ATG Originals: Seeking Long-term Solutions to the Future of Collections: Part 3 – Insight Into the Potential

by | Jan 23, 2020 | 0 comments

By Nancy K. Herther

“The greatest obstacle faced in implementing these models is that they challenge some established norms,” the OCLC explains in their latest research report, called Operationalizing the BIG Collective Collection. “Yet challenges to established norms that were met with concern in recent memory are increasingly viewed as challenges to our institutions to realize their potential.” Commissioned by the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), this plan has not only caused the BTAA itself to look more deeply into potential schemes, but for libraries across the globe to focus more attention on the growing need to balance past collections with the growing and changing  needs of the future.

“As the data included in this study illustrates,” the report goes on, “the potential exists for collections of low-use materials to serve broad scholarly communities through resource sharing. However, looking at them as part of a broad network that serves scholarship could lead to far-reaching collection management and development It’s inconsistent with the decisions in which overlapping holdings are limited to the most used materials, and resources currently used to acquire those that might be classified as “moderately widely held” would be used instead to extend the long tail of acquisitions.”

“There are many opportunities for libraries to work collaboratively to accomplish tasks that they could not accomplish individually and many opportunities for them to achieve efficiencies,” the OCLC report goes on. “During times of economic pressure, it is even more important for libraries to assume a pragmatic view towards innovative collaborative models of collection management. The recent successes of HathiTrust, the BioDiversity Heritage Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and mass digitization efforts argue for this approach. While all may not endure, the impact of these initiatives upon our communities is significant. The impact of long-standing programs, such as that inherent in CRL’s cooperative collection development and preservation operations, further emphasizes that cooperative work can affect positive change on the community.”

In an insightful article, “Establishing the Impact of Area Studies Collections and Exploring Opportunities for Collaborative Collecting,”  in the January 2019 issue of Library Resources & Technical Services, librarians at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined issues inherent in the transition of research libraries from collection-centered to service-oriented organization. “For many years, institutional leadership recognized the impossibility of collecting everything and the fact that fulfilling local needs often required accepting a level of dependency upon partner institutions. In this environment, institutions constructed cooperative collection development schemes, shared reference models, and brick-and-mortar facilities to house and service lower-use collections. The greatest obstacle faced in implementing these models is that they challenge some established norms. Yet challenges to established norms that were met with concern in recent memory are increasingly viewed as challenges to our institutions to realize their potential. For example, the idea of digitizing the corpus of any one research library was as much fantasy fifteen years ago as the belief that the digitized corpus would reside in one digital repository or that users could create their own virtual collections within that repository.”

THE BIG TEN ACADEMIC ALLIANCE EXPLORES ITS OPTIONS

“The BTAA libraries have a long and significant history of successful collaboration,” Kim Armstrong, BTAA’s Director Library Initiatives tells ATG readers. “Recently, the directors have considered a number of new investments and initiatives. Much of the discussion has revolved around defining a framework that is both inclusive of ongoing programs, e.g. the BTAA geoportal, and building a shared commitment to new and emerging areas of emphasis for research libraries.”

The BTAA, formerly called the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, includes 14 major universities and describes itself as “the nation’s preeminent model for effective collaboration among research universities.” Governed and funded by the Provosts of the member universities, the BTAA “Library Initiatives focus on three objectives–optimizing student and faculty access to the combined resources of our libraries; maximizing cost, time, and space savings; and supporting a collaborative environment where library staff can work together to solve their mutual problems.” One of the major issues facing these libraries has been the future of the sizable and ever-increasing stores of ”purchased” or print collection in research libraries.

And the BTAA wasn’t alone. “At the same time,” Armstrong continues, “OCLC initially proposed a joint white paper that was meant to focus on maximizing access to “the collective collection.” The first phase of work was a review of the vast resource sharing network relationships among the BTAA members. However, the focus became broader as they engaged in the conversations with BTAA librarians. And rather than have a singular focus on resource sharing, OCLC broadened to a dialogue on what are the pieces of policy, investment, infrastructure, etc., that would maximize the BTAA libraries relationships?”

“So this was the intersecting of two paths, BTAA and OCLC, both looking to examine the potential for the next chapter of BTAA library collaboration,” Armstrong concludes. “The Library Directors, as I am sure you have seen, have also been engaged with the provosts on issues in scholarly communication.” This resulted in a strong supportive statement by the Big Ten provosts.

OCLC RESEARCHERS STUDY THE PROBLEM AND POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

The OCLC research and final report are the work of Lorcan Dempsey, Constance Malpas, and Mark SandlerMark Sandler, former Director of the BTAA Library Initiatives and now principal at Novel Solutions Consulting, explains that “the White Paper offers some stepwise recommendations for moving forward, but, at the end of the day, the paper calls for a sea change that first needs to be addressed by the library deans (and I would add their provosts).  Integrating collections and operations across fifteen libraries spread across eleven states will involve collective strategizing, redirecting philosophical commitments, and significant investments in new infrastructure.  Provosts and deans first have to be convinced that the expected rewards of a new and more collaborative order warrant the work and costs required to set it in motion, and this would need to be a lot more compelling than instituting a slicker interface for facilitating ILL requests.  In other words, the first step toward implementation is articulating a compelling vision.”

The collective collection isn’t a simple issue in light of copyright and other issues.  The report itself is very honest about some of the issues that BTAA – and all libraries – face when dealing with attitudes, publishers and copyright:

“As for commercially digitized, post-1923 material (or pre-1923 material), the BTAA libraries should reach an understanding about the extent to which sharing of these acquired works should be a condition for purchase or licensing and advocate accordingly with other library groups as well as with the commercial publishing sector. There are publisher models that permit sharing of digitized book content, but the library community has not been consistent or effective in advocating for more open use of the digital book content they acquire.

While the protocols for sending surrogates for journal articles are well established, this is not the case for monographs,” Sandler continues. “Book chapters can sometimes be treated like journal articles, but users often find it difficult to specify that they are requesting a chapter rather than an entire volume, or to judge if the portion of copyrighted material being requested falls within the acceptable guidelines of a potential lending library. This is an area that BTAA might help clarify and advance.”

The OCLC report itself allows for other options or interpretations of potential solutions: “Some may feel that collective stewardship of the scholarly and cultural record in BTAA’s charge is very important. Others may be less concerned. Some may feel it is important to work closely with adjacent networks on alignment. This may be less important to others. Topics like controlled digital lending or prospective collection development arouse different responses. Some may argue for a shared ILS; others may prefer not to move in that direction. And so on. This is why we think it is very important to put in place processes for decision-making around direction, prioritization and investment. And of course, for similar reasons to those stated here, we do not expect that everybody will agree with all of our recommendations!”

The BTAA is focused on building on a clear, shared set of values and beliefs:

A large undertaking. “The sum of what we propose here is a very large program, requiring significant human and financial investment over many years. Indeed, some elements taken on their own represent major initiatives, involving significant capital investment.”

Agency and support. “Decision-making, planning and commitment require processes. We have emphasized that the group will have to make choices about priorities. We think it is very important to put in place processes for decision-making around direction, prioritization and investment.”

“For similar reasons to those stated here, we do not expect that everybody will agree with all of our recommendations! …We believe that the BTAA can make a large and exemplary impact around the management of its collective collection and create benefits for current and future users. This will require stronger coordination, which will in turn lead to a stickier BTAA partnership.”

CREATING A NEW TYPE OF COLLECTIVE COLLECTIONS

The report stresses two major aspects of this potential game-changing application of collective action on collections and access:

An incremental approach. “One does not want to plan the complete initiative in one go. It is important to have quick wins, to be seen to be making a change, to prioritize areas that will have impact, to manage risk, and so on. Decision-making, planning and commitment require processes. We have emphasized that the group will have to make choices about priorities. One should not expect easy consensus here. Legitimately, there may be different opinions about the relative importance of specific directions, and these are often situational given the different drivers that may be at play in different libraries.”

Sandler stresses that a “phased implementation” is almost a certainty. “This might mean that a few institutions move forward and others join as the benefits become clearer,” he tells ATG readers, “or it might mean that the group as a whole test the waters with smaller incremental steps.  It’s hard to say how this might play out without knowing what specific programs are being targeted.  However the first shove occurs, it will require a full-throated endorsement from the library deans.”

Agency and support. “A consolidated initiative of significance would require consolidated management. This could be organized in various ways … through a mix of dedicated or loaned staff, and relying on working group and expert participation. A center of excellence model might also be tried, where one institution manages an activity on behalf of the group. This will require thinking about the balance between dedicated staff and loaned staff or working groups, what approach works well in particular circumstances, and so on. It also requires thinking about how much decision-making authority to vest with the executive office, what accountability mechanisms should be in place, and so on. We believe that the BTAA can make a large and exemplary impact around the management of its collective collection and create benefits for current and future users. This will require stronger coordination, which will in turn lead to a stickier BTAA partnership.”

Sandler believes libraries are at an important milestone today. “The OCLC white paper is really a call to libraries to explore efficiencies before they are imposed from outside.  Deeper collaboration has the potential to deliver better service at a lower cost.  To get there, however, libraries will have to trust each other and defer to the collective will.  This seems a distance from how libraries currently approach each other; a distance not easily traversed.  Amazon works well for users because it is centrally managed.  Amazon warehouses can tap into a common system; shipping logistics are centrally planned and controlled; independent suppliers follow Amazon’s service conventions; etc. There is a high degree of integration, even across a global network providing an infinite variety of goods to an unthinkably diverse worldwide user population.” 

Mark Sandler

“If Amazon can make this work, surely a group of U.S. research libraries can figure out how to move similar materials (e.g., academic books) across a few hundred miles to a fairly homogenous user population,” Sandler asserts.  “The key to success here is giving priority to the user experience and trusting the network to perform to a mutually agreed upon set of standards.  My crystal ball says libraries aren’t currently inclined to do either of these, but I give credit to the BTAA for considering the pros and cons.  It will be interesting to see if they can take some first baby steps down the long road to consolidation.”

OCLC’s Constance Malpas explains to readers that “we looked at a variety of approaches to organizing collection management in a group or consortium environment. We describe the range of choices as different positions on a spectrum from institutional autonomy to consolidation. And we offered some concrete examples of how these choices are operationalized in different consortial settings. More broadly, our approach was informed by the framework of service-oriented architecture, a design model that focuses on ‘de-composing’ business functions and operations. This is an approach that has been successful in promoting shared understanding in other areas of library service, such as digital preservation and research data management. It is important to note that BTAA libraries also belong to what we called “adjacent networks” in the report. Approaches developed by BTAA will have to coexist with developments in those adjacent networks.”

And interest in this issue goes far beyond the BTAA.  “We’ve seen a very positive response from the library community on social media,” Malpas tells readers. “We were particularly pleased to see the Triangle Research Libraries Network (TRLN) say they’d use report to help frame local discussions about collective collections. We’ve also heard from academic libraries outside North America, too. We’re glad to see this, but not surprised – a few years ago, we did some work on collective collections in collaboration with RLUK, an association of leading research universities in the UK and Ireland. (Strength in Numbers: The RLUK Collective Collection)

“Academic libraries everywhere are facing similar challenges in adapting stewardship and collection management models to the network environment,” Malpas reflects. “So while the report itself focused on a particular set of institutional relationships, the framework it provides is useful more generally. Colleagues across our organization are using the report to engage with member libraries and explore different approaches to building and managing shared collections.”

 “Academic libraries everywhere are facing similar challenges in adapting stewardship and collection management models to the network environment,” Malpas reflects. “So while the report itself focused on a particular set of institutional relationships, the framework it provides is useful more generally. Colleagues across our organization are using the report to engage with member libraries and explore different approaches to building and managing shared collections.”

Malpas and OCLC appreciate the response to their research. “We believe that the BTAA has a great opportunity to show how a large collection can be managed more purposefully. This is at various potential stages. The BTAA libraries recognize their responsibility to the print scholarly and cultural record, and together they can help preserve a significant part of that. They could also look at improving access across the group, and we discuss how this might be achieved. We also discuss, how the libraries might coordinate collection more prospectively. Here we would see more shared acquisitions, more sharing of responsibilities, more pooling of decision making and investment, and so on.”

A WORK IN PROGRESS WORTH FOLLOWING

The BTAA libraries responded to the OCLC report with “The BIG Collection Commitment to an Interdependent Future: A Statement by the Big Ten Library leadership.” In this affirmative statement, the BTAA library leaders “have endorsed a vision for a ‘collective collection’. Going forward, we will orient our collective actions around the challenges and opportunities that come with interdependence and will implement the necessary systems, policies, and services needed to create an integrated user experience of the networked collections, from discovery to delivery. We will individually and collectively invest in strategies that transition our focus from building local collections to creating a shared, fully networked collection that supports our local students and scholars. With ever increasing rigor, we will manage the separate collections of the Big Ten as if they were a single shared collection, maximizing access to and ensuring the preservation of the scholarly record in support of our common mission.”

The BTAA library directors “have formed two committees, a Content Committee and an Applications Committee,” Armstrong reports. “You will see that those terms align with the OCLC report. Two Directors chair each committee and three domain experts round out the membership. The Executive Committee of the Library Director and the Committee Chairs will manage overall investment, policy, strategy decisions to bring to the full director group.”

As Malpas notes: ‘It’s important to emphasize that our report provided a framework for planning, not a detailed plan of action. We did not propose or recommend any change to the organization of BTAA library initiatives. We did however explore the benefits and tradeoffs of a more deliberately coordinated approach in which BTAA could exercise more consortium-level agency. For example, there could be a more joined-up approach to setting and enforcing group policies around metadata management and resource sharing. BTAA already does important work on establishing best or preferred practices, so it’s largely a matter of intensifying that activity and putting more weight behind guidance documents. The report emphasized that this is not just a technical issue – agreed strategies and policies guide activity.”

Constance Malpas

“It should be noted,” Malpas reiterates, “that we sketched some broad and ambitious options here. If all the work we describe were to be attempted it would be a multi-year project with major reach. This is why we emphasize the importance of BTAA strategy – to decide on priorities and directions. We believe that the BTAA has a great opportunity to show how a large collection can be managed more purposefully. This is at various potential stages. The BTAA libraries recognize their responsibility to the print scholarly and cultural record, and together they can help preserve a significant part of that. They could also look at improving access across the group, and we discuss how this might be achieved. We also discuss, how the libraries might coordinate collection more prospectively. Here we would see more shared acquisitions, more sharing of responsibilities, more pooling of decision making and investment, and so on.”

Armstrong muses on the future: “Will this ultimately change the BTAA library collaborations? That is the aspiration…that all members will prioritize the BTAA rather than individual, or other consortial, investment of dollars, talent, program design. I can’t tell you yet what that will mean, we are just at the beginning. The first step was the Library Director Statement, https://www.btaa.org/docs/. From now on, we will be grappling with the many questions/decisions from the OCLC report, along with other potential investments that will advance the services and collections that Big Ten libraries provide for all users.”

“I think the real excitement about all of this is that the member libraries of an organization – with a 60+ year history of collaboration – are seeking to do more together,” Armstrong believes. “Lately it is the case that that libraries that want to collaborate create new single purpose organizations, that often are not successful/sustainable.  We can build on the trust and on the success and push ourselves to do more to maximize our resources and value to students, researchers, faculty.”

This is a momentous move on the part of BTAA and with the support of the OCLC research and, hopefully, other consortial efforts across the globe, we may see the development of a new, firm structure on which to plan for a future that truly builds on the past.

Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.  herther@umn.edu

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