March 16, 2018

Authentic Librarianship and the Procrustean Collection | Peer to Peer Review

We all know the story of Procrustes: he was basically the Basil Fawlty of Greek mythology, a terrible hotel owner with a single iron bed. He would invite passersby to spend the night as his guests and would then either stretch them or cut them to fit the bed.

In academic libraries, the temptation to take a similar (if more gentle) approach to our patrons and their research needs is great. And, in fact, that strategy is to some degree defensible, because of our educational mission; it’s true that students don’t go to school for the purpose of maximizing their comfort. Being a good academic host doesn’t mean making life easy for our students—it means, in fact, stretching them. A danger for us as librarians, however, lies in failing to see the important difference between stretching their minds and merely stretching their patience.

In an earlier column I talked about this issue from the perspective of service, suggesting that perhaps we should make it as easy as possible for out patrons to gain access to the documents they need in order to do their work. What I suggested then was that students’ minds should be stretched by the documents they encounter and by the thinking their work requires, rather than by the interfaces that stand between them and those documents.

Here I’d like to suggest something similar about the library collection itself. Too often, it seems to me, we try to manipulate our patrons’ research behaviors to fit the Procrustean bed of the collections we have built for them. We tend to justify this attitude on the basis of an “eat your peas” argument: “We know the literature better than you do, so you need to trust us to know which resources will serve your needs best.” Sometimes we’re right about that. But not always and especially when the patrons are faculty members rather than students.

Sometimes this attitude is expressed more gently and in terms of marketing: we purchase an expensive database and subsequently find that usage of it is lower than expected. What would Procrustes do in that situation? He would force the patron to use the database more. We don’t have that kind of leverage over patron behavior, so instead of forcing, we cajole. Cajoling is certainly a much more socially acceptable strategy than forcing—but the two strategies lie on the same continuum. In both cases, they are examples of the library building a bed and then trying to change its patrons so they will fit the needs of the bed rather than adjusting to the patrons’ needs.

Here’s the problem for libraries, though: How can you build anything except a Procrustean collection? The collection has to exist before the patron can use it and that means choices have to be made ahead of time on the patron’s behalf.

Or do they? Given the new information ecology in which we now work—one no longer populated primarily by physical documents—to what degree does it remain necessary to build library collections on a just-in-case basis?

In my last column I talked about the potentially disruptive impact of print-on-demand for both publishers and libraries. Here I’m talking about the even more disruptive capacity of access-on-demand (or what we more commonly call patron-driven or demand-driven acquisition) for library collections. When you think about it, there’s not really any good reason to buy an ebook until it gets used. Patrons can be shown an ebook that has not yet been purchased, and the purchase can be triggered by actual use and can happen in a behind-the-scenes way that is completely invisible to the patron. We know this can be done with books, because PDA is a quickly growing phenomenon in academic libraries.

But here’s the interesting question: If PDA is possible for books, why not for journal and database articles? Subscribing to a journal is really a terribly wasteful way to give patrons access to journal articles: it means preemptively buying a large bundle of as-yet-unpublished articles, knowing full well that many of them will never be used. Subscribing to a journal entails buying 50 things in order to ensure that you’ll have access to the ten things you actually want.

What this reality suggests is that we need an article-based (rather than journal-title-based) system of access, one that eliminates or at least minimizes the wasteful practice of buying unwanted content. The problem is that a system like this would be hugely disruptive to the scholarly communication ecology. Academic publishers are kept in business by the sales volume that results when libraries have no choice but to buy unwanted content. That’s not a criticism of publishers; it’s not their fault. It’s just the way the scholarly communication system has to work when it’s built on the distribution of clunky, heavy, physical documents. In a system like that, you must have the documents ready and waiting for your patrons when they walk into the library; otherwise, they’ll be frustrated. In short, you need a collection. But scholarly communication is no longer built on the distribution of physical objects—and walking into the library may still be an important part of what students do, but it’s no longer how they generally get access to scholarship.

So what’s stopping us? At this point, one thing: pricing. It’s already possible to show patrons articles that haven’t been bought, and it’s possible to buy articles on demand rather than subscribe to journals at the title level. What’s not possible is paying for them, given that individual articles typically cost anywhere from $25 to $75. Furthermore, publishers have no incentive to lower their prices; doing so will only encourage libraries to drop subscriptions.

This quandary represents only one facet of a widespread issue in scholarly publishing and in higher education generally: the problem of surplus value. I’ll address that in my next column.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson ( is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Absolutely! I’ve been trying to talk publishers and aggregators (and fellow librarians) into this model for years, and their response has been that no one (meaning librarians/libraries) would be able to afford it … Seems like if we’re not approaching it as a cost cutting effort, but instead like an experiment for a new model — a new way to allocate the same costs — we could find a pricing curve that would work. Then, in time, if it is advantageous to the suppliers and the demanders — menaing they make enough money and we still have some to spend — the economics will work themselves out! But I’m a glass overflowing kind of guy …Thanks.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Thanks, Tim. In my experience there is indeed lots of resistance from publishers (for the reasons you and I have both touched on above), and also from librarians who see the collection as an end in itself and don’t like the idea of any acquisition program that will tend to undermine the collection’s coherence. Unfortunately, the response “But look at our big, beautiful collection!” gives little comfort to the scholar whose specific need has not been met by it.

  2. Tim Bucknall says:

    In the case of seldom used journals, the pay-per-use model is actually much more affordable than the subscription model. If a journal is only used twice a year, I’d rather pay $25/article than pay for the subscription. Currently, libraries have the option to maximize the efficiency of their spending on articles by choosing a mix of subscriptions (for high use titles) and pay per view (for low use titles). But that, of course, introduces its own inefficiencies because librarians then need to analyze usage stats and potentially move titles from one access mode to another. Would we be better off by moving away from a hybrid subscription/PPV model and to an “all subscription model”? Or to an “all pay per use” model? Maybe or maybe not. It seems to me that the access model doesn’t in and of itself address the underlying problem of runaway journal pricing. Depending on how articles and/or subscriptions are priced, publishers can still generate the same amount of revenue from libraries – as long as we are willing to pay it.

  3. I believe that the solution is a new version of discovery layers. Content in discovery layers (ie, EDS, Summon, Encore, etc.) would be available either as a resource the librarian subscribes to directly, as is done today, or they pay per article/citation/item/chunk-of-information for results that match the user’s search. Since they’re working in the discovery layer, huge amounts of content are available from one search box.

    The patron would not know if the content they accessed came from a resource that the library subscribes to directly, or if they’re paying per use; there’s no reason why they should need to know.

    Costs for a given pay-per-use database would be capped at, say, 120% of the list price for the database. The library might pay more for a database they perhaps didn’t know they needed, but they’d discover that their patrons want that content, and next year they could decide to subscribe to it directly, and get all the benefits of a direct subscription. They’d save lots by switching required, but low-use, databases to pay-per-use. Over time, more and more rarely-used databases would be switched to pay-per-use access, but patrons would still have access.

    At large universities, probably most of their databases would still be subscribed directly. At small colleges, most would be pay-per-use, but those databases could be throttled on or off as the budget allowed.

    It’s a win for libraries, because their money is spent more efficiently, and they provide more relevant content to their patrons. It’s a win for discovery layers because they have another small revenue stream, through processing and serving up the pay-per-use content, along with usage data and recommendation services. It’s a win for database vendors, because more libraries will be willing to try their content — and if the librarian is right in saying no one would use that content, then no money will be wasted on the database. Most importantly, it’s a win for patrons, who will have access to a much larger set of resources.

    It’s a loss for expensive, low-use, entrenched databases, but that’s probably OK with just about all of us.