Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Beg, Buy, Borrow, License, or Steal
Acquiring intellectual content on behalf of a particular group of users isn't always as simple as buying it outright. 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. Begging for value Library development staff may quibble with the term "beg," but certainly gifts and grants can provide virtually any library with the opportunity to acquire previously unaffordable digital content. Before asking for donations, it helps to have a wish list in various topic areas, so potential donors can match their interests and funds with your needs. "Stealing" is easy The Internet offers a great deal of freely available content. For example, Project Gutenberg contains over 2500 electronic texts, most of them in the public domain and most of them being popular (albeit older) literature. The project allows any library to offer copies of these texts from its own server, should it wish to do so, as well as offer a link. As time goes on, this kind of public domain content will become more significant to libraries. Not only will more of it become available, but it also should improve in quality. Plain-text files (as in Gutenberg) are OK for the typical novel in English, but just about anything else requires more sophisticated presentation. As better methods to present non-Roman text, scientific formulas, and other characters not easily represented in plain text become widely available, the breadth and quality of public domain texts will increase. The proper mix The appropriate mix of acquisition techniques for any particular library will vary according to local opportunities and needs. What is certain, however, is that no library can be content with only one method. LINK LIST CDL Licensing Tool Kit http://www.cdlib.org/libstaff/ sharedcoll/toolkit/l Guidelines for Technical Issues http://www.library.yale.edu/ consortia/techreq.html ICOLC http://www.library.yale.edu/consortia ICOLC Statement http://www.library.yale.edu/ consortia/statement.html LibLicense http://www.library.yale.edu/ ~llicenses Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources http://www.arl.org/scomm/ licensing/principles.htm Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.net Standard License Agreement http://www.library.yale.edu/ ~llicense/standlicagree.html Statement of Current Perspective and Preferred Practices http://www.library.yale.edu/ consortia/statement.html UC Principles for Acquiring and Licensing Information in Digital Formats http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/ Info/principles.html