Tag Archives: Consortia

The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and scaling

  1. The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence
  2. The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation
  3. The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity
  4. The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and right-scaling

In the previous blog posts in this series, I have spoken about four areas where consortia scale library capabilities: capacity, learning, innovation and influence. In considering general consortial or group activity and its relation to institutional investment (of dollars or of attention/expertise), the opening post also introduced three important axes where choices are made: scoping, sourcing and (right)scaling. Here, I amplify those introductory remarks.

scaling

While the range and diversity of consortial activity is enormous, some of the important ways in which they are different relate to these three axes. Again, given that diversity, this is a preliminary and impressionistic discussion.

It remains the case, though, that while libraries collaborate massively, massive library collaborations are rare. Click To Tweet

Scoping

What should consortia do? What is the right scope?

Single or multipurpose? As discussed in the first post in this series, there is an interesting balance between economies of scope (where, for example, it makes sense for members to concentrate a variety of different functions with an organization, PALNI being one example) and economies of scale (where the costs of providing a service, including infrastructure, marketing, R&D, etc., are spread across many participants, as in HathiTrust). The former case may favor the trend I have already noted, where a consortium evolves into a general collaborative vehicle that members reflexively turn to when new or shared needs arise. Of course, this does not mean a consortium can do everything – there is a cap depending on resourcing, and libraries have to decide how much resource they transfer into a consortium, how much of their staff time is devoted to committee and collaborative working, which of their activities might be shared across consortium members, and, indeed, which consortia to turn to for which needs.

Peer or multitype. The intersection of interests between members of a consortium is an important driver of priorities and activities.

consortiumoverlap

Consider for example these two pictures, which represent the parent institutions of two academic library consortia. These are drawn from our University Futures, Library Futures work, where we have developed a method to characterize higher education institutions based on IPEDS data. We characterize universities based on their distance from three poles: research, liberal education, and career-preparedness. The triangles show how individual universities are positioned relative to these poles. The analysis here shows clearly how the libraries in one consortium support broadly peer institutions (on the right, where the triangles overlap), while the libraries in the other support universities with a spread of emphases (on the left, where the triangles diverge).

In a group of peers, the intersection of interests may be broad, and members may look to the consortium across a variety of activities. In this case prioritization becomes an importance consideration. Where the intersection of interests is smaller (because of size or type of institution, for example), then the common areas for consortial attention may be more limited (focused on resource sharing, for example). And in this case, finding those common areas of attention becomes important.

In the previous blog posts in this series, I have spoken about four areas where consortia scale library capabilities: capacity, learning, innovation and influence. Click To Tweet

Right-scoping and optimization. It does not make sense for all organizations to operate equally across all four areas I have mentioned – each requires different skills and orientations, and it is difficult to optimize across all. For this reason, right-scoping is a critical issue – which activities does it make sense to pursue?

Think of capacity and influence, for example. Scaling capacity benefits from an operational focus and economies of scale. Scaling influence involves political and advocacy skills, the broadest possible base of representation to give weight to assumed positions, and agility across a potentially broad range of areas. So, in each case success requires very different attributes and it may not make sense – or be possible – to optimize a single organization for both together.

Does this suggest that organizations should not try to scale both capacity and influence? In this context, one could argue it made sense for RLUK, for example, to transfer the management of COPAC (union catalogue) to Jisc (who is now contracting with OCLC to provide the service), because, as a strategic organization, it makes sense for RLUK to scope its activity towards influence and innovation, not operational services (capacity). What about CARL and Portage, or ARL and SHARE? In each case the organization has played a central role in incubating an approach (scaling innovation); does it make sense for the organization to actually run the service long term (scaling capacity)? Not least, this would present a significant opportunity cost, but it may also tie up a whole range of capacities and investments. Does it make more sense to continue to encourage learning and innovation within the powerful network each organization manages? And to work with partners to operationalize such services?

As noted above, advocacy – scaling influence –  was a critical part of the early development of HathiTrust. It was pushing policy boundaries, and it probably needed to be in advance of positions taken by community organizations focused on scaling influence. While these policy issues remain important, HathiTrust is increasingly likely to work with and through those organizations (e.g. ARL or ALA) to scale influence, so that it remains very focused on scaling capacity, on the operation of a major service and its sustainability.

So, I think that there are interesting questions for groups who would like to scale both capacity and influence, to build shared services and to lobby for change. However, organizations which scale capacity or influence are both now increasingly important venues for scaling learning and innovation. As already discussed, a major reason for this is that they convene networks of libraries, within which shared practices can emerge.

Those organizations set up to encourage systemwide change are an interesting example. These seek to scale influence, providing a shared advocacy and lobbying focus. Think of scholarly communication, for example. SPARC has a change agenda. COAR is a membership organization supporting the development of green open access, by supporting the emergence of networks of repositories. In each case, scaling innovation is the goal but scaling learning is also critical, as they wish to provide members with evidence and argument in support of change.

Continuity and evolution. Organizations need to evolve and scoping questions will be affected by the changing environment and needs of members. The evolution of shared print has been interesting here, where in some cases a shared print program has been taken on by existing organizations (e.g. BTAA), while in others new organizations have formed (e.g. WEST). In this way, just as scoping is an issue for existing organizations, so it is an issue for new organizations. When does a specific need lead to a new organization rather than the evolution or adaptation of a current one?

One response to this, particularly aiming to scale, strengthen and focus innovation, is the emergence of Educopia, Duraspace, and other organizations as incubators for new initiatives seeking to spread cost and risk. Ithaka was also established with an explicit mission to incubate non-profit startups in the education space.

Libraries and consortia will think about disinvesting and investing. When should a group cease to exist, or give up particular activities because they are sub-scale or no longer make sense? This can be difficult, given natural organizational inertia, and existing personal and institutional investments.

Libraries and consortia will think about disinvesting and investing. When should a group cease to exist, or give up particular activities because they are sub-scale or no longer make sense? Click To Tweet

At the same time, consortia may grow, whether by adding members (by expanding into adjacent geographic regions, for example), by securing more investment from members (by expanding scope, for example), or by diversifying funding (by providing for-fee services to non-members, for example, or by seeking grant funding). As discussed in the opening post, a diversification of funding may result in some diversification of accountability. This in turn raises issues of governance, to make responsibilities and accountabilities more explicit.

Sourcing

I noted in the first post that there are three common patterns through which shared services are sourced: public provision through national/state coordination and/or funding; consortial activity; and third-party provision (through a vendor).

Of course, each has its own characteristics, which may be variably present in any individual case. And each approach will have benefits and drawbacks. Public provision is a useful way of securing shared infrastructure, but community influence may be lacking or management may be bureaucratic. Consortial activity gives responsibility to members but coordination costs may be high. With a third party, control is exercised through contractual relationships, but direct influence may be surrendered for efficiency. And so on.

My focus in these posts has been on the second of these, the consortial model, acknowledging that in practice the three overlap or blend into each other, and will often occur in combination. In particular, of course, the first two will often procure services from the third to achieve their goals. OhioLINK or the Orbis Cascade Alliance, for example, will source some systems capacity with third parties.

There are two levels of interest here. First individual libraries have to make choices about how to source a shared service – do they look to a consortium or a vendor? Do they encourage a national provider – e.g. Jisc or the National Library of Australia – to provide a service? Do they establish a new consortium around a particular need (e.g. Library Publishing Coalition or Open Textbook Alliance)?

Second, consortia have to decide how to source services – do they build them themselves, look to a third party, look to a center of expertise within the consortium, and so on.

In practice, the issues in each of these cases can be similar. Here, I am mostly interested in the issues libraries face in terms of electing a consortial approach.

As the trend towards collaborative systems and services grows, sourcing issues come to the fore and libraries and consortia will more actively manage organizational frameworks around collaborative service development. A variety of issues is important here.

As the trend towards collaborative systems and services grows, sourcing issues come to the fore and libraries and consortia will more actively manage organizational frameworks around collaborative service development. Click To Tweet

Structure, staffing, organization. Is the group organized to get the desired job done? One aspect of this is the accumulated trust that seems to be so important in streamlining decisions and actions. Another is governance: is the group organized to efficiently make binding decisions? A recent presentation noted the challenges of making decisions within the Ivy Plus group given the lack of a formal governance structure, for example.

Agency. A second aspect relates to agency, also discussed in the first post. Is some new organizational arrangement required to advance a collaborative agenda? This in turn raises the question of when a separate organization should be set up (as has happened with various new shared print initiatives in the US) or whether an existing center of excellence assumes responsibility (as has happened to some extent with the University of Michigan and HathiTrust, where the University hosts and operates the service on behalf of the membership).

Some collaborative activity may be based on closely supervised activity – relying on temporary staff assignments and local resources. A contrasting approach is to buy a complete service from a third-party provider. Clearly, in between there are variably structured approaches depending on how resources, staffing, and so on are secured across the group. This points to a crucial issue, which is the balance between efficiency and control. One wants to ensure alignment with the original mission while also ceding sufficient authority to the consortium management to advance without continued checking.

One wants to ensure alignment with the original mission while also ceding sufficient authority to the consortium management to advance without continued checking. Click To Tweet

As noted in the introduction, the dynamic changes as a group gets bigger (and it is inefficient for all members to participate equally in decision making), or more complex (in terms of types of members or sources of funding, for example), or changes over time (as when founding members or strong guiding voices recede or are replaced).

These issues make frameworks for governance, accountability and alignment very important , and they need to address  topics like scope, evaluation, ownership of data or IPR, development of requirements, sharing of innovation, and so on.

Resourcing. One might note that collaboration and shared infrastructure are not cheap. And greater collaboration involves greater investment in shared activities. But what is the appropriate level of investment here? And how do libraries think about where best to invest?

I would argue that we do not have a good sense of levels of investment in different collaborative activities at the moment, nor do we have a sense of what level of investment is appropriate. And inevitably libraries are differently situated with respect to collaborative work – a library which is part of a strong regional or peer consortium with a track record of shared investment and new service development is in a very different situation to one which is not a part of such a consortium.

a library which is part of a strong regional or peer consortium with a track record of shared investment and new service development is in a very different situation to one which is not a part of such a consortium Click To Tweet

As a community, we also incur considerable development costs around the design and development of new organizations. And while organizations like Educopia, Duraspace or others provide incubation services, the community as a whole does not have robust support for this, nor are there strong mechanisms for coordinating new initiatives.

All of this confirms that sourcing will be a subject of increasingly active debate in coming years, and issues of mission, alignment, governance, investment and business model will become more central in a mixed environment of collaboratively and externally sourced provision. It also means that choices around sourcing patterns need to become more informed. When should a group build a new activity itself or source it with a third-party provider? When should an individual library buy a service from a third party or instead participate with a consortial group to develop a similar service that is more community-driven? What level of coordination would be helpful, and how could it be enacted?

Sourcing and scaling are intimately connected. As libraries explore collaborative solutions, they need to decide at what scale to participate.

Right-scaling

In many ways consortial or group working is about right-scaling, finding the appropriate level at which to do something. Groups must decide what the optimum level for their work is. And individual libraries must decide at what level to consort in the context of any particular activity. There are three common patterns in the consortial examples I have given in these posts:

  1. regional/national groups which scale to a particular region or jurisdiction,
  2. functional or peer groups which may operate at different scales,
  3. groups where achieving as broad scale as possible is important, to aggregate influence or to build community infrastructure.

And of course libraries may belong to groups at all of these levels.

The regional grouping is a very common pattern for organizations that scale capacity. This may be at a country level (see UKB in The Netherlands, for example), at a state level (see OhioLINK for example), or within some other contiguous area (see the Orbis Cascade Alliance, which spans the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho). It seems likely that one reason for the strength of local or regional groups is that that they facilitate informal learning and innovation through their networks, something that may be less strong at wider levels where personal interaction within a ‘known community’ is less strong.

Regional groupings are also very important in relation to shared infrastructure, a shared ILS for example. An interesting recent development has been the emergence of groups built around shared print management: typically, these have a regional logistics dimension as infrastructure for consolidation and delivery is important (WEST, EAST, MI-SPI, FLARE, White Rose Consortium, for example). However, the emergence of the Rosemont Shared Print Alliance in the US suggests that higher level coordination is also desirable. And certainly, one wants aspects of this work to scale to the network level in the context of stewardship of the (national or global) print scholarly and cultural record.

While the regional dimension remains strong, and may be reinforced by state or national funding, we also see examples where sustainability, service or other factors encourage growth and collaboration. For example, resource sharing networks may talk to each other, or a consortium may grow beyond its regional base. This is exemplified by NERL, which has grown its core membership beyond the North East United States, and has also added an affiliate category for libraries who are not core members but who want to participate in some of the benefits of shared negotiation.

Typically, libraries scale influence at the level of a particular political entity where policy is made. So, it is typical to have representative associations at the national level (ALA, ARL, ULC; RLUK, CILIP, SCONUL, CAUL; and so on), or, in the EU for example (LIBER).

And, as noted above libraries come together in various peer groups (e.g. BTAA, acknowledging that this sits under the parent BTAA organization) and functional or specialist groups (e.g. DPC, DPN), at various scales.

Right-scaling is of great current interest, even if it is not usually designated this way or explicitly called out in discussion. I conclude with two important right-scaling issues.

First, libraries need to decide at what scale certain activities should be carried out (scalar emphasis) – and the answer may be at several. Think of shared print or research data management for example, each of very focused interest now. Libraries may make investments at local, consortial, national levels, or with third parties. For example, Ohio State University is part of the OhioLINK, BTAA and HathiTrust shared print regimes, and will have to think about the nature and level of participation in each over time. Monash University provides local workflow for research data management through a third-party provider (FigShare) while at the same time it backs up data to a state-wide system and relies on a national scale service for discovery. Such multi-scalar activity will become more common, and again poses investment and service choices.

Second, despite considerable collaborative activity libraries face a collective action issue, which works against scale. There are many libraries, each with its own goals and objectives, and coordination costs are high. One of the main advantages of the regional consortium – or of national frameworks in countries that have them – is that they entail some coordination capacity. However, this coordination capacity is often lacking at higher levels, nationally within the US, for example, or internationally. For this reason, broad based network-level shared infrastructure is lacking. Cameron Neylon writes interestingly about this: “Any proposal that starts ‘we’ll just get all the universities to do X’ is basically doomed to failure from the start.” That is, they are doomed unless, he suggests, coordination mechanisms are actually built in.

Cameron Neylon writes interestingly about this: “Any proposal that starts ‘we’ll just get all the universities to do X’ is basically doomed to failure from the start.” Click To Tweet

Neylon is writing about scholarly communication infrastructure, and, in fact, scholarly communication is an interesting example for library cooperation. There appears to be growing consortial interest in research support infrastructure (research data management, scholarly publishing platforms, ….), as libraries are not always well-placed to develop approaches individually. See for example the work of the Scholars Portal in Ontario, one of the clearest examples of research support offered consortially.

What gives the topic some urgency, though, is recent developments in research workflow services and questions about sourcing the means of scholarly production with such services. In particular, the progressive acquisition of research workflow and administration services by Elsevier (e.g. bepress, Mendeley, SSRN, Pure, HiveBench) has highlighted issues of ownership and control. In parallel the Holtzbrinck family of services (which includes Springer Nature and the Digital Science portfolio of research workflow and productivity services) has also highlighted the growing interest of the larger publishers in research workflow. Workflow, one might say, is the new content.

As Neylon argues, a small number of large publishers can decide on direction and move quickly, in a way that collaborative initiatives often cannot.

Against this background, it is interesting to note David Lewis’s proposal that libraries collectively contribute a portion of their budget to support community-based scholarly infrastructure providers in a more coordinated way.  This potentially addresses both a coordination and an investment problem, although to levels which are probably unprecedented.

It remains the case, though, that while libraries collaborate massively, massive library collaborations are rare. In terms of scaling influence, there are several trans-national organizations (IFLA and LIBER for example). In terms of scaling infrastructure, OCLC has built a network of thousands of libraries around the world but is a striking exception. In this context the future of Hathi Trust is intriguing – will it be sustained as a part of global library infrastructure and what is the path towards that? Will DPLA and Europeana find a way to sustain operations as a crucial part of shared library infrastructure, beyond the funding impulses in which they started?

Conclusion

In this series of posts, I have given examples of how libraries consort to get their work done. They have a long history of collaborative activity of different kinds and at different levels. There is a huge variety of consortial organizations. The US environment is especially complex, as libraries potentially collaborate in multiple layered arrangements.

I have had two purposes.

  1. I argue that it has become centrally important for libraries to find good ways of scaling learning and innovation, so as to remain responsive to the changing behaviors and expectations of their users.
  2. I want to suggest some ways of looking at consortia, notably thinking in terms of two simple schematics. First, I have suggested that consortia help scale influence, learning, innovation and capacity across libraries. And, second, that scoping, sourcing and right-scaling are important axes of choice as consortia position their services.

Here are some concluding observations …

Consortial issues are underexamined …

  • Despite this history and extensive descriptive discussion of consortia, the broad shape of consortial activity is surprisingly under-explored in terms of organizational development and economics. There is a broad general literature on related topics and much relevant activity in other domains which could be usefully looked at.
  • From one perspective, it is not surprising that there are open questions about consortial activity. Collaboration is difficult. Parent institutions are focused on local value, and it may sometimes be difficult to justify or explain investment in cross institutional activity. Requirements change in ways that don’t always align with consortial evolution. It may be challenging to take a systemwide view from an individual library perspective. However, there are some striking areas where we might have greater consensus.
  • These include agreement about appropriate levels of investment in shared activity, patterns of when and how to consort, models of successful consortial activity, and a view of optimum sourcing and scaling choices in particular circumstances. And, critically, about network level shared activity (where the network is at national or higher level).

 Scaling learning and innovation is a central driver …

  • The research and learning practices of library users are changing, the information environment is diversifying, and cooperative service opportunities are amplified, all under the influence of network and digital approaches. The imperative to understand this environment and to evaluate appropriate responses is strong.
  • Groups play an increasingly central role as they mobilize their networks to scale learning and move innovation into practice. Learning and innovation are emergent features of shared practices and interaction.
  • The soft power of consortia to convene and scale learning and innovation should be explicitly encouraged, acknowledging there will be increased competition among venues with a specific focus on scaling learning and innovation.

 Libraries will need to rationalize their affiliations …

  • Collectively libraries invest a major resource in maintaining and participating in consortial organizations. It may seem that the opportunity costs of participation are sometimes too high, that the general lack of planned coherence can be a drag on development,  that effort may be diffused across redundant organizations with unclear scope. And that all of this can prevent any one organization from achieving the scale efficiencies or impact that are really possible.
  • At the same time, additional investment in shared capacity may actually be needed to achieve the benefits libraries need most.
  • This creates an inevitable tension:  libraries need to collaborate more, and more effectively, and need better organizational frameworks to do so; yet they may find that the current configuration of collaborations is not yielding the desired results. Accordingly, there is a feeling that libraries participate in shared activities both too much and not enough.
  • However, it is not simply more collaboration that is needed – it is a strategic view of collaboration, especially where there are new infrastructure demands (for example, for shared digital preservation, web archiving or research data management), increased challenges for advocacy (around value and values), and growing competition between libraries and other network information service providers (for example, for research support services).
  • This underlines how individual library reliance on consortial activity is variable. And we should see libraries become more purposeful about what portion of their budget to earmark for collective activities that advance their mission faster, more cheaply, or otherwise more effectively than going it alone, and about ensuring that those dollars are directed to the organizations that can achieve what is desired.

Libraries can scale services and influence in several ways. The consortial approach will remain a central if challenging choice, all the more challenging as libraries need to work hard to work together effectively.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following people for generous comments on earlier drafts: Gwen Evans, Mike Furlough, Kevin Guthrie, Susan Haigh, Brian Lavoie, Kirsten Leonard, John MacColl, Constance Malpas, Barbara Preece, Judy Ruttenberg, Katherine Skinner, John Wilkin, Nicola Wright. Of course, I alone am responsible for the use to which I have put their advice and they do not necessarily share any of the views expressed here! I presented some of this material at the JULAC 50th Anniversary Conference in Hong Kong, and I benefited from the views outlined in the formal responses of Peter Sidorko and Louise Jones. I am especially grateful to my colleague Constance Malpas for extensive commentary.

The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity for impact and efficiency

  1. The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence
  2. The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation  
  3. The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity
  4. The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and scaling

 Scaling capacity (building shared infrastructure and services) and scaling influence (aggregating a library voice to lobby or persuade) are historically core consortial activities. They are now more important than ever as libraries seek to increase impact and efficiency by working together and as issues of value and values come to the fore in changing service, funding and political contexts.

scaling

Scaling capacity

Libraries and related organizations group together to scale capacities such as infrastructure, expertise or services. Motivations are to achieve economies of scale (through shared systems infrastructure, for example), or to increase impact (through an aggregate discovery service, for example), or to concentrate expertise and resources (through negotiation services, or training provision, for example). Think of the following which occur in various combinations.

  • There are many library and educational organizations whose primary purpose is to combine purchasing power and to negotiate and license on behalf of a group. Examples here would be CRKN in Canada, Jisc Collections in the UK or NERL in the US. This is a core competence of such groups and may be leveraged more broadly on occasion. For example, OhioLINK is working on textbook licensing with the Ohio Department of Education.
  • It often makes sense to share infrastructure across groups of libraries. Think of the ILS in Orbis Cascade Alliance or PALNI, for example. Or the way HathiTrust or CRL concentrate the infrastructure required to manage digitized and print collections respectively. Or the national/regional bibliographic infrastructure organizations that provide union catalog, resource sharing and other services in many parts of the world (Bibsys in Norway, for example, or ABES, DBC, and IZUM in France, Denmark and Slovenia respectively). Or how the Digital Preservation Network – and its participant nodes – aims to create shared distributed preservation infrastructure in the US. Or how the California Digital Library or The Scholar’s Portal provide a range of infrastructure services to the University of California and Ontario academic libraries, respectively. The nature of infrastructure provision evolves as library services evolve. So, for example, various consortia are now looking at shared provision of research support services (research data management, institutional repository, scholarly publishing, and so on).
  • We are seeing greater consolidation of collections or data. HathiTrust, just mentioned, is an interesting example, where a centralized, network-level resource is now seen to make sense for many reasons. We are beginning to see greater concentration of print collections also, as collective stores emerge (Recap or UKRR for example), and as individual libraries manage down their collections. CRL has long been active in this area. In response to this trend, some existing consortia have developed shared print programs (e.g. BTAA) while some new ones have also been formed to address the issue (e.g. West). In some cases we are beginning to see consortia move to more formal shared arrangements to jointly manage their ‘collective collections.’ Research data management also provides interesting group examples where universities are thinking about where best to manage data, and we see consortial (e.g. 4tu.datacentre in the Netherlands) and national responses (e.g. CARL Portage in Canada, ANDS in Australia, or DANS in the Netherlands). Of course, the journal literature has been consolidated for a while, and lends itself to provision by a small number of third party providers (publishers, aggregators). That said, some library organizations continue to locally load data where it aligns with a local mission of access or ownership. OhioLINK is an example.
  • Discovery naturally moves to the network level. We are now familiar with large gravitational hubs which aggregate audiences for discovery – Google, Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and so on. Similarly, DPLA or WorldCat scale discovery to the network level in the library community. Discovery is also important at the consortial level, where an organization like OhioLINK or BTAA aggregates both discovery and fulfilment within their domain. And over the next few years we will see the further evolution of discovery to delivery networks which progressively streamline the logistics of moving library materials between shared and local nodes of the relevant collective collection, informed by richer decision support systems. Libraries Australia, Sabinet in South Africa, the Ivies Plus group, and JULAC provide additional examples. Of special interest here is the shift from discovery to discoverability. In an environment where discovery increasingly happens elsewhere (in Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, ResearchGate, and so on), libraries become more interested in effectively disclosing their resources to network services, to making them more discoverable. Services like DPLA and WorldCat.org play a role here, as do other aggregation services.
  • Expertise is an important shared resource, and consortia are useful mechanisms for shared acquisition of scarce expertise, for sharing expertise across members, or for concentrating expertise around particular consortial activities.
  • Consortia may provide various other services where it does not make sense for all members to individually and redundantly develop their own capacity – copyright clearance, accessibility assessment, and so on, depending on local circumstances and scale.
And over the next few years we will see the further evolution of discovery to delivery networks which progressively streamline the logistics of moving library materials between shared and local nodes of the relevant collective collection,… Click To Tweet

Of course, it is usual for many organizations, including some mentioned above, to work across multiple areas. The Scholars Portal is an especially interesting provider of multiple shared services (digital storage, inter library lending, negotiation/licensing, local loading of content, research data management, and others) to members of OCUL (Ontario Council of University Libraries). OCLC scales capacity in important ways for the library community. It has created networks which allow thousands of libraries to collaborate at scale to catalog materials, to share collections, and to make those collections more discoverable.

At a more broadly educational level, an organization like Internet 2 scales shared capacity to the national level, with an explicit mission of managing infrastructure so that individual researchers and institutions do not have to.

Scaling capacity is difficult. The coordination costs are high – between libraries and between groups and their providers. Personalities and politics are at play in any collaborative activity. For many organizations there is a learning curve as they build capacity. Once in place, it may be difficult to create economies of scale, to generate investment for infrastructure development, to sustain the service. And one can point to examples where services have not continued.

Where there is a sustained need, and where coordination costs go down, third party providers may step in to run the service. However, such transitions are also difficult. In fact, the sourcing question is a central one for groups. Should they build a service or contract with a third party to provide it? Some consortia have local development capacity and may consider building shared services themselves (see the Scholars’ Portal services provided by OCUL, for example). Others do not have this capacity but do have an active role in negotiating and contracting for services with third parties. Of course, each approach may be pursued side by side.

However achieved, scaling capacity is crucial. It does not make sense for individual libraries to locally develop all the capacity they need. That said, there is no consistent pattern: libraries are variably inserted in collaborative arrangements, and the number and quality of those arrangements are always being reviewed.

These issues make the discussion of sourcing and rightscaling central, and I return to this in the fourth blog entry in this series.

Scaling influence.

Many library groups have an advocacy or representative role.

Those that represent the professional interests of individual members (e.g. ALA, Lianza) typically exist at national or other jurisdictional levels, and often play a leading advocacy role in lobbying government organizations on behalf of library interests and those of their users. Given their individual membership model, we do not usually think of these groups as consortia. However, their interests do overlap with those collaborative organizations who represent the institutional interests of certain types of library (e.g. ARL, ULC, LIBER or RLUK). Again, these typically exist at national or other jurisdictional level and the public policy interest is central. These organizations certainly have consortial characteristics, pulling together library members, and their activities sometimes overlap with more service-oriented consortia.

A collaborative group may also exist to exert influence within a particular topic. SPARC is a notable example here, seeking to aggregate the influence of members around open access issues. COAR is another example, advocating on behalf of the repository community and open access.

Scaling influence may be especially important in an emerging area where service or policy norms are lacking or where existing norms may be challenged. This was important for HathiTrust in its early days, for example, as it explored what was possible in the copyright environment. The Open Text Network provides an interesting current example.

Of course, these organizations also engage in other activities – some provide shared infrastructure or negotiation services. The extent to which they scale capacity in this way, taking on operational services, is an interesting scoping question to which I return in the next post. Many have a strong role in mobilizing their networks around scaling learning and innovation. In fact, such mobilization is probably key to success for those organizations that persist.

The emphasis on scaling influence has become much stronger in recent years, as libraries focus on value and values, on positioning and taking positions, in a contested environment.

The emphasis on scaling influence has become much stronger in recent years, as libraries focus on value and values, on positioning and taking positions, in a contested environment. Click To Tweet

Value and positioning. Libraries are embedded in complex and evolving policy, service and funding environments, and are keen to ensure that their actual and potential contribution is recognized. This is especially the case where there is downward pressure on public funding, where there are many players in the network information environment who appear to offer substitute services, and where the practices of research, learning and creative work are diversifying. The role of the library itself is changing, as it engages more strongly and in different ways with the life of its community. This makes it important to clearly communicate the contribution of the library, and to develop strong stories which help refashion the expectations the community has of the library. It also makes it important to develop an evidence base that individual libraries can draw upon. The recent From Awareness to Funding work by PLA and OCLC is a good example here.

From awareness to funding
From Awareness to Funding

Values and taking positions. Libraries are partners and advocates in the creative lives of their communities. They advocate for the interests of those communities, and this means taking a position when potentially conflicting interests are in play – in relation to copyright, for example, to scholarly communication, to net neutrality, to access to public information. They are advocates for the interests of researchers, learners and citizens as creators and consumers of information in a changing environment, for the interests of communities as they preserve their identity and experiences, for the interests of citizens as they access resources for personal development or civic engagement.

Where the value and values of libraries are contested it is critical that the library community scales its influence purposefully and effectively. This prompts an obvious question – is the library community too fragmented here as elsewhere? There are many groups keen to exert influence: when does one organization engage with an issue or leave it to others? How do organizations align their positions? Should there be a leading voice? Would efforts to influence policy be strengthened by groups acting in concert?

Libraries are interested in creating powerful stories about their role and in developing shared evidence and arguments in support of these. This is as they seek both to position the library within their local institutions and to influence public policy and funding agencies.

Library organizations who scale influence have a special responsibility when faced with political, funding and service uncertainty, and in a time of surveillance, algorithmic retrieval and polarized media. They need to be strong advocates for library value and values, and to be effective resources for individual libraries.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following people for generous comments on earlier drafts: Gwen Evans, Mike Furlough, Kevin Guthrie, Susan Haigh, Brian Lavoie, Kirsten Leonard, Rick Lugg, John MacColl, Constance Malpas, Barbara Preece, Judy Ruttenberg, Katherine Skinner, John Wilkin, Nicola Wright. Of course, I alone am responsible for the use to which I have put their advice and they do not necessarily share any of the views expressed here! I presented some of this material at the JULAC 50th Anniversary Conference in Hong Kong, and I benefited from the views outlined in the formal responses of Peter Sidorko and Louise Jones.

The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence

This is the first of 4 blog posts about library consortia. I will link to the others here as they appear:

  1. The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence
  2. The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation
  3. The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity
  4. The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and scaling

Scaling capacity, learning, innovation and influence

Libraries and related organizations group together in a variety of ways to get their work done. They consort where there are scale advantages: to lobby, for example, to negotiate and license, to reduce costs, or to build shared infrastructure. The ‘soft power’ of such groups is also important – the relationship building, the trust, the sharing of learning and innovation that comes from working together over time is an important reason that such groups persist.

They consort where there are scale advantages: to lobby, for example, to negotiate and license, to reduce costs, or to build shared infrastructure. Click To Tweet

In each case, libraries recognize that collective action or building shared capacity delivers scale benefits.

scaling

In this context, it is interesting to think about collaboration for scale in four areas: influence, learning, innovation and capacity. Some collaborative organizations span several of these areas, some are more specialized. In all these areas consortial or collective activity potentially creates scale advantages.

Organizations which primarily scale influence have an advocacy or representative role, and are often at national (e.g. ALA, RLUK) or international (e.g. LIBER, IFLA) levels, or come together around particular issues (e.g. SPARC around open access). A regional dimension is often very important for organizations which scale capacity (e.g. OhioLINK or OCUL), either for logistical reasons or because there is public support (at the level of a state or province, or at national level). Other organizations may pull together peer groups (e.g. PALNI or Ivies Plus) or particular functional or interest groups (e.g. DPN or Duraspace). And in an environment of evolving user expectations and behaviors, there is a growing recognition that libraries need to think purposefully about shared approaches to learning and innovation which better prepare them to respond to new needs. Some groups are focused on learning and innovation (e.g. CNI or the Digital Preservation Coalition), while it is also increasingly an important part of all groups.

Of course, groups come into existence and persist for different reasons and in different ways. But they often have overlapping roles and individual libraries typically support several. The organizational context of collaborative or consortial activity is surprisingly little explored in the library literature, in terms of incentives, organizational patterns, successful models, etc. There is certainly a descriptive body of work about classic library consortia (such consortia are often organized around some combination of licensing, resource sharing and training, or sometimes manage a shared library system), but the more general perspective is missing. It is this gap which prompts this series of blog entries.

The organizational context of collaborative or consortial activity is surprisingly little explored in the library literature, in terms of incentives, organizational patterns, successful models, etc. Click To Tweet

In four blog entries I am going to consider library consortia or collaborative organizations using this framework. I have two purposes:

  1. The first is to ask some questions about the shape and dynamics of consortia, in order to contribute to thinking about an important and underexamined topic. Clearly, this can only be preliminary and suggestive in this form; I offer some observations, rather than a full grounded analysis. I use some simple heuristic frameworks to structure my discussion (scaling influence/learning/innovation/capacity and scoping/sourcing/rightscaling), while acknowledging that a fuller treatment might generate better approaches. I would note in particular that there is a large literature on organizations across several disciplines which would provide a valuable context for the examination of collaborative library work.
  2. The second is to underline how scaling learning and innovation have become important shared concerns in complex times, and deserve increased investment of both attention and resources.

In this introductory post I put consortial activity in the context of other approaches to scaling, and I touch on some general issues that will be discussed in more detail in later posts. In particular I am interested in scoping, sourcing and (right)scaling, three ways in which choices about collaborative activity need to be made.

Patterns of scaling

Of course, collaborative activity is only one way in which libraries acquire shared services or connect to broader resources, or in other words scale their capabilities. Reductively, one can point to three patterns which deliver shared library services at a level above the institution.

  1. Public – Shared infrastructure or services is provided through a public agency or with public support, often involving national (or regional) coordination. Think variously of services historically provided by Jisc in the UK, or the regional bibliographic networks in Germany, or Libraries Australia, or Bibsys in Norway. This is a common pattern outside the US, although within the US there is often some support through state-supported agencies (e.g. OhioLINK).
  2. Collaborative – A group of libraries works together to get something done. Formality, size and scope vary enormously. This collaboration often takes the form of a consortium, and libraries support many consortia.
  3. Third party – A shared service can be bought from a provider (publisher, system vendor, aggregator, etc). Consultancy is another example of a third party service, as a way of scaling learning by tapping into broader expertise or experience. Of course, this is a major way in which libraries scale their services – for example this is largely how they acquire the journal literature, automation, and other central services.

These three patterns may be layered or blurred in various ways. A library may collaboratively source a service through a consortium, but the consortium may then contract with a third party to actually provide it (a shared library management system for example, or a digital preservation service). In fact, one important function of collaborative or public provision is to efficiently or cost-effectively procure shared services from third parties. Publicly supported groups may have a strong collaborative element, or have contributions from members; OhioLINK is an example here. Jisc in the UK describes itself as a ‘membership’ organization – it is moving from its centrally publicly funded model to one in which universities and others subscribe to benefit from services.

So, while library collaboration (typically through consortia) is my major focus here, intersections with public and third party provision are frequent.

Contrasts in consortial activity

The variety of library collaborations is great, and this translates into great variety of consortial organizations and directions. These also change over time. By way of example, I note three important contrasts about consortial activity here.

  • Single-purpose or multi-purpose. Some groups may specialize around one function or direction. SPARC for example is focused on an open agenda. HathiTrust is focused on preservation of and access to the digitized collections of its members, in support – more broadly – of the preservation of the scholarly and cultural record. However, other groups may do many things. Take PALNI for example. PALNI is a consortium of private academic libraries in Indiana, and provides a range of services around a deep collaboration focus – sharing infrastructure, expertise, and other capabilities of member libraries. PALNI will adapt to support the changing priorities of its members, and so, for example, it recently developed programmatic support for digital scholarship. In this way, there may be an interesting balance between economies of scope (where, for example, it makes sense for members to centralise a variety of different functions with a consortium, including shared infrastructure and attention to evolving service areas) and economies of scale (where the costs of providing a service, including infrastructure, marketing, R&D, etc, are spread across many participants, as in, for example, HathiTrust). Of course, many third-party providers exploit economies of scale to deliver services in focused areas (e.g. cloud system providers, aggregators, publishers). A related issue here is the relative homogeneity of members. The intersection of member interests bounds the scope of the consortium. Where a consortium comprises members of different types (large, small; academic, public) then the intersection of interests may need be quite tightly scoped (resource sharing, for example) to achieve desired advantages and the consortium may be focused on those. Where consortium members form more of a peer group, then the intersection of interests is greater, and the consortium may move shared concerns forward across a broader range.
  • Agent or provider. There is no one model of collaboration. Libraries may work together informally to get things done. They may add progressively more structure: convene member working groups, hire staff, hire an executive director, constitute the collaboration as an independent entity. Of course, once the collaboration is structured as an independent entity, it has to sustain itself and issues of alignment and governance come to the fore. Over time, this may become more important as original personalities or organizational contexts may change, new requirements may emerge, activities may grow or become more diverse. As the organization grows, it may outgrow the ability or interest of members to entirely support its activities it through dues and it may seek to diversify revenue streams by offering additional services, applying for grants, and so on. This means that the balance between the group as a direct agent of the member library interest, a collective resource to be directed, as it were, and the group as a provider to the libraries, independently developing potential products, can change. As a provider, the consortium needs to supply support and training, upgrade the service in line with user expectations, and generally offer the support that libraries might expect from third party providers. This means in turn that services are potentially compared with those of third party providers – think of, for example, of a shared institutional repository provided by the consortium, and the comparison to, say, bepress. This service relationship can change the dynamic between members and consortium. Size is an important factor here also, given that as an organization grows it may be difficult for all members to directly participate in decision making. One important dynamic is where the membership is no longer a mutually ‘known community’ with regular social interaction. Other factors are diversification of funding, or different types of library served. As size or complexity grows in this way, so likely does the focus on representative and decision-making structures in governance, and on the role, accountability and authority of the executive director. Typically, an executive director will be accountable to the membership for decisions through a representative Board. The balance between agent and provider is an important contributor to the sense of ownership and belonging that members will have towards a consortium, as is the participation in governance mechanisms.
  • Collective action and rightscaling. Consortia are effectively a response to a collective action question (is it more efficient to solve some questions in a group, or to turn to a group to acquire capabilities you cannot generate internally?), which in turn raises a right-scaling question (at what level is action desirable, or what is the optimum size of a group?). For many issues, a regional scale is important, where personal networks within that known community are an important part of the value a consortium delivers. For others, especially in a network environment, it makes sense to scale to much broader groups. For example, OCLC has built platforms on which thousands of libraries collaborate at scale around cataloging, resource sharing and discoverability. Jisc provides infrastructure solutions which scale to the national level. Scale also becomes an important part of scoping decisions. There is one network-level HathiTrust, for example, which makes more sense than multiple regional ones. This again underlines the diversity of consortial activity, from locally-constituted groups to large providers of community infrastructure.
The intersection of member interests bounds the scope of the consortium. Click To Tweet

In each of these cases, there is a spectrum of choices or evolving stages. One of the more interesting things about this space is how groups can evolve: consortia may change over time as circumstances and environment change.

For many issues, a regional scale is important, where personal networks within that known community are an important part of the value a consortium delivers. Click To Tweet

So, for example think of a group that is set up to serve a single purpose – over time, this purpose may shift, or other activities may be added. In some cases, a consortium can evolve into a general collaborative apparatus that members reflexively turn to when new or shared needs arise. In this way they may reduce the cost of building a new service, partnership or network from scratch. However, it also means that the consortium needs to be clear about what the appropriate response is – developing a service, contracting for a service, ruling it out of scope, and so on. Consortia may also want to attract new members, and evolve services in that context. The evolution of Lyrasis in recent years is an interesting example of diversification.

Similarly, the transition from agent to provider may be prompted by various steps. For example a university hosted consortium is a common model. However, a decision may be made to independently incorporate to get more flexibility – to avoid university procurement or HR processes for example. If a group develops shared infrastructure, there may be a decision to diversify revenue or to grow membership to support greater capital investment for R&D, platform development, and so on.

If a group develops shared infrastructure, there may be a decision to diversify revenue or to grow membership to support greater capital investment for R&D, platform development, and so on. Click To Tweet

Finally, it may make sense to carry out some activity at a broader level. The ‘O’ in OCLC originally stood for Ohio: it was an organization set up to provide shared services to Ohio colleges. It has grown to serve thousands of libraries around the world, as the services it provides benefit from network effects. HathiTrust was originally set up at a BTAA level. It quickly grew to operate at a national scale, and is also looking at an international membership model. In other cases, an organization may deliberately restrict growth; trusted interaction with a known local ‘known community’ may be an important attribute which the group wishes to maintain.

These three cases are examples respectively of what I later discuss under scoping (what is the appropriate range of activity?), sourcing (how should the activity be procured?) and rightscaling (at what level should the activity be carried out?).

Conclusion

For convenience in these posts, I use the terms ‘consortia’ or ‘collaborative groups’ to refer to organizations which support some form of general collective activity, and which are supported by libraries, acknowledging that this may not always be the term used in a specific context.

Given the scale of the US – in terms of both the size of the sector and geographic extent – and the comparative absence of the overarching national public provision which is present in many other countries, it offers many examples of collaborative activity at different levels. While I emphasize the US in my examples, I also include some developments from other countries. In general, where I provide examples, I do not comment on how effective or efficient a particular approach is.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following people for generous comments on earlier drafts: Gwen Evans, Mike Furlough, Kevin Guthrie, Susan Haigh, Brian Lavoie, Kirsten Leonard, Rick Lugg, John MacColl, Constance Malpas, Barbara Preece, Judy Ruttenberg, Katherine Skinner, John Wilkin, Nicola Wright. Of course, I alone am responsible for the use to which I have put their advice and they do not necessarily share any of the views expressed here! I presented some of this material at the JULAC 50th Anniversary Conference in Hong Kong, and I benefited from the views outlined in the formal responses of Peter Sidorko and Louise Jones.