Swift response to the uncertainty principle

October 11, 1996

Consortia are coalescing around new distribution channels that threaten old ways of delivering information.

Consortia are very much a la mode in North American librarianship. Developments in connectivity including wide area networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web have transformed the scale and scope of operations to produce a truly global marketplace. There is no reason why a small consortium in Albuquerque should not serve a client in Zionsville - or Zimbabwe, for that matter. The term is on everyone's lips and regularly seen in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A quick visit to Hytelnet (a Web-accessible interactive directory of library resources) lists more that 60 consortia which develop, manage, share, purchase and trade in diverse information goods and services. The term is, however, used loosely and can imply any one of a variety of cooperative forms including planned partnerships, co-prosperity initiatives, outsourcing arrangements and co-development projects.

The institutions involved may be of the same kind, all academic libraries for example, but increasingly we are seeing the formation of multitype library consortia. Here we will focus on four generic categories which have characterised the market up to the mid-1990s: library-led record/document sharing; vendor-led systems/channel building; contracting out; joint buyer groups. Many cooperative ventures straddle the four categories. Recent trends have led us to propose a further category. Our interim label for this is electronic consortial publishing.

Library consortia are certainly not a new phenomenon. In the United Kingdom and the United States, they proliferated as a library-led response to developments in library automation during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The cooperatives offered several benefits to members, such as shared transaction costs and extended content range. Why catalogue a book 5,000 times in 5,000 different libraries, when it can be catalogued once by a utility, and made available from a central source to all member libraries over a wide area network?

These early consortia were in effect not-for-profit clubs, funded by membership subscription and based on the principle of common pool resource management. Regionality was a defining feature as reflected in the names of the pioneers. BLCMP in the UK grew from a Birmingham-based cooperative cataloguing venture to a Pounds 5 million market leader in library systems. The Ohio College Library Center, which was established to serve academic institutions in the state of Ohio, has evolved into OCLC, the indisputable 800lb gorilla of the business with 23,000 members in 63 countries and turnover of more than $150 million. And the key to OCLC's prodigious growth? Quite simply, the ability to read technology trends and build high-performance shared systems for a globally distributed customer base. Or, to put it another way, a willingness to take on board many of the labour and cost-intensive functions that are performed routinely in libraries around the world, and in the process add value to the primary products. Searching, for example, is combined with interlibrary loan and document delivery to provide "a single, fast, low-cost service to libraries and end-users", to quote the company's marketing literature.

One of OCLC's latest initiatives is a major electronic library project, Galileo (Georgia Library Learning Online) which uses the company's SiteSearch software to connect the University of Georgia's 34 libraries to local, remote and Web-based information resources of all kinds. This example illustrates the organisation's ability to leverage off its experience in records sharing (our first category of consortium) to provide integrated systems solutions (the second category - systems/channel building) to clients.

Other major utilities, such as the Western Library Network (WLN) with its 550 members in the Pacific Northwest and the Research Libraries Group (RLG), with its 152 member institutions worldwide, have diversified from the core records business into cognate areas. For instance, the WLN's Conspectus software is a widely recognised collection assessment and management system. The RLG's primary product is the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), an online union catalogue of some 50 million items. This has been augmented by Ariel, a high quality transmission system for document images, and CitaDel, a fee-based document delivery service. The organisation's most recent value-adding service is the provision of vendor in-process records (i.e. basic order and cataloguing information) for its customers.

The electronic environment has destabilised the traditional access and delivery chain in scholarly communication by admitting new kinds of collaboration and partnering in the broadly defined information industry. Flux and uncertainty in the supply side have compelled librarians to become active players in the marketplace and to seek a variety of new alliances. A recent illustration of such developments is the joint venture between EBSCO and the library of the University of California at Berkeley to collaborate in commercial document delivery. In some cases, considerable entrepreneurial flair has been exhibited. In the past decade we have seen a number of spin-outs, as successful ventures break from the parent (UTLAS from the University of Toronto; CARL UnCOVER from the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries) and move beyond their original locally-defined markets in search of greater profits. Another example of for-profit and not-for-profit interests converging is the agreement between Ameritech and the Universities of Chicago and Indiana to collaborate on the development of next generation Notis software. The kind of symbiotic relationship (another example of our second category - vendor-led systems/ channel building) that can be achieved is evidenced in the link between Innovative (the automated systems vendor) and OhioLINK (the original purchasing library cooperative). In both these cases, the motive to collaborate is mutual self-interest in pursuit of cost sharing or risk-reduction. There is every likelihood that we shall see an increase in co-prosperity initiatives of these kinds, as libraries and other players in the information marketplace seek to blur some of the traditional demarcations between their zones of operation. Such initiatives may complicate the not-for-profit basis on which some cooperatives and consortia operate.

Outsourcing (the third category) is not altogether new: libraries have for years contracted out retrospective catalogue conversion, but the recent appearance of monks in the US retrospective conversion marketplace, in the shape of the Electronic Scriptorium, demonstrates the diversity of opportunities for new entrants.

A good illustration of scaled-up outsourcing is the recent deal between the Hawaii State Public Library System and a clutch of suppliers of library automation, technical services, and general and reference information. Five-year contracts have been signed between HSPLS and Ameritech, Baker and Taylor, and Information Access Company, respectively, to do what was once done internally. This is by no means an isolated example: Wright State University, a pioneer in this area, claimed savings of close to $250,000 through outsourcing of its cataloguing operations. Contracting out of library operations has been slow to take off in the UK, as a combination of political coercion and lack of bidders has led many to believe that it is not the UK way. Outsourcing within the framework of consortial activity, however, may prove to be more acceptable. Another clear trend, especially attractive in the UK with its centralised higher education system, is the formation of joint buyer groups (our fourth category), which embodies the principle of strength in numbers by altering the power balance between purchaser and commercial supplier - think of Bids at Bath, Midas at Manchester and Edinburgh's Edina. This approach can be applied to monographs and serials, and also to software and database leasing agreements, where complex site, negotiated, and transaction-based pricing/leasing models have become the norm. A good example of the genre is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), whose 12 members include major research universities such as Chicago, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The CIC's combined holdings of 57 million books and 550,000 journals give it serious clout in negotiations with commercial publishers and database vendors. From the user's perspective, be it a scholar or student working from his dorm, this translates into easier access to a much wider array of locally and remotely hosted information resources. The CIC consortium, established in 1958, is also aggressively pursuing multimedia electronic publishing, document delivery and cooperative acquisition initiatives, through CICNet Inc and the CIC Centre for Library Initiatives.

A fifth category of collaborative activity is electronic consortial publishing. We can expect to see novel partnering arrangements between university libraries on the one hand, and utilities, publishers (primary and secondary), information systems suppliers, and telecommunications corporations on the other. Some of these initiatives will be led by primary producers, that is, academic staff and their parent institutions. Some will be driven by existing commercial publishers. Others will be led by mediators and secondary publishers like ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) and utilities such as OCLC. Yet others will be driven by learned societies such as the American Mathematical Society or the Institute of Physics, and professional associations such as the Association for Computing Machinery.

Libraries, despite public perceptions to the contrary, have a credible track record as information technology innovators. But adoption has tended to be incremental in nature: first one function or operation, then another is automated. This has changed in the digital age. First generation blueprints for the digital library may still be somewhat fuzzy, but a battery of research and development projects is under way. In the US there is the National Science Foundation's Digital Library Initiative; the UK has the Electronic Libraries (eLib) programme with Pounds 15 million from the funding councils. It is clear that the roles and relationships between all the players in the traditional publishing value chain are set to change dramatically. Digitisation alters long established modes of production, distribution economics, licensing and repurposing arrangements, and archiving policies.

Epitomising the changes at hand is the Web, heralded as the instantiation of "friction-free capitalism", which bodes ill for many of the intermediary players in the publishing chain. For instance, if the Johns Hopkins University Press can make available via the Web the full text of more than 40 scholarly journals in the humanities, social sciences and mathematics (Project Muse), what is to stop it or any other university press from moving into territory once considered the turf of commercial publishers? The idea of consortial university publishing (forward integration, in business speak) is not new, but the possibility is no longer dismissed out of hand by North American university administrators.

Such uncertainty helps explain why cooperation and collaboration between unlikely bedfellows have become relatively commonplace - just think of the SuperJournal Consortium in the UK (which includes 21 publishers and two universities) or the Red Sage Electronic Journal Project, a collaborative effort between the University of California at San Francisco, AT&T Bell Laboratories (as was) and a variety of commercial publishers; or, in a different vein, ISI and IBM's Electronic Library Pilot project or the electronic publishing joint venture of OCLC and Elsevier Sciences.

What does this mean for academic staff, students and university administrators - including librarians? If your institution is a member of one or more consortia, you as an individual consumer have access to a greatly expanded resource base (a "mega-library", to use the CIC's phrase), which can deliver the document to your desk. You also have a guarantee of quality control, because the materials have been organised, processed and validated by experts. As competition intensifies in document delivery and similar market segments, the consumer will benefit from price competition between service providers. Most important of all is greatly increased consumer choice: you are no longer bound by the acquisition decisions and constraints of your local library staff and budget.

The librarian's role will shift from selection of local content to brokering and negotiation, as the library becomes an agency responsible for handling costs and transactions in an increasingly consortial supply chain.

Blaise Cronin is professor of information science and dean, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the BLCMP visiting professor of information science, Manchester Metropolitan University. Elisabeth Davenport is senior lecturer at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh and visiting scholar, Indiana University at Bloomington.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments