:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

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

   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

   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

   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

                                  LINK LIST

                                                    CDL Licensing Tool Kit
                                           Guidelines for Technical Issues
                                                           ICOLC Statement
                             Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources
                                                         Project Gutenberg

                                                Standard License Agreement

                  Statement of Current Perspective and Preferred Practices

          UC Principles for Acquiring and Licensing Information in Digital