Monday, April 25, 2011

A Corollary to Raganathan's Third Law

What do you see when you walk through a deserted library crammed with books? Do you see a vast store of knowledge, just waiting to be tapped, or do you see a horribly inefficient use of resources? Do you think of what could be, or do you see what isn't? If you're a librarian with a limited budget, you might think of all the money that went into those books, and you'd be thinking about how to get people to use those books. That's how interlibrary loan came into being.

Now imagine if the books were digital. Interlibrary loan is problematic for ebooks, but librarians are anything if not pragmatic. Some books, though valuable, are unlikely to be circulated a lot. So instead of purchasing those books for the library, the library contributes to a consortium that buys ebooks for the use of all its members. This benefits library patrons, because they gain access to a large number of books they'd otherwise not have access to, and it benefits publishers, because they are able to sell a broader range of books, at higher prices, than they'd sell if the consortium didn't exist.

I haven't yet commented on the consortial aspects of the recent HarperCollins kerfuffle. Here's what Overdrive told its partner libraries:
Another area of publisher concern that OverDrive is responding to is the size and makeup of large consortia and shared collections. Publishers seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the library’s service area, while at the same time balance the interests of publisher’s retail partners who are focused on unit sales.    Publishers are reviewing benchmarks figures from library sales of print books and CDs for audiobooks and do not want these unit sales and revenue to be dramatically reduced by the license of digital books to libraries.
Let me translate this into English.

Publishers are aware that many of the books they sell to libraries are seldom used. (See my posts on Book Use for some quantitative information) They worry that they'll no longer be able to sell 10 copies of a seldom-used book to 10 libraries, because 1 electronic copy will meet the demand from 10 libraries in a consortium. They feel that they deserve the benefit of inefficient library purchasing decisions.

This sort of thinking is myopic. Libraries have responded to budget pressures by making their purchasing  more efficient and relying more on inter-library loan (ILL), a process which is invisible to publishers. Because inter-library loan is relatively expensive, publishers gain when ILL is replaced by consortial ebook lending because the money saved can be redirected to ebook acquisitions.

An efficient library channel will compete, to some extent, with ebook direct-sales channels. The optimum strategy for publishers, however, is not to force inefficiency in the library channel, but rather to optimize pricing to monetize increased efficiency.

The efficiency of library acquisitions can be increased by introducing more consortia. A library needing a collection specializing in medicine, for example, should bolster its collection by participating in a consortium with the corresponding specialization. In principle, there could be a consortium specialized for every book that gets published. Such a consortium could manage the number of copies it purchases to closely manage global demand. If the economics worked out it could even strike a deal for unlimited use of the book by consortium members.

The single-book consortium could even allow individuals participate. It could negotiate with rightsholders for global access.

So here's a corollary to Raganathan's Third Law of Library Science:
Every Book its Consortium
Mmmmm. That sounds like my business idea for Gluejar, un-gluing ebooks.
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  1. This is similar in some ways to the proposal for financing academic presses made at 2010 TOC by Frances Pinter of Bloomsbury Academic ( Now all we have to figure out is how to get libraries and publishers working together! Shouldn't be hard...