Demand-Driven Acquisitions (DDA)

In the last post (“Ebrary and the Coming Dacus Revolution”), we looked at the purchase of Ebrary and what it means to Dacus patrons. In this post, we examine yet another of the growing number of tools in the librarian’s 21st Century toolkit,  Demand-Driven (DDA), or patron driven (PDA), acquisitions.

Unlike resources such as Ebrary, DDA does not offer a “starter kit” of titles.  Titles proffered by demand-driven vendors, such as EBL (Electronic Books Library), are current year titles.  Like Ebrary, they are delivered electronically.  Unlike Ebrary, they are not necessarily cheaper, but the various vendor models make them more appealing than buying print titles at $40 each (titles in the pure and applied sciences and fine arts are a good deal more expensive, while all other titles are slightly less) that patrons may never access.  But if DDA titles are, in fact, more expensive, and the whole idea is to reduce cost, why is DDA a tool any librarian would reach for  during these very tight economic times?  Part of that answer resides in the 80/20 rule or Pareto’s Principle (though the later name can be misapplied).

The Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto ,created a mathematical formula to describe wealth in Britain, Italy, France and elsewhere at the turn of 20th Century.  Pareto argued that about 20% of the population controlled about 80% of the wealth. Joseph Juran later applied this idea to management, describing the “vital few and the trivial many.” Juran, probably never any modern majority workforce’s choice for boss of the year, argued that in any endeavor, 20% of any workforce will either deliver, or be responsible for delivering, 80% of the outcome.  Since Juran called this the Pareto’s Principle, that name stuck until more modern times began referring to it as the 80/20 rule. ( By necessity, this is a very simple way of looking at very complex concept.  For more, follow the links.)

What this means for libraries with respect to collections is simply this: 20% of what you buy may well supply 80% of what patrons actually use or need (obviously this varies from library to library).  Librarians have known this for decades and have tried many things to reduce the outcome.  We have not had success beyond marginally raising that 20%.  When pedagogy in this country became exclusively textbook-based driven (as opposed to the European system of dons and docents), libraries bought books “just-in-case,”  as in, just in case someone might need a certain title.  A sizable portion of what libraries purchased had not only to do with the various disciplines taught, of course, but also with the periphery of study within those disciplines.  And this made perfect sense.  Collections had to be broad-based, not only because disciplines in a given college or university were broad-based, but also because students studying there had only the library to meet the demands of academic ends.   Interlibrary Loan was also an option, of course, but until the late nineties, getting a book from a library, even only 50 miles away, might take as much as 10-12 business days.   What has happened since the late nineties can be categorized as the perfect storm of budgets, technology and user demands.

Budgets everywhere have tanked, state economies have all but disappeared, and the national economy threatens to go into receivership.  Meanwhile, electronic access has exploded, and user demands have only increased as user expectations with respect to electronic access have skyrocketed.  No librarian ever doubted electronic access would increase dramatically over time.  What has surprised many of us is the speed with which that increased has been accompanied by vast improvements on seemingly intractable problems. 

Ebook readers, for example, have been around for decades but have also been a source of great disappointment.  Sony’s first attempt in the late eighties and early nineties nearly bankrupted the company. (It learned important lessons and vastly improved susequent eBook readers.)  Later iterations by other vendors proved hardly better.  Even with the unveiling of the Kindle and its subsequent improvements, reading a text on an eBook for anything other than leisure reading could not be accomplished with any degree of success. Nearly all of that changed, however,  with the advent of the iPad and its subsequent iterations.  Although the iPad isn’t really an eBook reader, per se, the iPad, by virtue of being not one thing but a dozen, threw open the door for the academic-based reading experience. Granted, it’s not perfect and still falls short of the ease of print-based academic reading.  The improvements, however, are astonishing and have driven libraries to make significant changes.  As we’ll see below, when paired with new library technologies, such as DDA, the changes in libraries become both fundamental and widespread.

 At the same time budgets were tanking and eBook readers improving, mobile and hand held devices flourished everywhere, especially among young people.  Young people, and most especially the college-aged, made these devices their technology of choice .  Today, they do nearly everything on them, from email, texting, web-searching and yes, even book reading.  The advent of another Apple product, the iPhone, also made this reliance (and even over reliance, let it be said) on mobile devices all the more appealing to young users.  Of course, the iPhone isn’t the only such phone, as many other smartphones are available to users.  And it is just this proliferation of both eBook modifications and smartphone expansion that is forcing changes in library acquisitions.

So what has all this to do with DDA?  In a word, everything.  DDA solves, or very nearly so, the 80/20 problem and makes possible substantial savings in that regard.  Electronic access makes using any electronic-based text both easy and convenient.  Mobile devices make electronic texts ubiquitous and at least at the fingertips of students who have made smartphones their technology of choice. 

How so?  First, DDA allows libraries to choose current, electronically delivered titles from academic publishers.  This is a major change from something like netLibrary that, at least in the beginning, had hundreds of “chicken soup” titles but not very many academic ones, making the database possibly useful for public libraries but not for academic ones.  (netLibrary has changed over the years, of course, and now offers academic libraries  yet another electronic venue.)  Second, DDA may reduce costs.  DDA cost models vary, but the preferred method appears to be that libraries deposit a certain amount of money, say $25,000, with a DDA vendor.  “Appears to be” because these models are changing almost weekly as publishers try to sort out all of this as fast as libraries are inquiring about them.  DDA is, mind you, as new to publishers as to libraries.   One vendor described the sudden appeal of DDA  to academic libraries as a “tsunami of interest.” 

Once the titles are accessed a certain number of times, they become “owned” by that library.  Since publishers know that numerous titles in a database might be viewed or glanced at cursory fashion, merely looking at a title once does not constitute full purchase, but it does constitute a nominal charge.  Titles may be viewed two or three times (or not at all–the library determines this), after which the next accessing constitutes purchase at the full price.  While titles that are accessed and purchased can cost 10% or even 20% more than full price, many titles never reach the threshold of purchase and so are used at 80% or 90% off the full price.  When the deposit account is deplete, another deposit is made.  In this manner, only titles which are actually used are purchased.  Additionally, all the titles are delivered electronically so students can view them on whatever web-accessible devices they happen to have.  Of course, this also means all cataloging is taken care of.  There are no boxes to open, no labels to put on, no titles to check out or shelve, and no fines to collect.  The reach of this change stretches beyond acquisitions and throughout the library!

Does such a model make sense?  It depends on what part is examined and whom you ask.  Even among librarians, not all find this model useful or even tempting.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that a library buys 5,000 print titles at a cost of  $175,000.  Of those titles purchased, let’s say, generously, that just less than half circulate in the first 12 months.  Research tells us that books not used in the first 12 months will likely never be used at all.  This means that the library purchased $87,500 worth of books needlessly.  And that is only the beginning of the cost.  Library personnel ordered those 5,000 titles, opened all the boxes, processed them and checked all those titles against invoices.  More library personnel sent them to cataloging where they were cataloged.  Yet more library personnel put cataloging labels on them.  More library personnel shelved them.  And we haven’t even added the cost for the shelving!  The old model was an expensive one, but remember, the only model available to libraries.  

Using a DDA model, it is theoretically possible that this same library might spend far less and still get titles that users not only wanted, but also used.  For example, let’s say that same library makes only two $30,000 deposits over the year.  At the end of the year that library had $60,000 worth of books that have all been used versus $175,000, $87,5000 of which have never touched by any reader.   I say “theoretically” because no one can successfully predict human behavior, especially among academics and their clientele.  But the model is appealing enough—given budget stagnation everywhere—to make the attempt.  Add to this the preponderance of students’ use of electronic access over everything else, and the approach is even more appealing.   

Are there any downsides?  Of course.  No model is perfect, including the one libraries have been using for the last 100 years. We may find that there is overuse of the system that will border on abuse.  For example, when libraries offer free printing to users, the costs quintuple. With what may appear to be “free” books, will the rise in book purchases increase likewise?  No one knows  … yet.   We’ll have to monitor the use of the database closely.  More importantly, students may “graze” or “cannibalize” titles while closely reading exactly nothing.  Reading online is still relatively new and we know the transference from print to electronic reading is not a one-to-one correspondence.  That is, anyone who reads print can also read online, and without any difficulties.  But those who read only online find print-based reading next to impossible.  No one knows for certain why this occurs ,but we do know that it does, and even among veteran readers of print-based texts.  (We’ll see what this means for rising generations whose early reading may now all be online-based.)  Many veteran readers complain that when online reading becomes routine, switching back to print-based reading becomes most difficult.  

Online reading tends to be cursory, snatch-and-grab-like, and comprehension astonishingly less than print-based reading.  These are enormously important concerns.  Still, the number of university students reading print titles has fallen off dramatically in recent years.  Online reading may be far from perfect, but does it trump not reading at all?  We’re about to see.  Finally, do librarians continue to buy titles at $40 each, hoping someone will use them, or do we try a different approach that allows us to be better stewards of funds?  Right now, just-in-time purchasing is eclipsing just-in-case buying.

Are there other concerns or changes?  We’ve only scratched the surface.  Faculty allocations will also change.  Every year, for decades, faculty have been given allotments to spend in their disciplines.  Using this new model, that may not work very well since increments to DDA models are usually in allotments of very sizable amounts.  Moreover, expenditures may come piecemeal, or may not occur until the end of the year, if at all.  Tracking all this may prove too difficult to master during a pilot year.  We may not make any allocations so we can see where ordering occurs.  In any event, at least in the beginning, only faculty will be able to order from the database.  Just as now, students will be able to request titles, and those will be relayed to appropriate personnel.

Does this mean the end of print titles in the library?  In a word, no.  But their number, once legion, will decrease considerably in the coming year if this model is successful.  Not everything has been made web-accessible, although everything newly published is electronically transmissible.  Some titles will still be ordered in print, but those will be on a case-by-case basis.  We’ll also be ordering nearly everything we can for Reference in a web-accessible format.  Not only is much of that available electronically, but Dacus has also already made significant changes in this direction. 

There can be no doubting that this represents an enormous change in the approach to libraries in general and library acquisitions in specific.  If successful, it could ramify throughout the library, providing us the opportunity to make numerous other changes in staff assignments and duties.  Such changes are both exciting and terrifying.  We don’t know if DDA will work.  Unfortunately, we can only know if it works in the Winthrop context by trying it out for a year and then accessing it in true SACs fashion.

This promises to be a most interesting time in library services.  Stick around and you’ll be sure to enjoy what we expect to be something of a wild, exhilarating, frightening but also a most interesting, if bumpy, ride.

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