ACCESS | Asia 's Newspaper on Electronic Information Product & Service
September 2003 No.46  
  Other News

Consortia and their Discontents: A Review(1) and Response(2)  
by Ruth A. Pagell
 
 
Though originally organized in the mid 1960s as a way for libraries to share information about their catalog holdings, consortia have taken on a major role today, especially in academic libraries, as the purchasing mechanism for large electronic collections. 
While studies are ongoing as to the real economic value of consortia(1), most librarians have not stopped to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of consortia either in general or for their own institutions.
 
A recent article by Thomas A. Peters, Director of the Center for Library Initiatives at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC, the academic consortium of the Big Ten Universities and the University of Chicago in the U.S), Consortia and their Discontents, opened a discussion among consortia leaders(2). Peters lists 12 discontents (in no particular order of importance) and offers remarks discounting them. The following article summarizes Peters' discontents, the responses from consortium directors shared on the ICOLC listserv (International Coalition of Library Consortia(3) and includes the author's own observations about consortia. Peters articles and all the supporting literature refer to those consortial deals that are instituted by an organization representing libraries and information centers and not by vendors.
 
1. Too many meetings   
Not only do individual consortia have numerous meetings of their membership, but also ICOLC has been meeting two times a year as well. The cost of attendance falls on the member organizations.   
 
2. Time delays
As anyone who has tried to negotiate a contract knows, the process takes a long time. Negotiating for a large group of libraries takes an even longer time. Peters asks if it is worth waiting another six months to get 10 percent off.   
 
The answer here obviously depends, but for most libraries would probably be "yes", particularly if enough "10 percent offs" free up enough money to purchase an additional database or journal collection.    
 
3. Inefficient
Consortia are not the most efficient way to get things done. However, Peters argues that it is not efficiency but cost avoidance and capitalizing on opportunities that fuel consortia.    
 
This discontent evoked the most discussion. A consortium director noted that while consortial deals require more effort, more emails and more negotiations, that does not necessarily mean less efficiency if the result of all the work is a better deal. In the end, according to this respondent, it depends on the consortium.     
 
4. Ineffective
Consortia have high failure rates, especially those that depend on volunteers to run them, rather then paid staff.   
 
Peters fails to mention that meetings, time delays, inefficiencies and ineffectiveness all cost money in the name of saving it.     
 
5. Ineffable (incapable of being expressed in words.)
The payoff, even if it is identifiable, may occur years after the initial effort.   
 
A library manager would hope that the payoff could be expressed, if the original planning and goals had been clearly stated.     
 
6. Sustainability issues
Once initial actions are taken, it is more difficult to find commitments for the ongoing maintenance.    
 
7. Scalability
Negotiating and maintaining contracts is labor intensive. There is a limit to the number of contracts a consortium can manage. Once negotiated, implementation is generally easy for the member libraries.    
 
Peters accurately argues that much of the time consumed in the negotiation process is a result of the non- standardization of licensing agreements and business practices among the publishers. He fails to mention the non-standardization of acceptable terms among member libraries, especially in deals covering public and private institutions and institutions in different legal geographic units, such as different U.S. states. For a librarian in a smaller library, who has limited time and funds, the entire licensing process is inefficient. Contracts often contain clauses, unbeknownst to a novice negotiator that may be incompatible with an organization's or even country's legal code. On the other hand, the librarian in a large specialized library may gain extra efficiencies learning about contracts and negotiations and in working closely with the vendor in the process.
 
8. "Too Many Kaufmans" 
Libraries belong to too many consortia and they require too much staff time to maintain(4). Another concern noted by the consortium directors is that consortia actually end up competing with each other for resources and time.   
 
9. Too ossified
Peters contends that consortia are younger and more nimble then their member libraries. This leads to tensions between staff of the consortia and the library. However, consortia also tend to age and ossify. Early consortia were energized by union catalogues and consortia again became energized in the 1990s over agreements for e-resources.    
 
Peters asks if consortia need to be re- energized today. I ask two questions: Do consortia really need to be re- energized or are the large consortia, which have ongoing large staff and expenses, looking for ways to maintain themselves? Are consortia more nimble or are they less thoughtful of needs of individual users and thereby more willing to compromise?      
 
10. Idea and reality out of whack
According to Peters, socially and culturally collaboration has become a good thing to do. It is seen as a virtue by libraries and by their internal and external funding sources. The major government agency offering library grants in the U.S., IMLS, (Institute of Museum and Library Services) encourages partnerships and statewide and regional collaborations. However, there is a gap between collaboration as an idea and collaboration as a reality.   
 
 
 
 
11. Competition trumps collaboration
Competition is naturally the stronger human instinct and one consortium director notes "Cooperation is an unnatural act". However, having extra outside funds, in the case of consortia receiving government backing, is the motivator to encourage cooperation and collaboration.   
 
Consortia and collaboration are attractive not only for the idea but also because many of us do not have the resources to handle even a small number of contracts; it is sometimes easier to get our organizations to pay to share resources with others then to pay for it ourselves.    
 
12. Surly Alexandrians
The Alexandrian ideal is to have all information at your own fingertips. In library terms, it is the debate about access versus ownership.   
 
Peters has a vested interest in seeing consortia survive. He offers suggestions that include merging of consortia to make them larger and more powerful and of looking at different ways of grouping consortia members: using vertical partnerships of students faculty and staff; and of doing a better job calculating the costs and benefits of consortia membership. Other consortium leaders recognize the importance of self-examination and the need for discussion.
   
The director of one consortium noted that it was his impression that "some of the poorest states and provinces have the most impressive records of successful collaborative ventures." 
 
  Conclusion
 
Consortial agreements have been great levelers. Researchers in countries that could never before afford to subscribe and maintain expensive and extensive journal collections now have electronic access. This is unquestionably a major benefit of consortial agreements. 
 
As noted by Peters, consortia have their costs and challenges as well. In addition, librarians are no longer interacting directly with vendors and publishers. They have turned over not only their bargaining rights and their budgets but also their personal relationships to the consortium, which is acting for the whole and not the parts. 
 
Gorman and Cullen propose a model for librarians, recognizing that each unique library affects the nature of and need for networking(5). They see a need for internal planning, learning from relevant experiences and having an objective assessment process in place. They therefore suggest a step-by-step approach. The first step requires internal institutional development, which would include an understanding of the knowledge environment, the vendor and the options. The second step is external partnering in a consortium. 
 
There is more to the process. As part of the first step, librarians should get to know vendors and publishers. As the consortial arrangement is being negotiated, the institution should continue its own partnerships. As a third step, once an arrangement has been implemented, the institution should again look internally to assess the process and outcomes to ensure that the consortium is acting as its liaison and champion.
 
  References:
 
1.
Reference to the Ingenta Institute studies include: Anonymous, Ingenta Institute Launches International Site Licensing And Consortia Study . Information Today , 19 (7) July/August 2002: 44. 
 
Mark Rowse, The Consortium Site License: A Sustainable Model? LIBRI 53 (1) March 2003. See a summary at the Ingenta Institute page .   
  
2.
Thomas A. Peters, Consortia and Their Discontents. The Journal of Academic Librarianship , 29 (2) February 2003: 111-114.   
  
3.
4.
Paula A. Kaufman Whose Good Old Days are These? A Dozen Predictions for the Digital Age . Journal of Library Administration 35(2001):5-19.  
  
5.
G.E. Gorman and Rowena Cullen, Asian Library Partnerships: Applying the Knowledge Model for Library Networks. 66th IFLA Council and General Conference, Jerusalem, Israel 13 - 18 August 2000.   
 
Other Sources of Information:
Aardvark Web Pages. Asia Library Consortia
 
The Journal of Information Science and Technology Association 52(5). Special issue on consortia in Japan. Includes articles on consortia in countries other than Japan
 
Ruth A. Pagell is the Executive Director, Goizueta Business Library, Emory University Atlanta, USA.
Copyright © 2003 - 2004 by iGroup
E-mail to Webmaster