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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – October 2022

This month, I’ll offer thoughts on two recent reports on libraries and collaboration: from OCLC Research in August and from an International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) task force in September. The OCLC report focuses solely on academic libraries and refers liberally to former OCLC Vice President Lorcan Dempsey’s recent work and other library and non-library literature. The ICOLC Strategies for Open Collaboration in Library Consortia Task Force report speaks to both library consortia and multiple library types, and refers to sources from Marshall Breeding, library consortia, Creative Commons, and elsewhere. Both authors solicited input from multiple perspectives. The reports cite work by David Lewis, recognize the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s BIG Collection initiative, and highlight the powerful role library consortia play in helping libraries do their work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Full disclosure: in addition to being a member of the Project ReShare Steering Committee representing MCLS, I am also a member of the ICOLC Strategies for Open Collaboration in Library Consortia Task Force, and contributed to our report Strategies for Collaboration: Opportunities and Strategies to Build the Future We Need. Our report was a highly collaborative effort, which Lucy Harrison at GALILEO led very ably. I suggest starting with the summary at the link above, and certainly encourage you to read the full report as you have time. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions.

Before I get into each report, a brief (and biased) recommendation: if you want inspiration about new ways to work in our current reality that will foster conditions for collaboration to thrive, and are open to applying resources differently to create the long-term future we need given the challenges we face, read the task force report first. If you want to consider collaboration philosophically as one of a set of strategic options, read the OCLC report first.

OCLC’s Library Collaboration as a Strategic Choice: Evaluating Options for Acquiring Capacity by Brian Lavoie of OCLC Research is oriented toward how academic libraries can “acquire capacity,” i.e., select and obtain technology and other resources that support work such as research data management, digital curation and preservation, and print management. The report lists four options for “sourcing capacity,” and details tradeoffs and other considerations for each:

  • Build – developing capacity internally
  • Collaborate – working with a group to create and sustain capacity
  • Outsource – contracting with an external provider to supply capacity
  • Refer – directing users to an external source (informally, not based on a contract)

Examples of each option include homegrown 1970s-era library systems (build), the open source, community-built ReShare Returnables resource sharing system (collaborate), systems that Clarivate subsidiaries Ex Libris and Innovative Interfaces, OCLC, and others offer (outsource), and a LibGuide on a given topic to which a library can link from a website rather than create (refer). Lavoie points out that these options are not mutually exclusive, and can be combined. In practice, a library could improve on an existing open source system, and host that system elsewhere (e.g., FOLIO). Also, a library could choose one option at one time, and one or more others later (which we at MCLS have done by moving from a homegrown ordering system to ConsortiaManager).

After defining the options, Lavoie introduces four “strategic frames” libraries can use to decide which option(s) to choose for a given initiative (with a detailed deep-dive beginning on p. 16):

  • The collective action problem (coordination) – the possibility that coordinated activity can fail
  • Transaction costs (costs) – the costs of organizing and conducting an economic exchange
  • Path dependency (change) – how an existing arrangement may persist even once better options are available
  • The principal-agent problem (control) – when one party delegates responsibility to another whose interests may differ

Lavoie makes a key point following from Dempsey’s work that collaboration is “a form of double investment, in that it entails a commitment to the capacity that the collaboration produces and also to the collaborative infrastructure needed to sustain it” (p. 6).

I have seen many examples of this including Project ReShare most recently, in terms of the software itself and the community that fosters it. As more library consortia move to implement ReShare Returnables, the ReShare community is working through how to continue managing expectations and collaborating effectively, from governance and funding, to specifying and prioritizing features, to software development. Though the questions we face are challenging, we agree they are absolutely worthwhile, and help the software and the relationships it relies on to mature and progress in the long term.

I find OCLC’s report useful because it puts collaboration into a broader context and looks at it as a strategic effort, especially for larger academic libraries with greater choices and options. It contains helpful tables of additional concepts and considerations libraries can use to decide how to source capacity, and questions commonly-held biases regarding vended and community-created products (e.g., that one type is more agile, innovative, or collaborative than the other; in practice, it varies). I found Lavoie’s work to be helpful background reading as I re-read the next report I’ll cover.

The task force report leans directly into collaboration as critical strategy for consortia and the libraries that comprise them, especially during the current time of (in some cases, rapidly) declining budget and staffing, and troubling market consolidation and vendor behavior. Its introduction sets context, including a call to action and a summary of the three strategies the task force recommends, including several subpoints under each.

The report’s three key strategies are:

  1. Radically rethink our operations to build the future we need
  2. Reframe contracts for proprietary services
  3. Design, support, and fund alternative solutions now

Early on, the report emphasizes that libraries and the consortia who serve them must “[take] more agency … [to] move away from the status quo in which we are beholden to vendors’ business interests, priorities, and pricing, to create alternatives in the marketplace where library values and needs are prioritized” (p. 1). It suggests ways to change how we work with vendors and the open source community around issues including: pricing; standards and interoperability; data ownership, quality, and sharing; and information access. In turn, its strategies suggest conditions in which greater collaboration becomes possible. Again, this report is important because many libraries are working with fewer and fewer dollars and personnel to serve shrinking populations, and some vendors do not account for that fact in their pricing and attempt to bundle products and services libraries may not be in a position to afford and/or take full advantage of. Further, some market players are not transparent about how they set pricing. The report also goes into much further depth about more of the issues libraries face in maintaining the vended product status quo, and offers sample language libraries may consider using in MARC records (to make metadata more freely shareable) and contracts (limiting or eliminating the use of non-disclosure agreements, requiring standards compliance and interoperability, and more).

Following some further background that strengthens its case for new collaboration, the report details each strategy in depth, using recent literature and other efforts toward openness and collaboration. It lists organizations, grant opportunities, projects that are building open collaboration, and open source systems to consider (including library service platforms, resource sharing/interlibrary loan, emerging catalog/bibliographic utility tools, discovery, institutional repository, and electronic resource management).

In recommending its three key strategies, the report recognizes that

“libraries – even the largest, best-funded ones – must collaborate to accomplish their missions. Conversely, even the smallest, poorly-funded libraries can be valued contributors to these efforts. Consortia can play a unique role in this undertaking, working with all their libraries – however big or small, no matter their funding – to identify strategies that work for their libraries and bring them together to regain collective agency, power, and control” (p. 2).

While there’s much I could amplify from the report on each key strategy, I’ll make a few brief points here on each. Again, please read the task force’s report. It is important.

  1. Building from David Lewis’ The 2.5% Commitment, I am proud that the MCLS Board supports allocating some of our reserve funds to innovative projects such as multiple facets of Project ReShare.
  2. Regarding pricing, I’ve heard from many MCLS members that budget cuts that began pre-COVID have accelerated as enrollments have declined since 2020. I’ve also heard their frustration that vendors continue to negotiate pricing based on previous years’ higher enrollment and budget numbers, rather than the lower ones many libraries live with today that are likely permanent.
  3. See 1. above. MCLS will continue to invest in Project ReShare so that libraries have a viable alternative to current proprietary resource sharing systems.

Whereas OCLC’s report urges care in choosing collaboration as a strategy, the task force report’s background section asserts urgently that collaboration is no longer a choice. While I respect OCLC’s perspective, I agree strongly with the task force based on what I hear and see from libraries and other consortia, and given my own experience with each of OCLC’s four options.

In Dempsey’s words, “collaboration is hard … effective collaboration is harder” (OCLC report, p. 2). In our ICOLC task force’s words, “libraries must collaborate” (task force report, p. 2). In my experience, both points are true. Library consortia are built to foster collaboration, strive to make that collaboration as effective as possible, and drive useful innovation for their libraries. While collaboration may be a choice for some more so than others, consortia such as MCLS and others involved in the task force’s report who work toward what I might call “metacollaboration” at scale can help a great deal.

At MCLS, “collaborative” is in our very name. We are always seeking ways to help libraries achieve more together than many can individually, in keeping with our Board of Directors’ vision. Have an idea for a collaborative initiative or project? Contact me anytime at