March 20, 2018

Academic Libraries Should Give Up Book-by-Book Collecting, Article Argues

To stay robust and relevant, academic libraries may need to abandon hands-on collection development and big deal subscription packages in favor of patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), open access, and curation of campus specialties.

College & Research Libraries released a pre-print of From Stacks to the Web: the Transformation of Academic Library Collecting by David W. Lewis, dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) University Library.

Lewis predicts that the academic library world will radically restructure itself in the next eight years. He forecasts that by 2020, effectively all content delivery will have become digital (with print on demand for the few paper diehards). Academic libraries will pack up their open stacks into a few centralized print depositories for preservation and loans. Open access will be the dominant model for journals, many university presses will have gone under, and the rest will have reorganized into broader units that include libraries.

These coming changes, Lewis argues, require a transformation of how academic libraries collect. They will need to reduce print collections of material available digitally and move from an item-by-item book selection model to patron driven acquisitions and subscriptions. “The most important attribute of digital content from a collections stand point is that you don’t have to own an item before a user wants it,” the abstract said.

Though IUPUI is not currently using patron-driven acquisitions, Lewis told LJ it participated in a consortium to do so several years ago, and said, “I am convinced it will be either cheaper or deliver more use or both” once the model is more worked out. “The key to success will be to develop an understanding of demand and how to control costs,” Lewis said.  “It is not clear whether you are better off using this model primarily to buy portions of the long tail, or to purchase core items. Publishers … are going to have to adapt to the new reality that libraries are going to find ways to purchase only what their users really need and that will mean lower sales.”

Lewis’s paper also calls for libraries to continue to support the open access model and restrain, if not reduce, spending on subscription journals. Especially, he said, they should abandon the “big deal” subscription package. “Our general strategy with journals is to try to maintain, but not increase, the dollars we allocate for journal purchases.  This of course reduces the amount of purchased subscription content we acquire, but it has not been all that difficult.  Faculty understand that prices are out of control, and while they don’t enjoy it, they are prepared to make cuts when required,” said Lewis.

Both for books and for journals, “building collections of published materials will decline in significance,” the abstract continues. By 2025 libraries’ collection development might decline by as much as half, to be replaced by curating unique, primarily digital content produced on, or of special interest to, the campus.

Lewis gave LJ an example of such curation on his own campus. “The IUPUI University Library has a special concern for philanthropy.  This supports a unique campus center, the IU Center on Philanthropy,” he said, “The library has a print library on the topic and very strong special collections.  We have a variety of electronic resources.”

Finally, he says the academic library world must develop new mechanisms to fund national infrastructure, as these web-scale enterprises take on an increasing role in preserving and providing the content that is not unique to a particular campus.

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Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Very interesting and without a doubt PDA: Patron-driven Acquisitions is the route Academic Libraries should and probably will take sooner than I think we expect.
    We have spoken about such services at UCLan when undertaking Collection Management roles and identifying item use in the process.

  2. Oh, blah, blah, blah. This interminable arm-waving makes me more tired than dealing with actual people who want stuff, which I have been doing every day for 30+ years, and let me tell you, if it were ANYTHING like as simple as this blather presupposes, I would have been standing out in front of Home-Depot years ago. People who don’t do this every day don’t realize how long and how fat the tail on this beast really is.What we are headed for is a nightmare of scholarship with not enough copies of not enough stuff not easy enough to get, and never satisfactorily reproduced – fuzzy, blacked out, bad color, wrong size, or just 404 not findable. And it is not because we will live on the Starship Enterprise (“Computer? Hot Chocolate!”), but because in our new economic and political world, there will not be the will or the money to fund the conservation, organization and dissemination of our cultural and scientific history. Universities, when they are properly run as businesses, will dump the shopworn cultural imperatives that collections of any kind represent for the kind of short-term rewards that are required by the market driven values they have adopted. Researchers will be on their own. Research libraries are considered cost centers, not profit (or value) centers, and as such in our brave new world, are doomed. They are expensive and represent a lot of hard work, and as such, should be outsourced. This is a failure of library leadership of our generation, which has fallen for the shiny toys, instead of thinking through what the true value-added of collections and information services might be to the research community and finding a potent way to deliver that message. Meet me here in eight years and let’s see if this comes true – and if it does, let’s take it for a test-drive and see how well it’s working for actual users.

    • I quite agree about the mounting failure of academic library leadership these days. Some deans seem to be profoundly out of touch with how their own organizations actually work and function, let alone how their own users actually behave. It’s a shameful downward spiral we’re in where the people who claim to speak for libraries don’t actually know anything about them. I’d also love to meet up with Mr. Lewis in 2020 and let him show me how his fantasies have come to pass.

  3. Oh really. Open Access will be the default by 2020, even though after a decade it’s still a minor sideshow in almost any subject. Huge print shared repositories will magically sprout overnight to hold the soon-to-be-useless print collections of hundreds of libraries. Librarians – if any remain – will be reduced to tending pathetic little gardens of “unique, primarily digital content produced on, or of special interest to, the campus,” while faculty will be fine with losing access to most of their journals because Big Deals and subscription-based models are so last-century. Everything we need will be in the cloud, and the copyright owners will somehow change their minds and business models, and a “national infrastructure” to serve and preserve information will drop from heaven and save us all. By 2020.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could also predict that middle-tier academic library directors will eventually desist from publishing this kind of silly nonsense and embarrassing their schools and staffs?

  4. Laura Tull says:

    I don’t know about 2020 but I have been convinced for some time that within 50 years print sources will not be used by students anymore even at the graduate level. Of course, by that time, many more print sources will have been digitized and ereading devices improved to a greater degree.

    However, things are changing so rapidly I could see 2030 as a reasonable date. Patron-driven acquisitions in this kind of environment make a lot of sense to me. I remember I was completely taken aback during my first weeding project when I discovered that most of the print books in the library never got checked out or taken off the shelf for in-house use. That is complete waste of financial resources.

    I think the publishing industry will have to reinvent themselves before open access becomes the norm.

  5. deg farrelly says:

    Once again an article that completely ignores the role of media in higher education! Libraries support more than research, they also support instruction. And for instruction there has never been a time when media was more important. With the growth of online instruction the demand for online video is increasing. Online access to “films” is still in a fledgling state. Industry forces seem to be handling the entertainment end of streaming video very well…. unless the film is out of distribution, or only in VHS never released in DVD. There is no Netflix model for the institutional market. Many film courses can nevertheless be supported by commercial services for such films. But the documentary films used for instructional support? This still takes a collection developer to handle. I’m not ruling out PDA for streaming video, but having run such a model all too successfully, I doubt that will be a genuine solution. (See: College & Media Review, 14 (2009))
    Some video distributors are developing curated collections, but this runs the same risk for media as the Big Deal does now for journals. And few institutions in this time of staff reduction and cost constraint can afford to build in-house hosting solutions for streaming. The advent of a new medium doesn’t completely replace its predecessor. TV did not kill film or radio. CDs did not completely kill off records, I doubt that digital audio will totally destroy CD as a delivery mechanism. Even if another format does take over, there will be huge numbers of content that did not and cannot migrate to the new format.

  6. eminencefront says:

    Yes, Taiga, the echo chamber where dunderheaded administrators make idiotic predictions in an annual game of my-library-is-crazier-than-yours, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad and possibly dangerous. Why is it that administrators never seem to talk to actual users or even their own staffs? Has Mr. Lewis ever spoken to, say, a scientist? Will he happily state to a group of biologists that “the library is getting rid of those unsustainable Journals, but hey, we have a great collection of digitized materials on the history of Philanthropy that you might like!” I’d love to be in on that meeting. Or to say that “PDA will be the wave of the future even though, well, my library doesn’t actually do it yet, but is sure sounds great!” The ignorance of reality, and absence of any sense of what content and services people actually need, let alone of how the information industry actually works, is just astounding.