Surviving in a Harsh World
By Richard Poynder
Created in 1924, the U.K.-based Aslib has a proud history. It founded world-class
LIS journals like the Journal of Documentation (JDoc) and has
been a premier information research organization. Aslib aided the World War
II effort with its microfilm service and has over the years attracted to its
membership both the great and the good among the information profession. As
such, it has a global brand. But as the profession changedand public
funding dried upAslib has, like many LIS organizations, struggled to
make financial ends meet.
As a consequence, 2 years ago, Aslib embarked on a strategy for survival.
Among other things, this has involved selling many of the organization's assets,
including its real estate, journals, and book publishing business. It has not,
says Aslib CEO Roger Bowes, been a fire sale, but a calculated response to
thechanging environment. Moreover, he adds, by selling the journals and books
to sympathetic "partners," Aslib has secured advantageous rates for its membersalong
with new electronic delivery optionsand significantly enhanced the range
of services now available to them.
The strategy has, however, been controversial. Critics argue that Aslib has
simply sold off the family silver and is now a shadow of its former self. When
Aslib sold its journals to Emerald in 2001, JDoc's editorial team protested
by resigning en masse. Last year, when the book business was sold to Taylor & Francis,
there was further controversy.
When I accidentally found out about the sale of the books (ironically, this
was 1 day after I'd interviewed Bowes in connection withthe sale of the journals,
during which he made no mention of the books also being sold), I proposed a
news story to the editor of the U.K.'s Information World Review(IWR).
Once commissioned, I immediately e-mailed Bowes requesting a further interview.
He replied that he was about to go on vacation and couldn't speak until October.
Since no one else at Aslib was prepared to comment and my deadline was in September,
I wrote the story without Bowes' input. In doing so, I spoke to many in the
library community, most of whom voiced concern about the sale.
After reading my article upon his return, Bowes claimed it was misleading
and defamatory, and threatened legal action. He argued that the article incorrectly
suggested that Aslib was now an empty and worthless organization. He also claimed
that since I had spoken again to him upon his return in Octoberfor a
separate article for Information Todaythe IWR article was
wrong to state that Aslib had not made anyone available to comment on the book
sale. This second conversation, however, took place long after my Sept. 13
deadline. In fact, IWR had gone to press by then. Nevertheless, Bowes
demanded that IWR publish a retraction. This request was duly granted
by the editor.
Then, in January,Aslib vice president Charles Oppenheim resigned, protesting
what he called "the gradual diminution of the services provided by Aslib to
These are clearly emotive and undeniably important issues. But is the Aslib
situation merely a little local difficulty, or does it have a wider relevance
for the information industry and information professionals?
Facing the same challenges as Aslib, the U.K.'s Institute of Information
Scientists (IIS) felt compelled last year to merge with the U.K. Library Association
(LA), forming the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
(CILIP). The less fortunate International Federation for Information and Documentation
(FID) found the financial exigencies too onerous and ceased operating altogether.
In 2000, the European Association of Information Services (EUSIDIC) and the
U.S. National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services (NFAIS) announced
plans to merge their operations into a global alliance of information services.
While these discussions were subsequently discontinued, rumors continue to
circulate about a likely future merger.
What do we learn from all this? Clearly, times are tough for LIS organizations.
The question is, how should they respond? Oppenheim believes that, like the
IIS, Aslib should have sought to merge with the Library Association. Former
Aslib employee Blaise Cronin, now dean and Rudy Professor of Information Science
at Indiana University, argues that Aslib should have moved to position itself
in new areas like competitive intelligence.
Wake up and smell the coffee, responds Bowes. In today's tough economic environment,
it's necessary to make hard decisions and to think the unthinkable.As a result
of Aslib's more radical approach, he says, the organization is no longer declining,
but is successfully repositioning itself to meet the challenges of a harsh
new world."Adapt and change or die," as he puts it.
Who's right? Judge for yourself. Below, Bowes offers a robust response to
Q: Charles Oppenheim, professor of information science at Loughborough University
and until recently Aslib's vice president, has resigned from Aslib Council,
protesting what he calls "the gradual diminution of the services provided by
Aslib to its members." Do you think perhaps you, as chief executive, could
have done more to take members with you?
A: Charles Oppenheim's resignation, which arrived concurrently with the statements
he made to you, is of course to be regretted. Charles is clearly a disaffected
person, but as I have pointed out to him, his sketchiness about Aslib affairs
is not surprising in that in the last 6 years on Council he has only attended
three times out of a possible 27. I do feel that this has a relevance to his
Could I have done more? Everyone can always do more. However, the test of
how well we have taken members with us will be seen in our renewal rates, not,
I would suggest, on the opinion of three people.
At the moment, renewal rates are close to the patterns of previous years.
We are tracking them very closely because of our changes and the worsening
economic environment for businesses and organizations, which form the vast
majority of our members. We also need to monitor the effect of your IWR article,
which, although subsequently retracted by IWR, was originally published
at the exact time that our renewals were dispatched. We have reserved damages
in respect of this article.
Services to members? One can only state the facts. Compare 1989, when I took
over, with the 2003 package. [See the Member Services sidebar at left.]
Q: Rather than sell core Aslib assets, Oppenheim says, he had expected the
Executive to do something more positive, such as a merger with CILIP. His fear
is that the sale will lead people to conclude that there is no point being
a member anymore and so increase the spiral of decline rather than halt it.
Does he have a point?
A: Absolutely wrong. Merging withother organizations is always open to consideration
and indeed has been discussed from time to time. The publications policy was
very positive. The Executive and Council unanimously agreed [on] Aslib's publications
strategy some 2 years ago. (Oppenheim failed to attend any of these meetings.)
The rationale was as follows: Hard-copy journal sales have been declining
for all publishers for some years, principally due to consistently falling
library budgets.There was, and still is, huge uncertainty in the market about
the future of electronic publishing and increasing concern over the instability
threatened by academic authors over the dissemination of their research. The
response of publishers was, and still is, largely defensive in reducing competition
through mergersfewer, larger publishers. But they were, and are still,
investing huge sums of money in technology, much of it with little certainty
of the returns.
Aslib does not have the resources or the global marketing presence to compete
or indeed stand the risks commensurate with this environment or the risk of
the demise of the journals. It was determined that a major player with a significant
investment would ensure Aslib titles'long-term continuity and create the opportunity
for their development, particularly JDoc, Program,RMJ,
and our new journal, Performance Measurement and Metrics.
We would, and did, ensure that contractually they would maintain and increase
our members' benefits and undertake to provide enhanced electronic services
which, with such a small list, we would not have been able to provide on our
own. [See the Member Services sidebar on p. 64.]
This is not a spiral of decline, but a calculated response to the changing
The general consensus has been that the decision and its implementation werebrilliant.
Members get more andAslib secured maximum value in its timing. Naturally, some
editors didn't like the change.
Q: Blaise Cronin, who worked in the Aslib research department for 5 years
and who resigned from JDoc's editorial board in protest of its sale
to Emerald, argues that, in reality,Aslib need not struggle to find potential
members.As he puts it: "The number of graduates coming out of schools like
mine is going up rather than going down. The diversity of occupations reflected,
for example, in corporate opportunities is broadening rather than narrowing.
True, one of the trends you see is a splintering and a distributing of expertise
across organizationsbut even so, there is still end-user demand for information
services and for training. This suggests that there remain many opportunities
for organizations like Aslib, should they wish to seize them." Is he right?
A: The caveat he provides in his third sentence is indeed the major problem.
It's extremely difficult to identify the information stakeholder with a discretionary
budget in organizations today.
As to opportunities, we are seizing them. Take another look at the members
services, in particular, training and information services. Most of them weren't
there 10 years ago and certainly not in the '80s when he worked here.
Q: Cronin also points out that there has been a rapid growth of competitive
intelligence in recent years. "As Aslib contracts, we see a growth in membership
of organizations like the Society for Competitive Intelligence Professionals," he
says. "While SCIP has a European chapter, one might ask, 'Why has Aslib not
moved more aggressively to position itself as a player in competitive or competitor
intelligence?'" So why not?
A: Because we have aggressively positioned ourselves in the corporate market,
in corporate services, and in training (ranked number one consistently). We
are not a personal membership organization.And what's this about Aslib contracting?
When he was here, turnover was around £400,000 [about $632,000]. That
included a substantial research grant, which was withdrawn when the government
invented BLR&DD [The British Library Research & Development Department]
in the '80s. Turnover is now running between £2 to £3 million [$3.2
to $4.8 million per year].
Q: John Eyre, a former editor of an Aslib journal, argues that Aslib has
suffered both from a lack of vision and inadequate implementation. Thus, while
change was indeed necessary, he says, it came too late and was then managed
badly. Would you agree?
A: A ludicrous comment. The innovation and implementation is staggering.
Look at the difference then and now. When he was around, JDoc had three
issues a year (the editor will tell you that I badgered them up six issues),
and none of the journals came out on time, if at all on occasions.
In the 65 years up to when I came, five Aslib directories had been produced.
Since then, we have produced seven, one every 2 years. We were one of the first
to offer Internet training and services. Our site won accolades and is still
one of the top sites. (A Google search for"information management" on Jan.
9, 2003, showed that, for the U.K., Aslib is number one out of2,210,000. For
the world, Aslib is number three out of 7,510,000.)
The [European Commission] invited us to make a presentation to them on "the
re-engineering of Aslib" (their description), which was subsequently shown
to a number of continental library and documentation associations as an example
Q: One example Eyre gives is Aslib's efforts to develop electronic products. "This
should surely have been done much earlier," he suggests. Moreover, whenAslib
did embrace the new technology, he adds, "it did not seem to have the necessary
input or commitment." Is this true?
A: Rubbish. See my previous answers. Aslib was actually one of the first
to present journals in electronic format and, with [the U.K.'s De Montfort
University], to produce a wholly electronic journal. Is Eyre an expert in this
Q: Eyre asks: "If Aslib's publishing activities were running at a loss or
in imminent danger of doing so, how was it that the editorial boards were not
alerted to this? More incredibly, why were they not consulted about possible
A: They were not running at a loss or in imminent danger of doing
so. I have already given you the strategy. It wasn't about economies. Nevertheless,
in the view of our competitors, we ran all of the journalsbar JDoc for
historical reasonsvery efficiently. We had in fact been investing in
them. Issues were increased, paging was increased, some were revamped. What
the disaffected editors have failed to tell you is that if the journals had
been allowed to carry on as they were in 1989, they would have lasted barely
5 years or would certainly have been worth only a fraction of the value we
achieved. Aslib has always had a terrific name, but the tangible assets have
really been built over the last decade.
Q: The problem with the book strategy, suggests Eyre, is that Aslib will
become little more than a discount club, and members may find it is cheaper
to negotiate discounts directly with Taylor & Francis rather than pay Aslib
membership fees in order to get discounts through its relationship with Taylor & Francis.
Has he got a point?
A: They do not become members just to obtain book discounts. I refer you
to 2003 Member Services [on p. 64].
Q: Oppenheim is also concerned thatas an Aslib authorhe has received
no letter from either Aslib or Taylor & Francis informing him of the book
sale, which he characterizes as "discourteous in the extreme." Since he only
heardof the sale through his membership of Council, many authors presumably
remain unaware some 6 months after the event. Are there plans to write to authors?
A: We wrote to current (2001 publications catalog) authors. Taylor & Francis
was also in contact for obvious reasons. Paul Ticher slipped through the net
and I apologized to him for this. I don't know of any others.
Q: In speaking to Leslie Anne Ferber, who I understand is on the Executive
and Finance Committee of Aslib, I was surprised at how little she appeared
to know about Aslib or its day-to-day management, including how many employees
it currently has and the current state of the employee pension scheme. I understand
from the office of the Charity Commission that all members of Aslib Council
are personally responsible for the general management and control of Aslib.
Do you think that perhaps the Council ought to take a more hands-on approach
A: She immediately communicated with me about your call and your aggressive
stance. How should she know what you're on about when you ask about a pension
scheme that hasn't existed for 12 years?
I thought a journalist would know that each director is personally responsible.
Our directors certainly do. They each sign a directors form and receive a Charity
Commission booklet. We know the Charity Commission quite well. They're on the
next corner and we use facilities in their building.
We have four Executive meetings, three Council meetings, a Chair of Groups
and Branches meeting, and an AGM [annual general meeting] each year. Everything
is minuted, audited, and archived. Iand theydon't feel any more
hands-on is necessary.
Q: How many staff are there currently at Aslib? I understand, for instance,
that there have been a number of redundancies recently, including the head
of publishing, Sarah Blair.
A: We have 18 staff. There have been no redundancies recently. It was Sarah's
decision to move on.
Q: The Aslib Web site states that membership currently stands at "over 2,000
members." Your annual report and accounts cite the same figure. Oppenheim tells
me that the figure is in fact now 1,000, since membership has halved over the
last few years. In overstating the numbers by 100 percent, are you not misrepresenting
the organization to potential new members and to the world in general?
A: Corporate membership is currentlyaround 1,600, but we are in the
middle of renewals. So we won't know howit will turn out until around April.
We have not lost half of them in the last few yearsfar from it. Because
we are a corporate membership organization, our annual churn rate is low, at
around 7 percent (ADBS in France is 25 percent), and losses are covered by
Your question confirms what I have believed for some time: that the natural
perception of our numbersbe they 1,000, 2,000, or whateveris that
they are individuals. And the fact that they are corporates with many thousands
of members is clearly lost on most people. In fact, a typical member is, for
example, the European Commission. They have three memberships, each one a division
or directorate. But everyone in these divisionssome thousands of individualscan,
and many do, benefit from our services. So training, for example, has around
12,000 customers on its database, a majority of them benefiting from membership
I shall be changing the way in which we represent the scale of our membership.
I have to thank you for that.
Q: Likewise, the Web site states that the library services"are suspended
until further notice, while we carry out a stock audit." Oppenheim tells me
that in reality, the library has been broken up, with the rump of the books
dispatched to Zimbabwe. Is not your Web site message misleading?
A: We are a global organization in an electronic world. We had three visitors
to our library in 2000, so Council approved its closure in 2001. The Web site
notice refers to library services, which comprise loans from all sources, letters
of introduction for [British Library] readers' tickets, an enquiry service,
careers information, and Internet and subject resource lists. All these are
electronic and accessible by all our members around the world.
The suspension was to cover the disruption caused by our move to Temple Chambers,
and the site has since been updated.
Q: Eyre comments that "having sold off the publishing side, closed the library,
and without any research role, there seems little that is significantly professional
left for Aslib to offer subscribers." Aslib, he says, "was regarded very highly
as the professional focal point for many special and academic libraries. This
surely must now be lost." Is he right?
A: Eyre is an example of how listening to the wrong people can significantly
screw you up. The research role was closed in the early '80s because of changes
in research funding in the U.K., including the formation of BLR&DD. We
closed our library because no one used it. They come to us electronically.
The LA or CILIP closed their library years ago and as a matter of interest
sold their journals something like 10 years before us.
And yet, CILIP is still around. We all need to adapt and change or die. Some
would die for their outdated beliefs. Look at our intervention on copyright
and data protection for just one example of our professional contribution.
Also, Aslib's vast collective knowledge and expertise is reflected monthly
in Managing Information.
Q: Cronin characterizes the sale of Aslib's property, its journals, and its
books as that of"selling off the family silver." The problem, he says, is that
it eventually gets to the point where you have no assets left. "So the deeper
question," he asks, "is how can you possibly continue trading if you are constantly
running a deficit and have to keep selling assets to meet an ever-returning
deficit? This is a sign that you no longer have a viable business." Is that
a fair comment?
A: No. In 1989, Aslib had a property which was in the books at three times
its true value. Aslib was operationally insolvent, didn't even have the cash
to pay the staff salaries, and the director had been asked to leave. Cronin's "family
silver" (the journals and books) were not coming out on time, if at all. The "silver" was
principally in the name.
In the succeeding decade, substantial support from the bank was required
to build the assets along with the other services that I have shown above.
The publications were sold for the very good reasons that I have given you,
at the optimum time.
The gain has allowed Aslib to become debt-free. We are now operationally
and balance-sheet viable and in a position to develop our other core services
such as training. We have established long-term contracts with the publishers,
which secures the continuation of the Aslib brand and enhanced long-term benefits
for our members. We offer our members more in 2003 than ever before.
Q: Cronin argues that Aslib is now an "organization whose time has come and
gone." Would you accept that?
A: In the dramatically changing marketplace that Cronin has already referred
to, Aslib's time could well have passed by if we had not done anything. The
Council thought it would not survive back in 1990. The challenge continues,
as it does right now for just about any business you care to name. We are never
complacent, and we will continue to re-engineer. All options are always on
Q: One reason Cronin gives for saying this is that Aslib no longer has a
sufficiently broad or distinctive product or service portfolio. As he puts
it: "If you were to ask a dozen people in the information field what Aslib
does, what it represents, what it stands for, or what its core product base
is, they would struggle to answer. I suspect they would still associate it
with some historical assets, not least the Journal of Documentation.
And one has to ask why has that happened." How would you answer Cronin?
A: Just about everyone was struggling to answer that in 1989. I don't hear
it too often todayprobably only from some academics intimately involved
with our journals, like your three correspondents. Cronin actually advised
me to sell JDoc in 1994 to a publisher friend of his, and Cronin, incidentally,
is not a member.
Q: Many people have expressed particular concern about the changes at Aslib,
given that it is a registered charity. Your charitable mission is described
as "To achieve for the public benefit education in information science and
information technology. To conduct, promote, and support and to publish, disseminate,
and communicate the results of research into information science and technology
or any part or parts thereof for the benefit of the public." In what way is
Aslib doing this today? And do you think it can still meet the requirements
of being a charity?
A: We operate strictly within Charity Commission rules. Would you like to
speak to our lawyers who are charity experts and are regularly consulted? Thank
you for describing our charitable objectives. These are well-known to us and
form the basis of our annual statutory returns to the Charity Commission.
For the public good, Aslib reflects the sector's concerns through consultation,
representation, and, where appropriate, lobbying. We offer wide and comprehensive
training through three vehicles: in-house, on-site, and on the Internet. We
offer journals and books and additional supporting services, consultancy and
advice (which also of course develops our own abilities and expertise), conferences
and their proceedings, career advice, an enquiry service, very active networking
in our groups and branches, and so on.
Charitable status was gained in 1982 on the grounds of our training program,
but as you can see, we now offer far more than then.
Q: Things have clearly not gone as smoothly as you might have hoped. Do you
think that this was just poor communications on the part of Aslib or something
A: Apart from a few people who were involved as authors and editors, the
changes for the vast majority of our customers and members (we have around
12,000) have been reasonably seamless. No one has been clamoring at us.
The only real concern arose following the publication of your article in IWR.
Although IWR apologized and retracted your comments, it must have inevitably
caused damage, which remains to be determined.
Q: How can influential members of the information profession like Cronin
and Oppenheim be won back to the cause of Aslib? Can they?
A: From their uncompromising statements and the fact that they have other
varied interestse.g., Cronin with SCIP in America, for exampleI
Q: What should other organizations like Aslib, and indeed the information
profession at large, learn from a) the need seen to make the changes at Aslib
that have been made and b) the wide-ranging criticism that Aslib has attracted
as a result of making them?
A: a) To follow our policies, as many are.
b) The criticism is not wide-ranging. Wherever I go, people admire the way
we have adapted to world change.
I trust that these responses will enable you to provide the true picture
of the world's leading corporate information management association.
(an intermittently produced monochrome house magazine of around
(full-color magazine of around 72 pages10 issues per year)
|Aslib Book ListApproximately
80 titles (20-percent discount)
Aslib Book ListApproximately
105 titles (20-percent discount)
Aslib Journals (at 20-percent
JDoc (three issues per year)
Records Management Journal
Online and CD notes
Aslib Journals (at 20
JDoc (six issues per year)
Records Management Journal
Merged with Library Hi TechNew Journal
Incorporated in O and CD Notes
New JournalPerformance Measurement and Metrics
|Note: All journals in 1989
were low in content and intermittently produced
|Around 80 Public Training
Courses on 45 different subjects (20-percent discount)
||Around 125 Public Training
Courses on 65 different subjects
|Occasional Conferences (there
were none in 1989)
||Occasional Conferences (there
are three in 200320-percent discount)
|10 special interest groups
and three branches (were not very active)
||10 special interest groups
and three branches (now very active)
||Free Aslib Membership Directory
||Managing Information Weekly
||Consultancy (includes clients
such as The World Bank, Pfizer, London Underground)
Distance Learning Program
||On-site training service
(includes clients such as PWC, Nokia, European Parliament20-percent
||Outsource information services
(includes clients such as GlaxoSmithKline and the British Council)
Enhanced electronic access
to Aslib Journals including:
Online Archive Materials
Internet Research Register
Emerald Alert Service
10-percent discount on
Taylor & Francis Books (to a total retail value of £500)
||10-percent discount on an
organizational license for any Emerald database
|Representation and lobbying
on behalf of members (none in 1989)
||Representation and lobbying
on behalf of members (included in 2002) Formal representation
to Patent Office re: EC Copyright Directive (implementation was delayed
from December 2002 to March 2003). Four meetings around the country organized
by Aslib to address latest copyright concerns. CILIP, LACA, Patent Office,
British Library, and Institute of Petroleum all cooperated and participated.
All results circulated to members. Special Projects: Bidding in 2003
for major EC database contract. Following win against Olivetti, Longman
Pearson, and others for previous contract and successful conclusion to
NECTAR contract won by Aslib. Special Projects maintains Aslib at cutting-edge
and often involves members.
Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who
specializes in intellectual property and the information industry. His e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.