It’s business time

Libraries buy stuff. A lot of stuff. Not even just books and journal subscriptions, but computers, furniture, and myriad supplies. We are in charge of really, really big budgets. Basic accounting in and of itself is not inherently complex, but long term strategy in how that money should be invested is a big deal … and one that, if done well, should be guided by some pretty fundamental business acumen. And I sometimes wonder if librarians would benefit from some more formal business training (myself included).

I recall a post on The Scholarly Kitchen by Joe Esposito that made a casual reference to the slippery slope of wishing more and more content was available via YBP, thus ultimately creating a “towering giant”. I scoffed at such a notion. Little ol’ YBP? Why, they are barely eeking out a profit! And thus, in February when it was announced that EBSCO had purchased them, I felt a little bit blind-sided, and a lot naive. Upon reflection, and the subsequent announcement that Proquest scooped up Ingram in response, this all makes a lot of sense. I can’t help but think that if I had a bit more grounding in business strategy, I would have seen this coming. A market strategist would spend more time looking outside their own context, and have a better understanding of the general landscape. A simple SWOT analysis of the companies with whom we do business may have revealed this vulnerability.

But, what difference does it make? Do we have a choice? It’s not like we are going to drop YBP because all of the sudden they have a different owner. True. However, in the grander scheme of things, I truly believe that we are at a disadvantage when we don’t acknowledge our significant purchasing power, and ergo, our influence that comes with that. If the Rowecom debacle taught us anything, it should have been to diversify our interests. With EBSCO now at the helm of both our subscriptions and our monographs (not to mention many of our databases), it should be a call for concern.

As the so-called culture war embodied in the dust-up after Jenica Rogers’ Charleston keynote demonstrated, there is a significant percentage of us who are convinced that vendors and publishers have libraries’ best interests in mind. I’m firmly in the camp that they don’t. It’s not that they are “the bad guys” – it’s quite simply that they are businesses, we are not. They aren’t in this for values-based reasons. They have to make profit, we have ever-shrinking budgets. These facts alone demonstrate that actually we are not on the same team. They are selling us a product that we can choose to purchase or not. And if we can’t afford what we are selling, then we don’t buy it. It should be as simple as that, but it’s not. Why is that? What is it about the way we do business that sets us apart from that basic economic principle?

Well, I think it goes back to culture. From on high, we are told that vendors are our partners and they are just doing their job. That soldiers buy what the people want – what they need. Budgets that are only growing 2% are failing because they won’t meet the ever-increasing demands of the publisher (Yes, for real. It’s on p. 8 of this report – among other statements, I found this one particularly eye popping). And then, we go to conferences that are heavily subsidized by them, parties where they buy us drinks, and are members of associations who accept their dollars to keep afloat. Shit is fucked, guys.

I once heard of a provost whose reaction to the assertion that his library ranked poorly in terms of money spent on collections, was “Good.” Initially, I recoiled. But, after I thought about it a bit more, I realized, maybe there was something to that. As a budget manager who trots out those stats regularly when advocating for more funding, I think to myself … to what end? To keep the publisher’s coffers overflowing? Or, should I instead be focusing attention on doing the hard work of advocating for a shift in tenure and promotion to embrace OA, and for the library to provide infrastructure to support that? The alternative means that we turn toward the library as Buyer’s Club where a 2% increase is scoffed at. It will never be enough if we just keep asking for more.

Walmart buyers have a reputation for being ruthless in setting their suppliers prices. It may sound like heresy, but we could take a page from that strategy. If your budget is being cut by 3%, why on earth would we accept a 3% increase (as we routinely do, at minimum) from our suppliers? Having conversations with faculty about how much resources cost are difficult, but you’d be surprised how many of them will be receptive once you get started. “Look, we just can’t afford this stuff anymore. Here’s why, and here’s how you can help” is a great way to get started. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, but it’s the one toward real and substantive change.

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3 thoughts on “It’s business time

  1. Roger C. Schonfeld

    Thanks for pulling together your thoughts on these issues. Whether it is YBP or OA, your examples raise what I think is a very important question: How do individual libraries, acting as corporate bodies with budgets to spend, identify strategic concerns with great enough specificity to build bold yet realistic strategies that can change dynamics in the marketplace? To extent that a mindset has developed that libraries face a binary choice to pay any price or push as urgently as possible for OA, it would ignore the other opportunities to achieve an improved position in pricing negotiations. And at the same time, while price is an absolutely vital issue, other issues matter also, like privacy, control of user data, systems interoperability and product bundling, and control of discovery, to name just a few. I’m really interested in how libraries identify their goals systematically and then strengthen their position to achieve their them. I agree with you that business acumen is a piece of this puzzle.

    Reply
  2. incidentalacademic Post author

    Hi Roger – you are absolutely correct and I was remiss by presenting the binary picture (i.e. price is everything). I suppose coming from an institution where the collections budget is pretty much in crisis mode, it’s all I’ve been seeing lately! Thanks for sharing your comment!

    Reply

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