be doing the same kind of publishing as the press at a place like Harvard? This is similar to asking the question about collections. If faculty deserve to be more involved in answering the question about their library, should they not also be involved in answering the question about their press (if their university has one)?

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