by George Machovec (Executive Director, Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries)
By definition, library consortia are partnerships between libraries to accomplish common goals such as reducing costs, sharing expertise, and enhancing services. Consortia then work with vendors, publishers and others on licensing and services to better meet the local library mission to various constituencies.
Since the advent of ejournals, eBooks, and other e-resources on the Web, library consortia have played an increasingly important role in aggregating group deals and acting as an agent on behalf of libraries. This has introduced another player in the complex world of licensing with both benefits and challenges. It’s not unusual that when a library wants to license a new product that they have several players with which to contend including a consortia, an intermediate vendor such as GOBI or OASIS, and the publisher or vendor licensing the product. To complicate matters, many libraries belong to multiple consortia and if they happen to be offering the same product or service the library must determine which group to work through. These decisions could be driven by regional allegiances, which organization is offering the best pricing (including terms and conditions), and the need to view the bigger ecosystem to create the best benefit for the library community and end users.
Consortial Role in Licensing
Although some library consortia have been around for many decades, the modern consortial movement can be marked by the advent of the Web with the concomitant move of much library content from print to digital. In the mid-1990s, consortial leaders began to meet at the American Library Association and the informal community eventually coalesced to become the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) which now includes hundreds of library consortia from around the world. One of the big reasons for the revival of the consortial movement was the financial opportunities that could be possible through centralized licensing, bringing together libraries and providers to create a greater volume of licensing, lowered costs, and efficiencies in operation.
Library consortia are primarily responsible for the development of the modern day “big deal” and the term was coined, or brought into the common vernacular, very early by Tom Sanville at OhioLink. Although there are many variants of this type of deal, it is characterized by libraries consolidating their journal subscriptions into a single contract with the publisher and then each library will get access to everything offered by that publisher or at least get access to the collective holdings of that group. It was successful for publishers because they could lock-in library expenditures. Libraries were happy for increased content at the same price and publishers were protecting their revenue stream. Of course big deals bring a host of other problems which were recognized very early (Frazier, 2001; Gatten/Sanville, 2004) but they have largely remained in place since backing out causes a huge drop in available content disproportionate to the savings. One of the effects of the big deal has been a huge drop in revenue for intermediate commercial serial vendors, as consortia cherry-picked some of the largest packages for their members.
In the scholarly monographic world, consortia have been aggressive in a variety of areas. Group purchases of eBook packages from major publishers have played a major role in reducing unit costs for monographs. Library consortia have also played a big role in demand driven acquisition (DDA) and evidence-based monographic purchasing. Many academic libraries are moving away from title-by-title purchasing, except for specialty purchasing and individual requests, and depend on these larger cooperatives for the largest portion of their monographic expenditures.
Every library consortium is different in terms of funding, governance and functional areas. This translates into many variations on how deals are developed and funded. The consortial role in e-resource licensing has been successful due to the many benefits that are offered to member libraries. Examples include:
- Lowered costs through volume licensing
- Lower inflation rates for individual contracts due to strong negotiations on behalf of a group
- A single point of contact for the vendor for billing
- A single license for the group which mitigates many local variations
- Many consortia act as extensions of a local library’s collection development and acquisitions department; thus allowing a local library to do more with smaller staff.
- Deep expertise in contract negotiation for better pricing as well as more standard terms and conditions
- Greater attention from a publisher or vendor which can extend to smaller libraries
- Some consortia act as a repository for funds to cross fiscal years for a local library
- Developing specialized partnerships with vendors and publishers for special projects in ways that an individual library cannot
Recent Trends in Consortial Roles
Over the last few years, consortia have continued in their primary missions but have begun to operate in new initiatives driven by changes in the marketplace and technology. Technology has opened the door for collaborative efforts in ways that were much more difficult to achieve in the past.
Many consortia now talk about “deep collaboration” with new opportunities provided by multi-tenant cloud-based library management systems (i.e., integrated library systems). For example, the Orbis Cascade Alliance has identified several broad areas of collaboration which include (https://www.orbiscascade.org/center-excellence/):
- “Improve and develop consortial functionality in Alma and Primo
- Define and document best practices for consortia in such areas as collection development, collaborative services, resource sharing, and user experience
- Develop and document implementation best practices for consortia”
Shared print programs for monographs and serials have become major initiatives in many groups around the country. These programs allow libraries to make better decisions about what to weed and put in storage while ensuring access to the scholarly record and providing continued access to legacy materials for their patrons. These initiatives are often partnerships between the member libraries, publishers/vendors, and software providers (e.g., OCLC’s GreenGlass for Groups and Colorado Alliance of Research Library’s Gold Rush). The goal is to reduce the footprint of historical print collections in centrally-located campus libraries while not losing access to the historical collection. Through smart reductions in collection size in collaboration with partner libraries and vendors, libraries can re-purpose space and not lose access to key resources. Many publishers and vendors offer digital backfiles of monographs for subscription or purchase which can be leveraged in this process.
Shared digital repositories are being established by many libraries and consortia to store the unique digital assets available on campuses. When operating an open source digital repository such as Dspace or Fedora, some efficiencies can be found when working together. But as with any open source initiative, significant staff effort needs to support the service at both the central and local level. One must remember that hosting a self-funded centralized digital repository typically requires direct funding from participating libraries which must come from an operating or materials budget. In contrast, locally operating a repository can use in-house staff which may appear to reduce costs albeit they are embedded in library or IT staffing. A few consortia have operated shared repository platforms and then shut them down returning the software and content to member libraries for local operation or migrating to a commercial solution (Dean, 2016).
Use statistics are a key feature for libraries to determine the value of e-resources they are licensing. Although this can be accomplished through SUSHI harvesting in most ERMS solutions, many centrally licensed products will have use data gathered by the consortia. Typically this will include local library data in addition to a central compilation for all libraries. A commercial solution called Redlink (https://redlink.com/) is a new and very powerful solution that works at the library and consortial level. Open source solutions are currently being developed through a grant to the PALCI consortium in a project called CC-PLUS (http://www.palci.org/cc-plus-news).
The OA2020 initiative (https://oa2020.org/), is another movement embraced by many consortia. “OA2020 is a global initiative to propel open access forward by fostering and inciting the transformation of today’s scholarly journals from the current subscription (paywall) system to new open access publishing models that enable unrestricted use and re-use of scholarly outputs and assure transparency and sustainability of publishing costs” (https://oa2020.org/be-informed/). The movement is being spearheaded by the Max Planck Digital Library in Germany and consortia will play a key role in trying to flip major publishers over to open access publishing. The movement has been well received in many European countries and growing consideration is being given by libraries and consortia in North America.
How are Partnerships Different with Consortia?
As libraries collaborate through a consortium, a number of opportunities and challenges emerge. A library must weigh the benefits and drawbacks to determine their level of participation and whether the partnership makes sense. External financial support for programs and initiatives are more likely to be funded in collaborative settings due to the greater impact of working together with the added benefit of meeting the needs of many different libraries making a solution more generalized.
Everything takes longer while working in a group. This is driven by many factors but includes the need to come to consensus making sure all constituent needs are met or at least understood. Consortial activities also recognize an interdependence whether it be to lower costs, do activities that would otherwise not be possible alone, or develop a framework for sharing expertise among partners.
Trust is a huge factor in working together. This trust needs to exist between partner libraries, the consortium office, and vendors.
The need to have a “can do” attitude and the willingness to try something new or out of your comfort zone are also helpful characteristics on collaborative ventures. Almost any program, service, or license has some libraries that benefit more than others. Being willing to be a team player will create success and in some future initiative there will be different libraries with greater benefit.
Another challenge in working together is determining whether a license, program or service is “all-in” or “opt-in.” All-in programs require everyone in the group to participate in a license or initiative. This type of universal participation can be driven by mandate (whether a board or higher funding agency) or because a particular resource or service is so compelling that all want to voluntarily participate. Some programmatic areas define a consortium and are the primary reason for being. For example, if a consortium operates a shared integrated library system and/or union catalog, if that is their primary initiative, if you are not in that service you are not in the consortium. Opt-in programs and licenses are more common in groups where funding comes from the members. Every library has different needs so participating in a license, program or service is only done when there is a benefit.
Virtually all academic libraries belong to one or more consortia which have become a fundamental part of the library ecosystem. Before launching a new project or licensing a new product or service, most libraries should pause to consider whether collaboration through the consortium would make sense or add value. Adding the consortium between the library and vendor does add a layer of complexity, but these partnerships can sometimes be the most productive for all parties.
Dean, Robin. “Shutting Down a Consortial Digital Repository Service.” Journal of Library Administration 56.1 (2016): 91-99.
Frazier, Kenneth. “The Librarians’ Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the ‘Big Deal’.” D-Lib magazine 7, no. 3 (2001): 1-9. doi: 10.1300/J123v48n01_06
Gatten, Jeffrey N., and Tom Sanville. “An orderly retreat from the Big Deal.” D-Lib Magazine 10, no. 10 (2004): 1082-9873. doi: 10.1045/october2004-gatten
Since 2012 George has been the Executive Director at the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (https://www.coalliance.org/). Before that he was the Interim Executive Director, Associate Director and Technical Coordinator at the Alliance where he has worked since 1993. Some specific areas in which George has been involved during his time at the Alliance include the deployment of the Prospector regional union catalog, the launching of a shared print program for the consortium, a consortial e-resource licensing program and the development of a software suite called Gold Rush which provides a shared print analytics tool (among other modules). Previously he was head of systems at Arizona State University (ASU) Libraries from 1987-1993 and before that was a reference librarian and head of the Solar Energy Collection at ASU. George is the managing editor for The Charleston Advisor (http://charlestonco.com), a peer reviewed journal which provides in-depth reviews of products and services for libraries as well as monitoring trends in the library and information marketplace. He is also the consortia column editor for the Journal of Library Administration.