In June we published our first 10 responses to the following “consolidation question.”
Large companies grow larger through acquisition. Of course each acquisition is justified in terms of strategic fit, the need to offer “full service” to customers and complimentary services; but it is the need to grow that is the ultimate driver. Small companies either operate in unique niches and sustain their place or go head to head with large companies and generally lose. Of course the small companies operating in unique and profitable niches are the acquisition targets of the large companies seeking to grow larger. Perhaps it is a virtuous and useful process/cycle with small companies innovating in important niches and then going to scale through acquisition by the large company. Or, perhaps, innovation and customer choice suffer when the small companies are acquired. What if we were to remove our partisan hat for just a moment and speculate on the future state of the library content and services environment assuming the pace of consolidation continues and possibly quickens?
This then is the question: Think forward to 2026. Assume what you will about the changing needs of libraries. Consider the pace of consolidation and the nature of consolidation we have seen over the past 10 years. Factor in everything from demand-driven models to open access. In 500 words or less, please give us your take on the future impact of consolidation on the industry. Concerns like competition, pricing, the growth of startups, etc. are all grist for the mill. Please keep in mind that we are looking for your candid opinions on this crucial issue and naturally we’d be delighted if you could tell us something we hadn’t considered or don’t already know.
The response from our readership was swift and we received another 13 responses from industry leaders whose opinions we sought. In the first 10 responses published in June, various themes emerged that I summarized as: information consumers will rule and win. Cost per access/use will keep going down. The boundaries of the library and the companies that serve libraries will keep moving out. And the cloud and open source, services, content will become more and more central.
These themes continued in the second wave of 13 responses but there were new themes and new poles of perspective. For example, in this second batch of responses the definition of consolidation extended beyond the expected habit of for profit entities to acquire other for profit entities. In this group of responses consolidation took on three forms: commercial business consolidation, the merging of university presses and libraries, and the need for libraries themselves to coordinate and consolidate a range of activities from buying to cataloging to collection development strategies.
Another striking element in the 13 second round responses was what I would describe as two opposite poles of thought on the impact of consolidation. On one pole were the optimists who pointed to the constructive tendency of periods of consolidation to produce a reaction of entrepreneurial activity (and I certainly saw this in the textbook publishing space 10 years ago …). On the other pole were the much less sanguine folks who raise their very serious concerns that competition could be reduced, leading to risks of less choice, higher prices and/or innovators being locked out of access to library budgets.
And then there was the response from Jon Cawthorne from the University of West Virginia. Jon’s submission was less a response and more a proposal for how we might take this exercise forward. Jon’s piece introduces the practice of scenario planning as a tool we can employ to bring all of the thought and experience represented in these submissions to arrive at a consensus “most plausible” 10 years hence scenario. In my June introduction to the 10 first responses I promised a summary and integration piece for the September issue. I am now going to backtrack on that promise and, instead, work with Jon and the other participants in this process to see if we can employ a scenario planning process to arrive at our collective “summary view.” So look for a further piece on consolidation to follow later in the year or early 2017.
Response From — Glenda Alvin (Associate Professor, Assistant Director for Collection Management and Administration, Head, Acquisitions and Serials, Brown-Daniel Library, Tennessee State University)
I began my library career in the 1970s and I have watched the consolidation of vendors of all types of formats over the past thirty years. Throughout the transition, I have evolved through stages of amusement, trepidation, alarm and now resignation.
The consolidation of vendors has meant less competitive pricing and services, especially revolving door customer service and tech support personnel. More importantly, it has brought about redundant and/or duplicate access to the same resources. Among eBook vendors there is so much duplication and overlapping of titles, that a library can end up with three copies of the same book from different vendor packages. Periodical publishers offer journal packages directly to libraries, but provide the access to those same titles via databases licensed by a large aggregator. Database vendors provide the same journal titles, often with the same embargo periods and coverage dates. Consolidation has meant that libraries end up with multiple offerings of the same titles from one source. The merger/alliance of print and online book vendors with database and media providers makes further progress toward ordering all resources, regardless of format, from one vendor.
It appears as though the startups and innovators like Serials Solutions, NetLibrary, and Alexander Street, can only be on the leading edge for so long, before they get gobbled up by large aggregators. This may be due to the large aggregator adapting the entrepreneur’s product and marketing it at a cheaper price, therefore shrinking the profit margin of the new company. It may also happen that the small company reaches a ceiling and can no longer improve the product, as it appears to happen with some ILS vendors, and this slows acquisition of new customers. Other reasons could be the cost of conducting business and staying competitive in the library market place becomes excessive or the owner’s energy and enthusiasm dims and other priorities surface. It is probable that small privately owned library businesses have a limited life span for all of the aforementioned factors.
In the future, I see only one or two library resources providers. They will offer a full array of products and services to the library through packages on a contractual basis. Selection of materials, comparative performance measurements, and competitive pricing will be a thing of the past. The need to have librarians charged with acquiring materials and developing the collection will gradually diminish and fade into the sunset, because the responsibility will have been surrendered to the vendors.
Response From — Rick Anderson (Assoc. Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication, Marriott Library, University of Utah)
Because the ecosystem of scholarly communication is so complex and involves so many different contributors with such a diversity of goals, values, and priorities, I’m hesitant to talk in terms of “the” impact of vendor and publisher consolidation — the impacts are, and will continue to be, various and will affect different parts of the system in different ways.
What I think is really interesting about this question is that when we worry about consolidation, what we’re usually really worrying about is competition: what happens when there’s only one or maybe two vendors offering a product to the marketplace? Will their incentive to do a good job be reduced? Will they be able to charge any price they want because there’s no one else in the marketplace to undercut them? These are questions that often don’t have obvious answers when it comes to scholarly communication, because the dynamics of competition in our ecosystem are so weird. EBSCO and ProQuest compete with each other to sell the same or similar products and services to libraries, whereas two journal publishers in the same discipline have monopoly control over the content they sell. Those journal publishers, however, compete pretty fiercely for authors, to whom multiple journals may offer a very similar set of services and a roughly comparable value proposition.
This reality contributes significantly to the pricing dynamic that we see in scholarly publishing: publishers that control very high-demand journals can often raise prices with relative impunity, because that high-demand content isn’t available from anyone else. If publishers continue to consolidate, I don’t anticipate much impact on pricing because they’re monopolists already. (Will the prices of either Springer journals or Nature journals rise because they are now both published by the same company? Probably not. They’ll continue to rise, but for the same reasons they always have.)
When it comes to third-party vendors such as book jobbers and journal aggregators, though, the dynamic is different. It would be reasonable to expect a steep decline in the number of book vendors (such as we’ve seen recently) to have an impact on service terms and fees due to reduced competition. Except, of course, for the fact that jobbers like YBP and Ingram are no longer only (or even primarily) competing with each other for library business: today, they’re competing with Amazon. And their traditional service models — approval plans in particular — are under severe pressure from the rise of demand-driven acquisition models. I suspect that both of these factors, among others, will be more than sufficient to counteract the impact of vendor consolidation on pricing. This is good news for libraries, at least in the short term, and bad news for book jobbers.
The bottom line, I think, is that the scholarly communication ecosystem is too complex and strange for a single dynamic, such as consolidation, to have the same results across the system. It will hurt some and help some, just like every other change we’ve experienced over the past two decades.
I am viewing the impact of consolidation within the library industry in the larger context of changes in the higher education environment, including the increasing financial limitations that many colleges and universities face. The following scenario is one that I believe is becoming increasingly possible. I would be quite surprised if something along these lines isn’t already in the internal planning documents of at least one company.
Large companies being formed through consolidation are building a resource and service base that is almost comprehensive enough to enable them to offer an impressive array of academic library resources and services (minus locally-created unique collections and an onsite print collection) more cost-effectively and more consistently than can be provided by many institutions facing serious and ongoing financial issues. By 2026 I expect at least one large consolidated company will be offering a full-service online library, plus shelf-ready print resources, to colleges and universities that choose to outsource the majority of their library resources and services.
This “library” will include librarians who have expert-level knowledge of searching and using that company’s “college library,” and are skilled at delivering and assessing instruction to students and faculty. These librarians will also direct users to the remaining on-campus library personnel for use of onsite collections and services.
These large companies will license additional content for their online libraries from the many remaining independent publishers. By 2026 many of these publishers will be thriving financially, although I anticipate that competition from the mega-companies will be an additional driving force that will accelerate changing the form of published content to something that is much less static than is the case today. Not only will the resources be updated on an ongoing basis (with archival copies of earlier versions being available as they are in Wikipedia), they will include much more multimedia content and opportunities for the user to interact with resources.
Most research libraries will continue to maintain comprehensive collections of print and digital resources, but by 2026 these types of collections will become rarities on many less well-funded university campuses.
Comprehensive library resource and service providers will develop increasingly effective methods of organizing scholarly content at the article level, which will result in scholarly publishers of all types moving away from the journal model of article publishing and toward article-by-article publication that, in the case of society and commercial publishers, will be sustainably funded by libraries and/or researchers on a per use basis.
By 2026, open access publishing, independent publishers, and the mega-companies that provide these outsourced academic libraries will be coexisting and succeeding at a sustainable level. It will be uncomfortable for many of us, myself included, but we will see very diverging definitions of what constitutes an academic library, with dramatic differences occurring between and among ARL and other research libraries, residential private colleges that may choose to retain most of their onsite library and services, and public colleges and universities, some of whom will be approaching a near-100% outsourced library environment.
Response From — Stephen Barr (President, SAGE International)
I would make three points about this question. First, yes, there is consolidation in the industry with some of the big players buying or merging with other big players. This isn’t new – major players in the industry growing by purchasing other companies has been going on for many years, for example Elsevier’s purchase of Pergamon Press in 1991. But alongside that consolidation at the top, there remains a very lively environment in terms of development of new businesses and new models. Recent years have seen the growth of new publishers occupying new kinds of publishing spaces, such as BioMedCentral, PLOS, Hindawi, PeerJ (and many others) in open access publishing, or Alexander Street Press, Kanopy and Adam Matthew in video and database publishing. Alongside these there has been a growth of businesses operating in the scholarly communications space even if not exactly in a publishing model, from Publons through Kudos and Digital Science to Mendeley, SSRN and Repec. Obviously some of these players get acquired too, but the proliferation of new models and new businesses seems to me to have increased, not decreased, in the current environment.
Second, the future shape of the market depends in part on the extent to which technology solutions remain subsidiary to content, versus technology becoming the key deliverable. In a content-based environment there tends to be space for continual emergence of new players who meet the needs of providers of content more successfully than existing companies, and who can carve out a space in the market based on the content they are publishing. If technology becomes the dominant offer, that can lead to one or two parties emerging as the industry standard for the technology in question. Our bet at this point is on technology continuing to be important but that in the academic space, differentiation of the quality of content remains a key consideration and the role of technology is enabling rather than dominant, at least in the period under discussion here.
Third, there are some inbuilt safeguards against consolidation in the scholarly publishing space becoming monopolization of that space. There are a number of significant players in the scholarly publishing industry who are not subject to being consolidated because of their ownership. The obvious examples would be the university presses and society publishers: Oxford, Cambridge and the major U.S. university presses, as well as society publishers such as the American Psychological Association, play an important role in the scholarly communications ecosystem by offering an alternative outlet to the commercial giants and a guarantee of long term independence. SAGE is in a similar position: our founder and majority owner, Sara Miller McCune, has put in place an estate plan that guarantees our independence indefinitely. After her lifetime, SAGE will be owned by a charitable trust that will secure the company’s continued independence, with the company remaining permanently committed to serving the dissemination of knowledge. Though there are challenges arising from each significant piece of consolidation in the system, the existence of alternative models and alternative businesses limits the extent to which the commercial giants’ role becomes a hegemonic one.
Response From — Rick Burke (Executive Director, SCELC)
In twenty-plus years working with SCELC, a library consortium, I have witnessed massive consolidation among the vendors upon whom our libraries depend for much of their electronic resources, be they aggregated databases, e-journals, eBooks, library services, etc. Some examples: OCLC swallowed up RLG and WLN; ProQuest acquired Chadwyck Healey, Serials Solutions, Ex Libris and Alexander Street Press; EBSCO acquired H.W. Wilson, CINAHL, and Plum Analytics; Elsevier acquired Academic Press, SSRN and Mendeley; Ovid acquired Silverplatter; Wiley acquired Blackwell. The list of library vendor “oldies” — greatest hits of past years — is extensive.
As a library consortium (and a nonprofit with a mission) SCELC has always tried to ameliorate the worst aspects of the library-vendor-publisher relationship through the building of effective business relationships with our libraries and our vendors. Consolidation is an accepted part of this equation, even though our first inclination is to assume that any consolidation is bad for libraries, leading to less choice, greater monopolistic practices, and higher pricing. The reality is more of a mixed bag. Some mergers lead to positive results, where costs don’t rise precipitously and research and development funds for newer and better products are now available to the acquired company. In other instances a good product is swallowed up and the formerly good pricing and interface that was once provided is no more.
We will likely continue to see both forms of consolidation going forward. As Dennis Brunning noted in his response to this question, my crystal ball is also cloudy. I think librarians are a creative and adaptive bunch and their response to the rapid changes and consolidation in the library marketplace has already led to new services and approaches that only improve the user experience. Libraries themselves are actually recognizing where the consolidation of library services might be a good thing for libraries. In this evolving economic environment of stagnating or shrinking library budgets, libraries and consortia can lead the way towards new levels of collaboration in shared technical services, shared staff opportunities and shared collection development, thereby freeing up libraries so they can better focus their energies on enhancing and advancing what is unique and best about their libraries and institutions.
As for industry consolidation, unfortunately libraries do not have a strong voice in steering that ship. Capitalism runs its own course and consolidation is inevitable. Where there is a silver lining is the aforementioned creativity of librarians, and small start-up vendors which are often supported by the very same librarians, whether commercial or open access/open source, whose agility and ability to move more quickly than the mega-vendors will ensure that new products, services and opportunities will continue to percolate through the library marketplace — until they too are acquired!
In the 1970s in the world of beer we saw all the big regional players (Schlitz, Pabst, etc.) get swallowed up by bigger companies. Beer drinkers might have despaired, but instead we saw a flowering of thousands of microbreweries that persists to this day, even with continued consolidation. I’m confident the library marketplace will be like the microbreweries and will keep innovating and providing the best possible products and services that continue to enrich libraries everywhere. Let’s raise a cold one to that prospect!
Response From — Jon E. Cawthorne, Ph.D. (Dean of Libraries, West Virginia University)
Like most of you, I am concerned about our collective (information/knowledge industry’s) future. At this moment, do we all have a similar sense that our current collective industry is marching toward unsustainability? I believe we are currently in a liminal period, one in which long-standing practice clouds our collective ability to see, to struggle, and to test concepts, ideas, and solutions across each of our established professions (in libraries and for publishers and vendors). This current, subtle, and silent transition is barely registering as a shared problem because of its sheer size and complexity as well as the intrinsic values and deep interrelatedness of our professions. We can each view our own kaleidoscopic pieces for sure, yet how can we envision alternative or emerging models when we face immediate fiscal realities and incentives to preserve promotion and tenure, navigate changes in publishing, and define the very value of higher education in the 21st century?
After reading the other entries here, I was struck by the wide variety of ideas in each submission. Similar perspectives and thoughts about our collective future were expressed in the recent Publishers Reporting to Libraries (P2L) Summit and Open Scholarship Initiative meetings. Part of our inability to see, to struggle, and to test concepts, ideas, and solutions is rooted in our strong professional cultures, in the ways we plan for uncertainty, and how we tend to develop and create silo visions versus the more difficult path of thinking broadly across our common environment. As these discussions and many others evolve, we all know it is virtually impossible to both envision a future broad enough to encompass our various enterprises and also establish the leadership necessary to arrive at another place down the road. But what if we used different planning tools?
To answer this question, I propose we use a broader planning process that takes into account all the uncertainty across our collective professions (for libraries, publishers, and vendors). Through such a process we can create future scenarios that will help us understand and test the ramifications of not only vendor but also institutional, library, and publisher consolidations. Scenario planning creates and sets plausible forecasts (think short stories) 10-15 years into the future.* The scenario-planning process can be quite involved, but there may be enough here to put each shared concept into a quadrant and begin writing some credible future scenarios. Using this process with the theme of industry consolidation, might this community be able to agree on one of them? If we ask the right questions, we just might begin to understand how the decisions we make today impact the direction of our collective future.
*See Thomas J. Chermack, Scenario Planning in Organizations: How to create, use and assess scenarios (Berrett/Koehler, 2011).
Response From — Mitchell Davis (Founder and Chief Business Officer, BiblioBoard)
After twenty years as a publishing and technology entrepreneur and four years working directly in the library software industry, it is hard to discern any evidence that consolidation will not continue to occur at a faster pace.
The academic library industry exists within a capitalist system that is bigger than us. Private Equity (PE) controls most our industry and the role of PE is to provide steady (and increasing) margin returns to investors, not to disrupt and innovate on behalf of patrons and students. K-12 and public libraries have a similar dynamic — steady status quo funding mission with little disruption or innovation. Disruption and innovation are anathema to the historically defined mission of PE, as they create market changes too quickly and are more expensive in the short term, requiring a much heavier research and development investment. Both affect investor returns in a negative way.
At the Charleston Conference last year I spoke on a keynote panel about “library start ups.” I noted at the start of my talk the irony of it running in parallel to a session on industry consolidation. I said the attendees at our session were the optimists.
Theoretically, “big deals” with big vendors drive library costs down. In practice, however, they vacuum up a library’s budget into the PE machine with the effect of keeping old products profitable without much innovation or real market pressure to improve them. Consolidation happens because the more you can bundle, the more you can sell, and the more you can keep dollars out of innovators’ hands. These deals are not like the menu at a sushi restaurant, but rather like a Golden Corral buffet. You may eat a couple of things, but you pay for it all. Imagine Amazon trying to sell us things that way.
Meanwhile, the rest of the digital world (think: Google, Apple, Amazon) has moved at a completely different speed and gains more momentum as it goes forward. They have moved forward within a completely different cost structure than our industry has been able to adopt. Think: cloud computing at 1/10th the cost vs. maintaining data centers as one of many, many examples of this impact. In the process they have also raised the bar significantly on what people expect from a digital media and information experience.
I am a hopeful cynic, but I do not believe the industry has the time for a renaissance to come from the outside. 2026 will be here before we know it and the world is not going to stop to wait on us. The most practical and effective hope for our industry remaining competitive in the digital world rests in the leadership of the current large vendors (I am including OCLC), the large libraries (including state libraries) and buying consortia. The renaissance needs to occur within (and among) these organizations.
They need to convince PE that investing in software and business culture is good for business. That creating open architecture systems that spawn new business models is a good thing, not a scary thing. That creating cheaper, more competitive products and giving libraries an optimistic vision to how libraries fit into the overall future digital landscape is imperative.
The only currency of persuasion that will work with PE is, well, currency. If PE fears library dollars will be diverted to innovation, they will react by innovating. This does not mean libraries accepting lip service in lieu of innovation (as has been done for years), or another study on how to deliver digital products or services. Google, Amazon, and Apple have provided and continue to provide the roadmap for digital delivery. Libraries ignore that roadmap at their peril.
One need only look to the UK public library market to see how quickly a political system can turn on a library system it perceives as offering little value. Public and political support is the lifeblood of our industry (and the PE investor’s returns). Consolidation does not have to be bad. It just feels scary right now because none of the choices being offered to libraries seem like they will ultimately leave libraries in a position of cultural influence in the digital world.
I am encouraged by Open Library Service Platform (LSP) efforts like FOLIO, which conceive of a library business and user experience world that works differently (and by that I mean similarly to the consumer digital experience that is pervasive in the rest of the software and media world). It remains to be seen if that vision can be achieved. The ultimate success of initiatives like FOLIO will rely less on strategy and cunning and more on a commitment by libraries and large vendors to the ethos of open source development and sustaining an entrepreneurial spirit. It is the least cynical thing I have seen develop in this industry so far and that is encouraging.
Response From — Jim Dooley (Head, Collection Services, University of California, Merced)
In 2026, the same economic forces that have spurred consolidation and spin-offs in most industries and sectors will continue to influence corporate decision-making. What has changed in the last few years is that library vendors have become part of this world of acquisitions, mergers and spin-offs. Recently we have witnessed the acquisition of Ex Libris and Alexander Street Press by ProQuest and the spin-off of Web of Science by Thomson Reuters. YBP and Coutts both have changed owners twice in the last decade. Elsevier has acquired SSRN. What is certain is that the corporate landscape will continue to change in unpredictable ways and that libraries will have limited ability to influence these events. Two uncomfortable truths are that the library services industry is a very small, even tiny, part of the overall economy and that corporations act, first and foremost, to maximize profits for their owners.
If this is true, then what can libraries do? Some of the potentially negative impacts of consolidation are well-known: decreasing price competition, decreasing innovation in product and service development, deteriorating customer service. There can also be a tendency to consider the remaining mega-vendors as constituting the universe of library suppliers. In response, libraries can expand the use of consortia to increase negotiating power in order to achieve sustainable pricing. Libraries can aggressively demand that commercial vendors develop the products and services that libraries actually need. Libraries can also demand an acceptable level of customer service.
As the library information and services industry becomes more concentrated, space will open for start-ups to develop new and innovative products and services. Traditionally libraries have acquired developed products from established vendors. If in 2026 the remaining vendors fail to provide quality products and services at sustainable prices with acceptable levels of customer service, then libraries will need to seek out and even partner with emerging companies that will do these things. This will require the development of a new mind-set on the part of many librarians and procurement officers. At the same time, the exhibit floor at ALA Annual in Orlando was proof that there are a large number of people with ideas wanting to provide services to libraries. Obviously, a relatively small number of these start-ups will be successful, but libraries can respond to industry consolidation by encouraging new entrants into the library marketplace.
Library services and collections continue to evolve towards greater user involvement and empowerment. Obvious examples are Demand Driven Acquisitions, the Open Access movement and point-of-need tutorials. More and more, technology is in the hands of the user rather than provided by the library. By 2026 user empowerment in all areas of library services will be even greater than it is today. At the same time, libraries will still need to contract with commercial vendors and so will need to determine how they will best interact in a capitalist economy.
Response From — Barbara Fister (Professor in Library, Gustavus Adolphus College)
I’m a journalist’s brat who grew up with newspapers all over the breakfast table and smudges of ink on the milk carton. A lot of things have challenged the news industry since then, including shifts in technology that have also affected libraries, but media consolidation has only made things worse. Being beholden to shareholders or private equity firms, those carrion birds of business, harms a profession that strives to “seek truth and report it” in the words of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Something similar is happening in the scholarly realm. There is a great deal of money to be made when the consumer brakes are off and productivity demands are raised. This leaves librarians making short-term decisions that ultimately are against both their patrons’ interests and the public good while companies invest excess cash in extending their reach and acquiring the competition rather than in making their products better and cheaper.
Like journalists, scholars ideally seek the truth for the public good. Forcing their public findings through a commercial system that extracts wealth from work largely funded by and conducted for the public is good for business but bad for knowledge. Open access publishing has turned the corner of inevitability and corporations will spend the next decade building a massive infrastructure for it, absorbing information from scholars and their networks, collecting data about who is reading what, extracting wealth and largely replacing the role of libraries without adopting their commitment to the public good.
We aren’t doing our jobs if our work consists of stretching budgets to provide temporarily licensed information to a strictly-limited local audience, leaving the open future to the corporate sector. If we don’t act together, quickly, within ten years the five corporations that own half or more of the current scholarly record (the five that may become three or two) and the vendors whose inadequate data-sucking infrastructures we’ve depended on for too long will define what the future looks like. After all, these corporations aren’t seeking truth. They’re seeking profits.
There is only one kind of industry consolidation that makes sense: a radical recommitment of all of us in academic librarianship to the common good. We must pool our resources and collaborate on efforts to make as much scholarship as possible accessible to all in a manner that honors our values: intellectual freedom, privacy, social responsibility, and the public good. We have to use our financial and social capital to support efforts like arXiv, SocArxiv, the Open Library of Humanities, and Lever Press, projects that embody our values while providing sustainable alternatives to corporate control of the scholarly conversation. The problem with local solutions like institutional repositories is that knowledge isn’t local. It’s a network, and we need to think of our libraries as nodes in that network, working together to build a new and open commons. We have the skills. We have the right values. We just need the commitment.
Response From — Peter C. Froehlich (Director, Purdue University Press, and Head, Scholarly Publishing Services, Purdue University)
*Please note: The Froehlich essay which appeared in the June print issue of ATG was not the correct essay. The correct essay follows and also appears currently on the ATG NewsChannel.*
Trends to watch include: non-linear moves, machine-driven obviation, and the macro-market corrections that might ensue from both — to which even megafauna resulting from traditional M&A will be subject. Players to watch are the omni-models: Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and their ilk.
I’ll throw out a few crystal-ball thoughts of “future events past” that might illustrate these trends via extrapolation (because guesses are fun). Apologies in advance if examples are hackneyed or if, in service of brevity, they skip review of scholarly work or reference to otherwise grounded prognostications.
In the future:
- Amazon 2026 gobbles libraries services like Amazon 2006 gobbled bookstores
- Acquisitions (in libraries) continues its ‘merger’ with Acquisitions (in presses)
- Public Media expand in Publishing/Education — lest a merger with Public Media prevents
Amazon 2026 gobbles libraries services “market share” like Amazon 2006 gobbled bookstore space: Amazon enters new countries selling books; i.e., its core strength, it then learns the lay of the land to see what services it can best offer next. Amazon has a lot to offer. Amazon 2026 could be: building and buying content providers; offering big data management services; leveraging Echo/Alexa to build high-impact teaching/research assistants; and more. It might have seemed prognosticative-fancy to imagine Amazon entering higher education, ten years back, but now, with new Amazon Campus and Amazon’s OER discovery tool pilot, the entry should be clear.
Acquisitions (in libraries) continues its “merger” with Acquisitions (in presses, especially university presses): Driven more by moves in commercial houses like Elsevier and others, by 2026 we should be seeing a deeper partnership between libraries and presses to explore recommendation algorithms for not only research and discovery but also publishing decisions.
Public Media expands in Publishing/Education — lest a libraries/press-born partnership with Public Media prevents: Public (or Open Access) Radio and Television have moved online relatively more easily than text-based OA content production. Where will Public Media go from here? The multimedia move to add text to audio and video etc. seems one worth exploring. We may see more publishing ventures from Public Media, unless any appetite for and interest in such exploration is preemptively met with publisher and publishing-led offers to collaborate, partner/merge.
Last, in considering future moves and counters, it might be helpful to consider past paths not taken and the alternate worlds of opportunities that might have resulted, e.g., proto-Internet Libraries moved to handle all copyright clearance at scale, soaking up the market and business model ahead of Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), being heroes to scholars, freeing grad students from countless follow-up emails, consolidating spending at institutions, and leading collaborative innovation to advance automated permissions clearance in promotion of maximal fair use and accelerated publication. Or similarly, proto-Internet Libraries moved to manage all educational materials; i.e., all textbooks and course packs. Might ownership here have altered Amazon 2026’s approach? Not sure; all before my time. Nonetheless, how things might have been handled and decided can be interesting to consider, when estimating the pace and impact of in-industry change, moves, and counters ahead.
Response From — Bob Kieft, with thanks to Rick Burke, John McDonald, Jake Nadal, Jason Price, and Emily Stambaugh
The premise of this assignment is that the consolidation taking place among the businesses and organizations from which libraries buy things to fill their shelves and link resolvers necessarily has consequences for libraries. I’d like to turn the tables on this premise and argue that academic libraries should consolidate their general collections as a means for giving more and better service than an institutionally independent model for libraries allows.
Consolidation vertically and horizontally, big fish eating ever bigger fish and each other in the search for market segment and eventually dominance, is the way of corporate capital. Resistance to such consolidation proceeds in parallel through regulation, the development of new businesses, or decisions by buyers that they don’t need the corporate entity to accomplish their purposes. That ever-larger corporate entities absorb or otherwise adapt to these resistances is also a familiar pattern. Nothing new here since competition relies on a desire to dominate.
Academic libraries should consolidate services around common functions less as resistance to consolidation among sellers than as an expression of the value they place on meeting reader needs as efficiently as possible and spreading the materials and means for education as widely as possible. Libraries have a history of consolidation, if not of administrations on the big-fish model (the local university library does not seek, for example, to take over the libraries of local colleges) then of their interests and activities around collections. Resource sharing, group catalogs and union lists, cooperative cataloging, research and advocacy organizations, and consortia for negotiating resource purchases, housing materials, and building and maintaining information systems, suggest that libraries have everything to gain through funding programs and entities that supersede individual library activities by consolidating them.
Given the intimate relationship between the use cases for print and electronic materials and the potential of different formats for making teaching, learning, and research materials widely available, a system funded by colleges and universities should consolidate general collections consortially/regionally or nationally through agreements that:
- align and preserve print collections,
- house and serve print materials from centers outside campus library buildings,
- reconfigure models for delivery of print to readers,
- create financing plans that support shared collections operating costs and the capital investments needed to house them,
- organize the ongoing digitization of general print collections,
- make shared collections materials as generously available as possible (forget those foolish short loan periods for print resource sharing),
- seek changes to copyright regimes that favor greater access to and reuse of scholarship,
- collaboratively purchase and serve new materials in print and electronic formats, and
- support open publication of scholarship and the data it relies on.
As libraries build toward the day when systems for discovery and access, together with these agreements, make it easy for readers to identify and obtain anything they want, numerous regional consortia, SHARE, CRL, HathiTrust, open access publishing models that do not rely on APCs, OCLC’s WorldCat and related services, etc. point the way to this desirable consolidation.
Response From — Allen McKiel, Ph.D. (Dean of Library Services, Western Oregon University)
Consolidation is not the primary change agent for libraries and higher education. The LinkedIn acquisition of Lynda.com (mentioned in Donald Beagle’s article) is further evidence of the evolution of learning toward independence from physical media and also from the imprimatur of the university. Another such example is the burgeoning utility and authority of Wikipedia. The procurement of Lynda.com reflects the shifting of the processes of certification of learning to standard assessment and the utility of Wikipedia suggests freeing of the dialog of learning to common ubiquitous and content sensitive access of information. The utilization of Google and Wikipedia in the common processes of individual curiosity, when extended by the imagination toward the further evolution of artificial intelligence, gives rise to a vision of peer review processes delivered to ongoing social processes of expanding human knowledge in an ongoing dialog with the machine. The next ten years in my view is not likely to resolve the ongoing profit versus service motivational dichotomy in the evolving institutions of education and publication. There is not likely to be a clear line established in any particular institutions that evolve. The dichotomy will always reside in individual motivation and its collective expression.
The evolution of the technologies of the information sphere that will most dramatically impact libraries and higher education over the next ten years probably do not yet exist or at least are below the horizon of all but the few privy to the early stages of those innovations. Those that are current, and likely to evolve and significantly impact higher ed, are computer-human interaction software and hardware (particularly for verbal communication and artificial intelligence associated with expert systems) and text interactive interfaces particularly for large volumes including eBooks, and personal information assistants. The implications of these technologies for libraries and higher education more generally can begin to be glimpsed when imagining their application in the context of what are currently referred to as MOOCs. Imagine them informed by the simultaneous evolution of online identity authentication, systemic artificial intelligence, and the interfaces for the production and refinement of online interactive pedagogy. The funding models for the institutions of higher education will shift into global contexts with lower costs per student accommodated by increased participation. The increased volume of students will also accommodate the increased cost of the production of online learning environments, their administration, and support for research. There will likely still be librarians administering access to information resources and services, which will still entail finding, evaluating, funding, and integrating into the particulars of their institution’s information sphere. Far beyond the next ten years a sizable portion of students will likely still gather with others in physical environments provided by universities and they will need learning environments, which libraries will provide. The particular timeframe for the realization of this vision is very difficult to project. Myriad unseen technical, social, and economic obstacles will surface, the most formidable likely to emerge from the perceived personal gain or loss of individuals, institutions, or interest groups along the way. How long, for instance, will it be before the orphaned works become available?
Response From — Joyce L. Ogburn (Appalachian State University)
It’s easy to enumerate downsides to consolidation, including fewer choices and reduced competition. Consolidation can impede negotiating power and increase prices. Consolidation can lead to less diversity and more “inbreeding” of ideas. For years, risk-averse librarians have had issues about putting one’s eggs-in-one-basket. Is this perspective contributing to concerns regarding consolidation?
Looking at the question from another viewpoint, we can acknowledge that one way a company makes money and achieves sustainability is to be purchased by a larger entity — and not necessarily in the same part of the industry. Over time, it may be resold or spun off. The cycle of emergence and merger continues and infuses freshness and energy in the industry.
Reframing the issue raises different questions. What if libraries focused on fueling new initiatives, experimentation, innovation, and competition? Rather than consolidation perhaps we should worry that we don’t recognize and embrace innovation and are blind to possibilities and opportunities. Being a startup is hard if no one else can see where you are going. Research and development is expensive but necessary. Are libraries willing to create a larger funding base both for startups and R&D to provide strength and resilience to new companies and initiatives?
Further, we can ask what influence and power libraries wield as a market, and through informal and formal collective efforts and collaborations. The contrarian can ask whether the merger of libraries and university presses are consolidations. Similarly, moving to the network demands some level of consolidation to realize efficiencies and leverage the power of scale. Are these examples immune from scrutiny because they involve nonprofit organizations?
Over the course of my career I have marveled at the number of service and content providers — and types of services — that have emerged to offer different kinds of collections and new business models. These providers successfully challenged the status quo. Some have been bought and sold several times while others have managed to thrive independently. Looking to 2026, I suggest there will continue to be unexpected developments and innovations in services, many by players that don’t yet exist or are outside of our traditional complement of service providers. Also, the trend of companies marketing services and content to non-library segments of higher education and research will likely continue. What will happen if libraries become a secondary market?
I also foresee a vast increase on the number of open access tools, content, platforms, and services. How can libraries support and build on these open resources? Rather than monetizing assets by selling them to a company (which is less common than it used to be), libraries can offer them openly to compete in, or at least challenge, the commercial market. What else can and should we do?
Consolidation is one part of the business cycle, but not the only one. Refresh, renew, revive, and reimagine — that’s what libraries and the industry need to do concertedly and continuously.
Response From — Michael P. Pelikan (Penn State Identity Services)
Consolidation, Monoculture, and “Stayin Alive.” As with a shark, the alternative to forward motion is suffocation. My guess is that the natural roles played by giants and start-ups will continue to provide paths for innovation, at least if forward motion is permitted to continue.
Were there to be a stasis, or even a narrowing, in what libraries define as content types suitable for acquisition and collection, it could starve innovators trying to produce new content types, and lessen the appetite on the part of the giants to gobble those innovators up.
How could libraries do something so silly as to adopt an ever-narrower definition of what they’re willing to acquire and collect? Perhaps it would follow from a misreading of patron appetites and expectations.
If libraries don’t collect a particular content type or medium, patrons won’t turn to libraries to find it, and a big content company is unlikely to offer it. Certainly, a monolithic content mega-content-conglomerate isn’t likely to gobble up a company producing content with a proven record of customer disinterest! It’d be like the observation, “How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large fortune!”
The small content innovator may well have started up specifically to address an otherwise un-met content niche, or a new distribution approach, or a previously untired mashup of content niche and delivery approach. If the innovator finds a receptive audience, that innovator becomes a target for acquisition.
And though libraries had to thin their VHS collections to make room for DVDs, the question of the distribution medium should not be conflated with that of the medium in general. My guess is that we’d want to make Citizen Kane available to our patrons, apart from the matter of whether it’s on 16mm sound film, VHS, DVD, or available through a subscription-based streaming service.
If there’s a stubborn, dogged, long-term trend on the part of libraries to narrow their offerings, perhaps out of a misreading of the impact of trends, or a misapplied, incorrectly defined sense of conservatism, or simple bloody-mindedness, there’ll be fewer content innovators who include libraries in their thinking and dreaming.
And then the mega-content-conglomerates, who think and dream only in green, will turn their acquisitive appetites elsewhere — perhaps toward each other. This is the path that leads to monoculture, and stasis, and Disco.
Alright, I made up that part about Disco — but let it serve to strike a cautionary note about the dangers of a static, corporate-driven monoculture!