Printed books and patron-driven acquisition

My previous post (16 Nov) – a review of Swords (ed.), Patron-driven acquisitions – examined the phenomenon of patron-driven acquisition (PDA). I noted there two conceptions of PDA – one narrow and one broad:

  • the broad: any system in which library’s decisions over which books to buy are driven principally by demand from patrons, rather than collection librarians’ judgement;
  • the narrow: a system whereby a supplier (typically an aggregator such as EBL, ebrary, NetLibrary, or MyiLibrary) makes a collection of e-books available to a library free of charge. Purchases (or leases) of titles using the library budget are then triggered by patrons’ selection and use.

Impressive though Swords’ book is, it sometimes slides unannounced from the broader conception to the narrower. The result is that in places it exaggerates the advantages of PDA.

To be more precise:

1. if one moves from (a) a traditional model whereby collection librarians select acquisitions, primarily of printed books to (b) a model whereby acquisitions are primarily in e-book form and are determined by users, one moves simultaneously along two dimensions, namely:

  • from librarian to user;
  • from print to e-book.

2. If, however, one fails to distinguish the two dimensions, there is a danger that one will claim that the advantages of the latter model are derived from PDA, whereas in fact some may be simply down to the advantages of e-books over print.

3. And, furthermore, one risks overlooking the possibilities of patron-driven acquisition of printed books.

For example, in their chapter on building libraries in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and Azerbaijan, Rex Steiner and Ron Berry conclude with a list of the ‘effects of PDA’. Oddly they don’t mention what I think is the obvious advantage, namely that users get the books they want (and libraries avoid buying books that nobody wants). Many of the effects they do identify derive not from a movement from librarian-driven to user-driven acquisition but, rather, from a movement from printed books to e-books. Examples include the reduction in the need for new shelving and the elimination of a lengthy shipping process and of the difficulties of customs clearance. Such effects would apply, regardless of whether the acquisition of e-books was librarian-driven or user-driven. Similarly, the difficulties encountered in the print supply chain would apply, regardless of how the acquisition of print books was driven.

However, Patron-driven acquisitions doesn’t entirely ignore the possibility of print-PDA. In particular, Michael Levine-Clark, in his chapter on the University of Denver library, considers this question. He notes:

A crucial aspect of this plan is the idea that users should be able to duplicate print and electronic books as needed. The library conducted surveys of the university community … One clear conclusion of the 2010 survey is that users prefer ebooks for some functions and print books for others; because people may read the same book for different purposes, different users may want the same title in different formats. A demand-driven acquisition model allows the library, whenever possible, to provide access for both formats of the same title, but only to purchase either format when actually needed.

How very adaptable – and how very sane. Yet not all librarians will sympathise with this view – in part because the acquisition of printed books entails problems (not least the total cost of acquisition, processing, and storing) and in part because, well, in librarianship, print is not very sexy. It is probably no accident that, though the book does discuss print and paper, neither term appears in the book’s index.

I fear that users who prefer print are sometimes regarded in the library world as benighted souls who simply don’t ‘get’ e-books – the unwritten implication being that with time they will either come to see the error of their ways or become extinct! Yet benighted souls still deserve a service – and some, far from being benighted, simply have special needs. Thus practices such as the Denver surveys – resulting in a better informed, more nuanced, provision – seem wholly admirable.

Levine-Clark also considers, briefly, the role of On Demand Book’s Espresso Book Machine. Though this machine’s technology is undoubtedly clever and appealing, I’ve always been sceptical of its commercial potential – except in libraries, where it ought surely to have some application. 

Levine-Clark notes that the Espresso service ‘does not yet have sufficient frontlist content’ to be ‘viable’. There is here a chicken-and-egg situation similar to that faced by e-books prior to the development of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle: there is limited supply because there is limited demand – and there is limited demand because supply is limited. Perhaps there’s an opportunity here for a concerted effort to push such services over the threshold of viability.

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About Anthony Haynes

Director, Frontinus Ltd Communications Associate, FJWilson Talent Services

2 comments

  1. I miss any explicit mention in this thoughtful essay on the library concern with paying twice for the same content (the mention of cost of acquisition my be meant to cover this but it does not call out the issue explicitly).

    When I was working on ebook issues extensively a few years ago that was certainly a key concern among librarians.

    Some major publishers have confronted the desire by scholars to have access to print books by offering individuals low prices for lower quality POD versions of the books that they buy themselves.

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