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Library consortia purchasing power

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Margaret Adolphus

As everyone knows, the amount of information available to researchers is increasing exponentially in the digital age. The number of scholars worldwide doubled in the last quarter of the twentieth century (Cox, 2000), meaning more data and more published research. Libraries have a different, but equally important role, becoming, in the words of Hiremath (2001), disseminators rather than storehouses of information, and needing to cater for a more diverse, and sometimes larger, student body.

One of the effects of the information explosion is that instead of offering single units, in the form of print journals titles, publishers are able to sell their offerings en masse as an electronic database. Other information providers are making other content, such as archives, reference works and even books, available on a similar basis.

Yet neither libraries nor publishers are laughing all the way to the bank: the growth in information has coincided with cuts in funding. Enter the library consortium: a group of libraries who band together to share resources and improve their negotiating stance: "... caught between the Scylla of information that continues to expand at an exponential rate, and the Charbydis of budgets that... remain sluggish, libraries have hit upon what I believe to be a rather powerful tool of management – the consortium" (Hiremath 2001).

The term "consortia" can refer to a tight, structured grouping of libraries, a good example being OhioLINK, which is a collection libraries based in the state of Ohio operating as an integrated group, with one price tag for the Emerald database. At the other end, there are groups of libraries in a particular area which cooperate to share resources, or to develop an agreement for joint purchasing.

There are also a number of networking and membership organizations such as Eduserve Chest in the UK, or Amigos, Solinet, and Palinet in the USA. These offer a number of services to members such as technical training, training to cope with disasters such as flooding, discounts on databases and other purchases. Amigos for example covers the areas of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and through its A-Plus Member Discount Program offers savings on databases and library supplies, while also helping publishers achieve market penetration and brand recognition in the states where they operate.

There are also a number of national bodies which coordinate ICT policies in higher education, for example the Danish Electronic Research Library(DEFF), or the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in the UK. The International Coalition of Library Consortia is an umbrella group for consortia worldwide.

There are three main ways in which library consortia can assist the scholarly community with digital resources:

  1. Obtaining a better price for product
  2. Obtaining a better licence deal generally
  3. Helping libraries in their transition from a paper-based to a digital environment.

Pricing and business models

Consortia can use their greater purchasing power to help members get a considerable amount of material at a much reduced cost – one consortium calculated in 2000 that they had saved 25 per cent on a subscription of $100,000 dollars (Hiremath, 2001). According to Chris Keenan, Emerald Group Publishing’s Head of Sales Operations, few customers pay his company's top list price for EMX 160, and even this represents something in the region of an eight-fold saving over the cost of titles bought individually, which would be around £250,000.

Pricing and business models for journals and other electronic content vary as once you divorce the price from the printed item, there are a number of possibilities ranging from charging per chunk of information (pay per article, discussed by Cox, 2000) to a price for the entire database. The most common is the "all you can eat" deal, where consortia members get a subscription to an aggregation of titles. The price of the subscription varies (at least with Emerald) according to the size of the consortium; Chris Keenan believes that Emerald has as many prices as customers!

The UK's Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), which has been active in developing licenses for e content for the higher education sector, also favours differential pricing based on size, and has a number of different bands. According to Lorraine Estelle, the banding "reflects the amount of public funding each university receives, and recognizes that Band A, the top band, institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, will have more money, more than likely, than a small college down at Band J, and therefore subscriptions fees need to be tailored accordingly" (read the full Lorraine Estelle interview). The prices are set out by HEFCE, with whom the organization is requested to enter into an agreement. Similarly, the UK consortium CHEST has two bands of pricing, one for higher education and the other for further education.

Most consortium deals last for a fixed period, usually around three to five years. The advantage for libraries is that not only do they get more at lower cost, but that they are protected against inflation; the publisher gets a secure income up front for sales for the next few years. The latter is a vastly preferable situation to that which existed a few years ago during the so-called serials crisis, when libraries cancelled a lot of titles.

Not everybody, however, is happy with this system, and there have been complaints of inflexibility with little scope for cancellation, and that in particular you can't maintain the electronic access if you cancel the print version (Roberts et al., 2004), that the user is interested in the individual article rather than the title, whereas the bundle deal forces choice at the publisher level (Ball, 2004), that collection building by department is compromised as more is bought centrally from the general budget (Roberts et al., 2004).

Perhaps the most serious complaint, however, is the mayhem that can happen caused by the structural insecurity of the publishing industry – titles suddenly disappear as they are sold to another publisher, or publishers themselves merge or get taken over. This, according to Annette Schneider of DEFF, is one of the most serious problems – "We pay for something, we miss it, and we have to pay again, and that's a big, big problem. Also, we can lose content if they also remove back files" (read the full interview with Annette Schneider). It's an issue that UKSG is tackling currently – for more information, see


In any business transaction, the deal rests on the terms as a whole and not just the price. One of the greatest achievements of consortia is to band together to pool collective expertise so that they can come up with a number of model licences.

One such example can be found on the site, developed by the international publishing consultant John Cox, and displaying model licences for a number of eventualities, including consortia deals. The latter is used by publishers (including Emerald), libraries, and subscription agents. They cover a number of points including:

  • Protection of copyright – users must not infringe copyright, or obscure the copyright notice on photocopies.
  • Allowing use by "authorized users" – these are those studying at the library's institution who can also view remotely, as well as "walk in users" who should be able to view in the library. Users need to be able to view, search, save for personal use, print off, distribute as course packs, but not use for commercial purposes.
  • The mechanisms for viewing the material – over the publisher's secure server, which should be of adequate bandwidth and available 24/7.
  • Allowing the user to continue to view material delivered during the subscription period, after the termination of the licence, and to make provision for archiving.
  • Providing the electronic version within a reasonable time period from the print.

The issue of archiving is an important point for Ball, 2004, who points out that many are taking a stand on this. Monica Crump of IREL always presses for archival access: " ...academics are nervous that the electronic access will go, whereas you can always hold on to print copies, so we do a lot of negotiation with publishers about perpertual access, and then a lot of persuasion of academics that this access is more or less guaranteed". The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinshaft (DFG) has over the past few years spent 44 million euros to buy "archives of journals and databases that would then be provided to – in the best case – all registered citizens of Germany; in the worst case to all primarily publicly funded higher education and research institutes".

Much work has been done by JISC, and especially JISC Collections, to provide model licences for both journals and other e-content. The former is covered by the NESLi2 licence, and contains the terms and conditions of access, authorized use and service, including:

  • How materials can be used – searching, local saving, printing, incorporation into teaching materials (subject to copyright acknowledgement), interlibrary loans, copy as training materials etc.
  • Who are authorized users and where can they use – includes walk in users, and external use subject to Athens compliance. The institution can also make a cache, and copy locally onto a particular machine for a teaching session so that tutor does not have to depend on a web link.
  • Cancellations – users should be able to make annual cancellations and substitutions. (See the concerns about cancellation mentioned above.)

A very useful guide to NESLi2 is available – see A Guide to the Model NESLi2 Licence for Journals

The JISC Collections model licence covers non-journal content, and aims to protect publishers' copyright from new trends e.g. the wireless network, as well as stressing compliance with new and emerging standards, such as Open URL. See " A guide to the JISC model licences".

Moving from paper to digital

While there is no doubt that large consortia derive great negotiating power from their size, perhaps even more impressive is the large collection of digital resources they acquire for their constituents. JISC Collections, for example, has a huge subsidized collection of non-journal digital resources which includes a geospatial suite, large numbers of literary archives including Early English Books online, eighteenth century books online, as well as the archives of various scientific societies (see Monica Crump of IREL is delighted with having received grants of 4.5. million euros per annum to fund purchases for both sciences and humanities, with which IREL has resourced all universities in Ireland. DFG have put 26 million euros over the past 10 years into their open content initiative.

Such organizations negotiate and purchase on behalf of libraries in their constituent groups, but they are very careful to consult as to what to purchase. "We get proposals from publishers, from libraries", says Annette Schneider of DEFF, " ...then we ask all those libraries we expect to be interested in that topic if they have an interest in this product, if they want a trial access, and we tell them as much as possible about pricing possibilities, terms and conditions etc.". Monica Crump sees drawing up the short-list as a negotiation in itself: "We would each canvas feedback from our own constituencies in our universities and bring them to the group and haggle and bargain over which resources should be prioritized". Most institutions come up with single lists – the trick is to come up with aggregated content which maximizes value while giving as many people as possible what they want.

As Stern points out, there are advantages in this system in that smaller organizations gain access to a far wider body of material, while all benefit from lower prices. The drawback, however, is that the low bundle costs may drive up individual subscriptions, which must make it difficult for specialist libraries who need titles for their researchers who are not on the bundled lists.

However, the consortia purchasers take their responsibilities seriously, and see themselves as facilitating the move to a digital environment; in the words of Ove Sundby, who works for ABM-Utvikling, the Norwegian Archive Library and Museum Authority, "we try to facilitate their (the libraries') switch from the analogue to the digital world".

It is not sufficient, however, suddenly to introduce materials: they must be promoted and embedded into the university's information environment. The information portal Metalib, which enables cross searching across diverse resources, is useful here, as is SFX. Monica Crump is "absolutely convinced" that "SFX is the only way that we got good usage of those resources, because so much became available so quickly that our cataloguers just could not keep up...Whereas with the SFX platform our electronic resources librarian was able to just switch portfolios on so that academics would see an SFX button and click on it, even if they didn't know we had gained access to a particular group of journal titles".

What is certain is that consortia purchasing is here to stay. A recent development is collaboration at international level to form bodies which link consortia interests across nations. Knowledge Exchange supports ICT development in higher education and research, and is a collaboration between the German DFG, the UK JISC, the Danish DEFF, and the Dutch SURF. In the area of licensing, it's looking to provide new business models with an international rather than a purely national structure.

And there will also be a big role for the specialist librarian: guiding students and researchers round the resources in their area. Digital collections still need a human face.


Ball, D. (2004), "What's the 'big deal', and why is it a bad deal for universities?", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp. 117-125.

Cox, J., 2000, "Developing model licenses for electronic resources: cooperation in a competitive world", Library Consortium Management: An International Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 8-17.

Hiremath, U. (2001), "Electronic consortia: resource sharing in the digital age", Collection Building, Vol. 20 No. 2 pp. 80-88.

Roberts, M., Kidd, T., Irvine, L. (2004), "The impact of the current e-journal marketplace on university library budget structures: some Glasgow experiences", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 9, 429-434.