One way to think about patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) is that it sets up a bookstore in the library. It’s not what we usually think of as a bookstore — there are no dusty shelves or a chic coffee bar. Nor is this what we have come to expect from online bookselling, where Amazon sets the standard. The library bookstore is a new phenomenon, but there is a chance that it will become more widespread, perhaps even ubiquitous in the coming years. I hope it does. It would be a good thing for scholarly communications.
What’s distinctive about the PDA bookstore is that it operates within certain clearly defined parameters. To begin with, there is the matter of agency. Although an order request is made by a patron, the purchase itself is made by the library from the library’s budget. Another aspect of the PDA bookstore is its invisibility: a patron making a request does not know that some of the titles listed in the library’s catalog are not actually owned by the library; the patron has no idea that the library is in fact a kind of bookstore. The PDA bookstore is also characterized by its deliberately limited selection: titles are placed into the catalog on the basis of approval plan guidelines to make sure that they are appropriate for an academic library. For example, a library may have a policy of not purchasing textbooks or test preparation guides.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the PDA bookstore, though, is the fact that it is not open to the general public. While anyone can search an OPAC, only authorized members of the institution’s community can check out a book. If the PDA bookstore were a “true” bookstore, there would be no such restriction — it’s hard to imagine Barnes & Noble telling prospective patrons to shop elsewhere. The fact that the PDA bookstore is anchored in the university community is essential to its conception and operation. It is the nature of the community that gives rise to the approval plan guidelines and thus determines what books can be purchased through the library.
Perhaps it is time to expand this bookstore while keeping its community dimension in mind. If the PDA bookstore also enabled patrons to purchase books on their own account, the library would provide another service and its patrons would have access to a broader selection of titles. Not incidentally, the library could receive a commission on every book sold through this service.
How would this work? A student at Distinguished University is thinking of taking the law boards. She sits in her sorority house and goes online to the OPAC, where she searches for books and other materials that will help her determine what she has to study and when she can take the test. She finds a number of digital resources and accesses them. One article is on the current composition of law schools; it is in the library’s collection, and she reads a large piece of it. Then she finds a book on job prospects for future lawyers. It is in the PDA program (though the student does not know this); she requests it, skims a few pages, and then moves on. The library is charged for a short-term rental for that access. Finally, she comes upon a test preparation book for the LSAT. She requests it, but is presented with a dialogue box, which says that the book is not available, but she can purchase it in electronic or print form on her own account. She types in her PayPal account number; a few seconds later she is viewing the test prep book on her laptop. So, three different accesses, and three different sets of business rules.
I have been surveying librarians about PDA and have specifically asked them if they envision widening the scope of their programs to include individual purchases. Most librarians don’t like the idea at all; some don’t understand it; some shrug and say, Let’s think about it. Yes, let’s think about it. A bookstore within a library’s OPAC would be a good thing for patrons and the library. It would also be good for publishers, which creates an opportunity for some self-interested negotiations.
As many librarians know, some publishers are holding back from participating in PDA programs. The libraries want the publisher participation, but how to get it? The concern these publishers (a sizable number) have is that PDA will erode firm sales to libraries. This is probably true, but we really don’t know yet. These same publishers, acting on this assumption, want to withhold titles from PDA to “force” libraries to buy the books in the traditional manner. This is not an enlightened trade practice, in my opinion, as it is more likely that the libraries will decline to purchase the books at all. But if this is what some publishers believe, it may be possible to move them in a different direction with incentives.
The principal incentive is more exposure to prospective customers. As publishers watch helplessly as their traditional distribution chain is being destroyed by Amazon, they are increasingly desperate to find new ways to sell their books. A bookstore in every library (the ALA says there are over 120,000 libraries in the U.S. alone) would more than offset the closing down of independent bookstores and the bankruptcy of Borders. Libraries have some negotiating leverage here.
What libraries can negotiate for is the inclusion of all publishers in PDA programs. And libraries can negotiate for a commission when community members make purchases on their own account. They can also try for more; they could ask, for example, for perpetual access rights to library-purchased material and liberal policies on reserve room reading. It’s hard to know where these discussions will end up, but until they start, they can go nowhere.
For publishers, the possibility that OPACs could become discovery engines for book sales would be a dream come true. Here is an opportunity to end the sometimes adversarial relationship between book publishes and librarians. A bookstore in every library is a step toward constructive discussion.