Category Archives: Collection Management

on confidentiality and FOI laws

For the past few weeks now I’ve been emailing back and forth with a vendor, debating terms of a license agreement. I struck several terms, both of my own volition and on recommendation from purchasing officials on my campus, and added additional SUNY-specific terms that need to be included. I’ve done this many times before, and usually, the vendor suggests changes to bring us to agreement, or simply agrees, and we move on. (The notable exception is that Lexis-Nexis will never ever ever ever agree to allowing walk-in users, which is an incredible pain in the ass in re: our public access computers.)

Except this time, I’m getting pushback.

The clause in question requires, in regard to legal requests for disclosure under applicable Freedom of Information requests, that “the party required to make such disclosure promptly provides written notice to the other party of such required disclosure and reasonably cooperates with such other party’s efforts to minimize the extent of such disclosure.”

Italics mine. I say no. I have two strong beliefs that inform that choice.

1. I think it’s deplorable to ask anyone to minimize their compliance with the law. Period. Requiring that I “minimize the extent” of disclosure asks me to look at a FOI request and say “how much can I get away with hiding?” rather than honestly asking “What data will satisfy this request?” As an information professional committed to providing access to as much information as possible to as many as possible, that’s just abhorrent. As a State employee, I’m also subject to additional sunshine clauses contained in State policy, so this not only requires that I twist my legal obligations to best suit a corporation, it requires that I skirt the requirements of my employment as closely as possible — under the direction of an outside party.

2. What is there in this agreement that needs to be held so confidential? NOTHING. In my assessment, having signed many, many license agreements in the last decade, there are no terms here that are unusual, outside of the industry standard, or in any way harmful to the corporation’s interests — other than the pricing offered us. These terms and terms like them in library contracts exist only, as far as I can tell, to prevent libraries from discussing their pricing agreements amongst ourselves. They are designed to protect the vendors from collective awareness and action, and better-informed decision-making by libraries. Again, as an information professional committed to providing access to information, this is counter to my professional philosophies and goals.

And I won’t accept either of those things.

What if?

Today we’re hosting our once-each-semester liaisons’ luncheon, in which we invite the faculty liaisons to the libraries to come and have a catered lunch discussion with us. We often have a multi-bullet agenda, but this spring we have one item: What to do with our collections budget?

Just as I have been adamant that publishers need to change their models, I think libraries need to respond as well. We need to find our own flexibility, find ways to prioritize our own goals and needs, and be our own best allies in this struggle. So today, for an hour, I’m posing a bunch of questions to the liaisons, in hopes that they will both help us think through our ideas and also continue to evolve with us as we modify our perspectives.

And as I sit here, annotating my copy of the presentation slides, all I can think is “I hope this works.” I hope the discussion happens. I hope that we can engage meaningfully. I hope I don’t blow it. Because no matter how many times you stand up in front of a crowd, no matter the size of the crowd, no matter the casualness or seriousness of the topic, it never actually gets easier to stand up and do the thing. I just get better at managing my reactions. And this one matters.



So here’s hoping.

Attempting Positivity

As part of our ongoing discussions with SAGE, I closed a recent email with a list of suggestions (rather than simply complaints or concerns) about how publishers might better approach libraries. This list is shaped, clearly, by the kind of institution that we are, and the kind of pressures and needs we juggle, but it’s a starting point for a discussion.

The librarians here at SUNY Potsdam were adamant that while we are deeply troubled by how this vendor-library interaction has proceeded, we’re also committed to trying to be good partners from our end. So, to that end, here are suggestions from our Collection Development team about the kinds of pricing and sales behavior we encourage from our publishing partners:

1. We are becoming increasingly disinterested in online content packages whose pricing is based on the print analog. The print publication model is on life support, if not already dead, for most libraries, and I believe we all know that. A truly useful pricing structure — a sustainable one, that can continue adapting and meeting the challenges of this new information economy — will be based on the value provided by the online content, not by the value perceived in its previous print analog, or libraries’ choices about print holdings in eras long since past and gone. Therefore, we want to see pricing for online content fully divorced from print holdings history.

2. When we can avoid it, we are done signing multi-year agreements. Our resource picture is too unstable (and this is not, as the American Chemical Society tried to paint it, “a Potsdam problem”, it is a higher education problem) to commit for multiple years to any contract or agreement. Yes, this injects more risk into the equation for both publishers and libraries, but it’s crucial that we maintain the flexibility to adjust our holdings, collections, and purchasing to reflect the equally flexible and changeable nature of our programmatic offerings, curricular foci, and users’ needs. Single year contracts will most often best meet our needs.

3. We are also growing more and more discontented with the notion that publishers will add content to the packages that are sold to libraries, and automatically increase the price for that package as a result. This removes all collection development control from the librarians who are charged with building clear, coherent, and useful information access for our libraries and our users, and imposes an unacceptable rate of growth in the costs we must encumber each year for these packages. We would propose that if new content is being developed by a publisher, it be added not automatically, but as an opt-in feature, creating steps or tiers of available content in the publisher’s online package. This gives libraries the opportunity to consider what purchases are reasonable and prudent for their institution without also feeling that the publisher is holding the “good” content hostage in bloated packages that we can no longer afford due to these annual unwanted increases.

4. To build on #3, the “cable TV” model of bundling a hundred channels we don’t want with the ten channels we do is becoming less and less palatable to libraries. (And to tv viewers!) Instead, we would support a “choose fifteen titles for $X” model for publisher packages, in a model that included either a uniform cost for online access to every title or tiered pricing for different categories of titles, allowing for a “choose 3 from Tier 1, 5 from Tier 2, and 7 from Tier 3 for $X” approach.

5. The “used car” model of time-consuming local micro-negotiations is also becoming unsustainable for libraries. I cannot imagine that it’s efficient for publishers, either. Would it not be simpler, more efficient, and build more goodwill to price your product and sell it at that price? Transparently? The hours that I have spent on this, that Marianne has spent on this, and that our team of 8 collections librarians have spent on this are too costly for the product under discussion. Human resources have value as much as our financial resources do, and I encourage you to consider models that require fewer of them.

So, librarians: What do you think? What do you want? What don’t you want?

Put it on the record: My responses to Sage’s responses

First, a point of correction and clarity: It appears that the conflict between our middlemen and SAGE can be attributed to simple muddy communication; SAGE doesn’t care where I buy my stuff or how I buy it. I can switch from WALDO to Lyrasis at any time. (Worth noting, though, is that SAGE offers the two the same terms, so it won’t actually get me anything to move between them. Thus it is technically true that they won’t let me move to get better pricing, because they don’t offer better pricing. But they are not trying to control my behavior re: purchasing through middlemen or consortia.)

Second: Let’s talk about the public offer I got during the on-stage Q & A portion of my Charleston speech, to share coffee with SAGE’s VP for Sales.

I deflected while I was on stage, saying something about how it’d been a particularly busy week for me and thus my lack of reply to the offers that came in email to meet in Charleston. That was true, as far as I went. There’s more, though.

Here’s what I replied via email when I had time to think about being articulate:

I wasn’t going engage in this debate from the stage at Charleston, as I was paid to be there and to do a particular job, which wasn’t to resolve my own vendor conflicts during the opening plenary. However, I do appreciate your willingness to come forward publicly. I also know that you did yourself a favor in doing so, since you now look better in the eyes of the crowd than you otherwise would. And I thank you for proving my point: when one speaks publicly, one can in fact enable change in our vendor/library partnerships.

All of that said, I am flying home today and did not make a coffee date with you, nor return your phone call. That’s very intentional. I want all of this in writing. I understand (truly!) that tone and intent can be lost in writing, but I believe that the written record is the only reliable record. I’d rather conduct these conversations by email. And, in equal seriousness: If you can’t explain your pricing structure clearly in writing, then you have a bigger problem than whether or not I blog about you in a negative light. There is no reason why a phone call should be required to explain how you price and sell your product.

[reiteration of the details of our local concern and repeated request for clarity on pricing models.]

That was on November 8, at 8:30 am. I’ve not heard back yet, though it’s only been 2 business days and there was a sizeable SAGE contingent obviously quite busy at Charleston. I’m not judging terribly harshly (yet); I know what my re-entry from travel looks like, and have sympathy.

I share this to model one way that we, as librarians, can choose to communicate with vendor partners. You don’t have to take my tone, or my stand. You don’t have to agree with me or with my issues and approach. But I beg of you: get it in writing. I don’t want to spend my institution’s money with any partner who won’t commit to their terms in writing, and I’m not sure why you would want to, either.

After Charleston, I had a Twitter conversation in which a librarian indicated disappointment that I didn’t meet the SAGE reps for coffee, since I was thus shutting down communication. I think that I’m doing the opposite; I’m encouraging and demanding communication that’s repeatable, shareable, and good for our community, not just good for Potsdam and Jenica. The same person asked how I would get it on the record, then, and proposed a conference panel to discuss issues between vendors and librarians. I think that if a conference wants to do that, more power to them, but I still don’t believe that (unless it is recorded and widely shared) that’s ‘putting it on the record'; that’s just another conversation that can be retracted, amended, and discredited later.

Want it on the record? Want to stop the silencing and the bullying and the closed-door negotiations and the abusive licensing terms and the confusion, all of which hold us back rather than drive us forward? Put it in writing. Then put it on the web where it can be accessed, reused, and learned from.

Another place to say No: HBR and EBSCO

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article out about the newest challenge to educational access to scholarly content, this time a particularly egregious example from the Harvard Business Review. Some cogent paragraphs that explain the thing:

Although Harvard Business Review articles have been included in the journal aggregator EBSCO since 2000, as of August 1 the publisher began blocking full access to the 500 most popular articles, meaning students and professors can no longer download, print, or link directly to them. Harvard has long asserted that a digital library subscription cannot substitute for the separate licenses and fees involved when the articles are assigned in courses. Yet it says it has encountered widespread abuse of that policy, with professors referring students to the digital subscriptions.

To restore the linking ability, some of the largest business-school libraries have received quotes of roughly $200,000 annually—a number the publisher, a nonprofit subsidiary of Harvard University, confirms—although the press says the average quote is below $10,000. Alternatively, business schools can pay for journal articles that are assigned in class on an à-la-carte basis or under various “umbrella” plans. Those latter arrangements have long existed. (Some business schools already have expansive licensing arrangements with Harvard that mean they are unaffected.)

On October 28, business-reference librarians within the American Library Association approved a statement that the press’s “profit-driven practices diverge from the intent of scholarly communication and impinge on higher education and libraries’ core social mission to preserve and make accessible records of scholarship.”

“There’s a feeling of being held hostage: In order to get back the access you have enjoyed for over a decade, you have to pay these additional fees,” said Andy Spackman, a business librarian at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University and chair of the business-reference librarians’ group.
More here:

Kevin Smith, on his Scholarly Communications @ Duke blog, once again provides an impassioned and deeply logical response:

Properly viewed, I suggest, this is not a dispute between libraries, or faculties, and Harvard.  It is a dispute between Harvard Business Publications and EBSCO over how to divide up the pie.  And libraries should refuse to make the pie bigger just to settle that dispute.

To be clear, the functions that HPB says are being wrongly exploited — printing, downloading and persistent linking — have been a part of the EBSCO databases for years.  HBP would argue that their special licensing terms with EBSCO (which were impossible to convey to faculty, since they make no sense) have always forbidden classroom use.  But the truth is, these technological changes are intended to prevent faculty from even giving students a reference to an article and asking the students to read that article on their own.  HBP wants to recover a separate fee even for that.

So the demands made by HBP really do break the EBSCO database as it has been purchased for years.  If libraries are going to lose functionality they have been buying over that time, they must demand a reduction in the price that is paid to EBSCO.  What is remarkable in this case is that the value of the lost functionality is easily quantifiable; it is represented by the new licensing fee that HBP plans to charge.

This is what I mean by insisting that this is a dispute between EBSCO and Harvard.  Libraries should refuse to pay more significantly more for the same functionality, especially since that functionality is so central to what we buy journal aggregator databases for.

– See more at:

Smith closes with this: “This is the moment to strengthen our spines and refuse to pour more money into the fraught relationship between Harvard and EBSCO; we must let them settle the matter between themselves.  If we do not draw this line in the sand, we will continue to get that sand kicked in our faces.” I’m pretty sure you all know I agree with him 100%.