Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 6 • June 2000
Making Smart Licensing Decisions
by Kim Guenther

Here are some tips to make collection development a bit less complicated.
Collection development used to be easy. You bought a book or a subscription, you owned the resource, and access, for the most part, was unlimited. The collection was a tangible entity limited only by space and budget. Life was simple. Life was good.

Today’s incredible selection of networked electronic resources extends our collections far beyond the physical boundaries of the library. But unlike purchasing a book where ownership and access are tangible, access to digital resources often takes place within the confines of a license that defines appropriate use over a specified period of time. Ownership and access are more nebulous and are often bound by agreed-upon terms negotiated between the licensee (buyer) and the licensor (vendor). Less-tangible resources and more complicated rules definitely have implications for negotiating access and managing content.

Buying access to a digital resource has forever changed the activity of collection development, and has required us to become sophisticated negotiators who are adept at reading complicated licensing agreements and evaluating digital products. Managing these digital resources is complicated, but it is possible if you apply formal evaluation criteria to every product you consider. Because of my limited space, I’ll just focus on the decision-making process for content.

e•val•u•ateto determine or set the value or amount of; appraise

Criteria for evaluating today’s digital resources are not too different from the criteria first established by Katz in his book Introduction to Reference Work. If we expand on Katz’s original evaluative criteria of “purpose, authority, scope, audience, cost, and format,” this will help us to evaluate digital resources with clarity and depth.

How well it fits: The products you consider should fit the collection’s current subject scope and depth as defined by the collection development policy of your library. Although digital resources may greatly expand the pool of resources you can choose from, the acquisition choices you make shouldn’t stray from this formal set of rules.

Product and content quality: Consider the quality and the scope of the product in its entirety, but don’t forget to evaluate the specific content as well. Content should be well-written, and it should be provided in manageable, digestible chunks. Is subject coverage deep in some areas, but light in others? If you’re evaluating an online textbook or journal, is the content offered in full text, abstracts, or bare-bones tables of contents? Is the electronic copy the same as the print equivalent, and is there a price break to acquire both? Does the product bundle other resources that you don’t need or that are redundant to your print collection, but that you pay for anyway? Some content aggregators offer a more a la carte approach to licensing resources within a specific subject area. Does the product offer online tutorials, help screens, or documentation for both systems/product management, as well as end-user training? Does the product offer value-added features such as customization or personalization by the end-user, like e-mail alerts for new content additions? These services may enhance your delivery options.

Utilization: Ensuring that end-users get value from the content is key. Is content actionable? Do cross-links between different pools of content within the product make sense, and are these links or associations intuitive? Can content be printed, downloaded, or sent via e-mail to a colleague? Vendors are usually quite specific about what constitutes fair use. In some instances users are allowed to download or print content for personal use, but may not redistribute content in electronic format, e.g., on a listserv or bulletin board. Pay close attention to your license agreement, since fair use is defined differently in the electronic world than in the print world. This could have bearing on interlibrary loan, reserves, and other educational uses.

Formatting: If downloading is permissible, can it be formatted for use in another application (like a bibliographic citation management product?) This feature is especially important for those who wish to maintain a list or database of citations culled from a bibliographic database like MEDLINE. In what format is the content provided (HTML, Adobe PDF, etc.)? Is a plug-in or special software application required to view the content or associated images, graphs, or animation?

Searchability: This criterion focuses on how effective the search functionality is in accessing the content. Does the product offer easily understood search capabilities suitable for all levels of searching, such as Boolean, proximity, truncation, and wildcard? Does the product support different searching styles (browsing vs. searching specifically identified data fields)? Can searches be modified, saved, and rerun?

Product design: The design of the product is one of the most important evaluation criteria. Poor design directly affects usability and can quickly become a bone of contention among your users. Nothing is more frustrating than a product that is quirky to use and a bear to maintain, especially when you start to hear daily complaints about it from equally frustrated patrons only a month into a year-long license.

From a user’s perspective, a well-designed product is intuitive to use and easy to navigate. It should support a variety of information-seeking behaviors including keyword searching, site index scrolling, and simple browsing. The interface should be consistent across screens and functions with regard to placement of both navigation and content. Content on the screen should be well organized and legible. The design of the product should be stable without major redesigns occuring for no apparent reason. Within reason, the product should work regardless of browser type or version (Netscape, Internet Explorer, America Online, etc. version 3.0 or higher), platform (PC and Mac), and monitor resolution.

Access: Some of the most challenging aspects of licensing electronic resources are issues concerning access. Most licensed resources require some type of procedure to ensure “appropriate use.” Appropriate use is determined by the agreed-upon terms of the license and is carried out through an identification/authentication protocol. Identification tells the system that controls access who you are; authentication proves it. These two steps secure content by restricting access. The combination of identification/authentication can be carried out with login/password, IP range restrictions, or newer technology such as digital certificates, dynamic password, and PIN. Security for content should be appropriate, and the administration workload (password resets, etc.) needs to be considered. If security mechanisms are used to implement content restrictions, what are the implications both for end-users and for management?

Evaluating the vendor: Before you purchase access to a digital resource, know something about the vendor. How long has the company been in business? What’s the current version of the product you’re considering? (If it’s version 1.0, be careful.) Ask the vendor to refer you to other similar institutions that have purchased the product, and try to find formal reviews. Given today’s very competitive online content market, what’s the vendor’s current financial situation? Is the company stable? Is the vendor in the market mainstream—that is, does it have sufficient market share to survive, and does it utilize technology that will survive? Is the vendor gobbling up competitors and growing beyond its current mission? Is the company about to be acquired or possibly merged with another company? If it is acquired what does this mean for current products and levels of support? Have products it has developed in the past had a long shelf life, and were they well supported and improved? What does the company’s current research and development look like? As a product end-user and advocate for those you serve, if R&D efforts don’t make sense, reconsider your vendor options.

ne•go•ti•atemutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of a transaction or agreement

Licensing electronic resources offers unique challenges that cannot be resolved by applying the same rules that govern our acquisition of traditional print resources. Chief among these are issues of ownership and access. A licensed electronic resource requires that the vendor give permission to the library (licensee) to distribute and make available specific content for an agreed-upon duration and cost. The terms also specifically address how the content may/may not be used (fair use), how the content may be accessed (within the library or remotely), and who is defined as a “user” (authorized and unauthorized).

Licensing agreements can be complicated to read unless you understand the legal and technical jargon used to define the terms. You can find a thorough treatment of this vocabulary at the Lib License Web site (, from Yale University Library, along with other useful licensing information. The Association of Research Libraries also has prepared a comprehensive guide entitled “Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources” ( I recommend both resources for anyone who is preparing to negotiate a license or evaluate a product.

Once you’re versed in the language of licensing, consider creating a licensing template that lists terms you can agree with. Most license agreements share a consistent framework of clauses. Use a standard license agreement to craft your own, and develop a checklist of manageable terms and conditions that adequately serves your users, but that your staff can manage.

Below I’ve included the main points from a useful checklist developed by the European Copyright User Platform. 2

Don’t sign a license that ...

man•ageto handle, direct, govern, or control in action or use

The ability to manage the licensed electronic resource is an important consideration when you evaluate a product. How will the resource be managed both as a stand-alone resource and as a piece of your larger digital collection? Increasingly, a library’s Web site is the main point of entry into its collections, both digital and print. Our challenge as librarians and developers of front-end gateways to these resources is to seamlessly integrate the different products and resources that make up the collection so users can browse much as they would books on a shelf.

This isn’t an easy task. Just like books have different covers, digital resources have different interfaces. Where traditional print materials like books and journals have consistent structures (table of contents, chapters, appendixes, and index), digital resources often lack these perceptible cues that help users navigate the content. In addition, not all content we purchase is accessible from a browser session. Sometimes it requires an icon on the desktop and a custom executable program running on a client, server, or both. So how do we offer our users all these incredible resources without confusing them at the same time?

Consider these criteria when assessing the manageability of a product:

As you apply your own formal set of evaluative criteria for licensing digital resources, you’ll find that the process gets easier. You’ll recognize good products when you see them and you’ll stay clear of those that don’t meet your high standards. You’ll be able to recognize license terms that don’t make sense or that are worth negotiating. In the end, the actual process of evaluation will ultimately help you manage your digital collections more efficiently.

As digital librarians, we are in an environment with a rich selection of electronic resources. We can easily flood library patrons with information or confuse them with obstacles of authentication protocols, interface designs, and search engines, so we must choose well. Digital resources are less tangible, are more complex in terms of content and implementation, require more skills to procure and manage, and most surely show us what our future is all about. Deciding how we guide patrons into this digital future will be the challenge.

Kim Guenther is the Internet/clinical information services coordinator for the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library and UVa Health System Webmaster. Her e-mail address is

1. Katz, William A. Introduction to Reference Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

2. “Licensing Digital Resources: How to avoid the legal pitfalls?” European Copyright User Platform, Netherlands, November 9, 1998 (

Further Reading
Brennan, Patricia; Hersey, Karen; and Harper, Georgia. “Licensing Electronic Resources: Strategic and Practical Considerations for Signing Electronic Information Delivery Agreements” (

“Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources,” (final draft) July 15, 1997 (

International Coalition of Library Consortia (

Soete, George J. “Managing the Licensing of Electronic Products,” Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, Office of Leadership and Management Services, 1999 (

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