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Magazines > Information Today > April 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 4 — April 2003
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 changed—and public funding dried up—Aslib 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 members—along with new electronic delivery options—and 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 October—for a separate article for Information Today—the 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 its members."

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 his critics.

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 statements.

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 mergers—fewer, 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 environment.

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 organizations—but 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 for them.

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 area?

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 economies?"

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 journals—bar JDoc for historical reasons—very 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 that—as an Aslib author—he 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 to Aslib?

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. I—and they—don'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 years—far 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 new members.

Your question confirms what I have believed for some time: that the natural perception of our numbers—be they 1,000, 2,000, or whatever—is 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 divisions—some thousands of individuals—can, 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 discounts.

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 the table.

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 today—probably 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 else?

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 interests—e.g., Cronin with SCIP in America, for example—I doubt it.

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.

1989 2003

Aslib Information (an intermittently produced monochrome house magazine of around 32 pages)

Managing Information (full-color magazine of around 72 pages—10 issues per year)
Aslib Book List—Approximately 80 titles (20-percent discount)

Aslib Book List—Approximately 105 titles (20-percent discount)

Aslib Journals (at 20-percent discount)

JDoc (three issues per year)
Aslib Proceedings
Book Guide
Records Management Journal
Online and CD notes
IT Link

Aslib Journals (at 20 percent discount)

JDoc (six issues per year)
Aslib Proceedings
Book Guide
Records Management Journal
Merged with Library Hi Tech—New Journal
Incorporated in O and CD Notes
New Journal—Performance 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
(20-percent discount)
Recruitment Service Recruitment Service
Occasional Conferences (there were none in 1989) Occasional Conferences (there are three in 2003—20-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 e-newsletter
  Consultancy (includes clients such as The World Bank, Pfizer, London Underground)

Distance Learning Program (four modules)

  On-site training service
(includes clients such as PWC, Nokia, European Parliament—20-percent discount)
  Outsource information services
(includes clients such as GlaxoSmithKline and the British Council)

Enhanced electronic access to Aslib Journals including:

Organisational Licence
Online Archive Materials
Internet Research Register
Reference Linking
Non-article Content
Key Readings
Emerald Wire
Support Resources
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
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