ACQUIRING INTELLECTUAL content on behalf of a particular group of users isn’t always as simple as buying it outfight. Librarians have long used a blend of techniques to acquire content, but with the advent of digital content yet another technique (licensing) has been added to the mix. Meanwhile, we must adjust our tried-and-true acquisition methods.
Although most libraries will use several techniques over time, these days licensing is by far the most popular strategy (mostly because that’s what vendors offer). This may change, though, as we become more comfortable with “borrowing” content from other libraries and begin to change license agreements from leases to purchases. If that is your goal, Beverlee French of the California Digital Library advises, “The time to advocate change is before you sign.”
Licensing and consortia
Licensing access to digital material is a new and difficult technique for library acquisition. As Leslie Harris says in an article that explains common licensing terms (“Getting What You Bargained For,” LJ netConnect, Spring 2000, p. 20-22), “Licensing rather than ownership raises a whole series of issues not previously experienced by librarians.” These include how to integrate licensed resources with existing collections, how to catalog them or otherwise provide access, how to provide assistance, and how to negotiate contracts.
Given the complexity of negotiating licensing agreements, it is often best to accomplish it through a licensing consortium. This allows one experienced person to handle the chore–or, at the very least, the responsibility can be spread among consortium members. The International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) is a good source for information. See the document “Statement of Current Perspective and Preferred Practices” for guidelines.
Consortial licensing raises new challenges, however. If the group negotiator lacks the authority to commit all the libraries to purchasing a particular product, then the negotiator won’t get the best price. Prices are based on a specific number of users or libraries, so if libraries opt out after the agreement is reached, then the contract must be renegotiated at a less favorable cost.
Whether you license content consortially or individually, a team approach is likely to be a good idea. Library departments including collections, acquisitions, public services, and systems should be involved, since licensing digital databases or full-text content affects them all. (For more on consortial licensing, see “Where’s the Fiscal Sense?” p. 48, 50).
Key resources for licensing information and assistance include LibLicense, a site hosted by Yale University that includes a “Standard Licensing Agreement” “Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources” from ARL, and the ICOLC’s “Guidelines for Technical Issues in Request for Proposal (RFP) Requirements and Contract Negotiations.” Also, the California Digital Library of the University of California offers a Licensing Tool Kit that contains licensing guidelines, selection criteria, a model license, and more.
Buying is hard
Purchasing digital content is simple in principle but difficult in practice. One difficulty is determining cost effectiveness. Digital collections offer increased functionality over print resources (full-text searching, 24/7 access, etc.) but are often more expensive. How do you decide if the price of the material is worth it to your clientele?
Unfortunately, levels of enhanced service are difficult to quantify, and so you must often make a value judgment based on little evidence. Also, in the print world you were fairly certain the material would stick around for the foreseeable future, unless it was lost or stolen. Not so with digital material, since we only have an inkling of what it might take to preserve it over the long haul (see Digital Libraries, LJ 3/15/99, p. 30-31).
Borrowing could grow
The Internet allows you to provide access to the content of other libraries. Even the tiniest of libraries can point users to the massive digital collections of the Library of Congress. Still, we are far from doing this seamlessly.
But what if the Library of Congress (or other libraries with digital collections) offered MARC records for digital resources that could be loaded into your local catalog? Users often don’t care where the physical item is located if they can get to it online. So “borrowing” the online collections of other libraries may become commonplace.
Any barrier to such arrangements is most likely to be political or organizational rather than technical. If even the most basic record exists for a digital item, a MARC record could be output from most systems with, at most, a simple translation script. Therefore, if we begin adding items to our catalogs on the basis of patron need rather than our need to have an inventory control system, we may see more “borrowing” of other libraries’ collections.