Have I Got a Deal for You?
by Barbara Quint
We librarians wear lots of different hats. Sometimes those hats work as part of disguises designed to mask our activities to our clients. Of course, I need not add (though, of course, I will), the masking is all for the client’s own good.
I remember once sitting at a reference desk when a wave of challenging requests arrived. As it happened, each of the questions came from widely different research areas. I was doing my usual whizzing around — bouncing between two phone calls, one to the Defense Department, the other to the Census Bureau, while getting the details on a major biomedical research project from a client standing in front of me. Then I glanced around and noticed another client just standing there with eyes popping and mouth agape.
Rats! This was a new guy and I’d been running my standard number on him, convincing him that I was just a congenial, reasonably intelligent person who found him and his research area completely — and uniquely — fascinating. Who knows? He and his research were so very fascinating that it might even convert me into his private, personal, part-time research assistant.
Now what? Clearly he had seen me coming out of that phone booth (pre-cellphone era) wearing my red cape and the blue spandex outfit with the big S on the front. So I did the only thing I could do. I winked. Maybe I could bind him as a client with a shared secret, namely my secret superhero identity. Worth a shot.
But there are some hats we can never doff, in particular the ones that appeal to the clients who sign our checks — our employers. First and foremost among the roles played by librarians is that of purchasing agent. After all, employers hire librarians to build libraries and that means building a collection.
Even if you work in a reference or public service section, you probably make or, at least influence, decisions to spend money for information sources. In days of yore, that might have meant deciding on which databases to tap from which search service and how long to stay online searching. Search budgets were another purchase decision. Today, it might mean licensing content during an annual budget process. It’s not just the acquisitions section or the head librarian that spends a library’s allotted funds.
As volatile changes continue to rock the publishing world, librarians dealing with collection purchasing decisions are buffeted by new content delivery modes (ebooks are the latest storm center) and shifting revenue models. When revenue models are linked to usage, the situation can become dire. Essentially, librarians may face the “rock and a hard place” choice of either watching items in their collection evaporate or having to repurchase them again and again through relicensing fees.
Again speaking of ebooks, the usage limits, e.g., 2 weeks, 5 days, 26 views, seem to ignore the fact that people don’t read ebooks the same way they read print. With the possible exception of leisure reading, they don’t start at page 1 and go straight through to the end. Even with leisure reading, they may stop reading and come back again and again, possibly at a much later date.
While a library might convince its patrons that it needs its print books back to serve other customers, nobody who could reach an ebook would be so techno-dopey as to think that ebooks can only be read by one user at a time. Puh-leez! Next thing you’ll be telling them that Google has queue lines. So those low-usage limits might lead to only one or two users actually getting a book through a library’s ebook offerings.
And has anyone noticed how the prices of ebooks have risen (“Hello, Jeff. I’m chair of the Anti-Kindle Gouging Committee. Can we talk?”)? You can get a paperback — sometimes even a hardback — for around the same price. And that may even include the cost of shipping and handling. Sheesh!
So what can we do about it? Throw in the towel and tell our clients to buy their own damned books? Tie ourselves to our wooden shelves and bind our declining future to paper and print (“If it was good enough for Gutenberg, it’s good enough for me!”)?
Well, whatever we do, we should do it as a profession. We should link arms and form a united front. By the way, in case you’re worried about legal vulnerabilities, the laws against monopsony — if there are any — are a lot fewer than those against monopoly. (FYI, monopsony describes a unified buyer community, as monopoly describes a unified seller community.)
Once before in my lengthy history as a librarian, I saw publishers impose an unfair pricing policy on content delivery through a new technological medium. Abstract and index databases on CD-ROM were priced the same — or even more — than print. And in the unfairest cut of all, contracts often required the library to return the CD-ROMs they had paid full price for if they ever decided to cancel their subscription. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that one!
And we librarians fell for it. We let them do it. We failed our clients as purchasing agents. We wasted their money. Even if we did keep renewing the subscription, the renewal might have been influenced by a desire not to lose what we already had. In other words, the enemy had trapped our future budget decisions with our past weak-witted, lily-livered compliance with unfair contractual terms.
Let’s not let anything like that happen again — ever.