Customer relations

Journal publishers are more interested in librarians than they ever used to be. The move to e-journals and big deals has changed the balance between individual and institutional  subscriptions, making libraries more important to publishers than, say, fifteen years ago. Publishers are keen now to understand how librarians make spending decisions and what affects the decision-making process.   Many publishers have some kind of library advisory board or group, and invite librarians to junkets  executive briefings  focus groups to brief them and hear their thoughts. Mostly they target high-powered University Librarians but sometimes they make a mistake and invite me instead.

I went to one the other week organised by one of the big publishers, and it was a bit different. It was explicitly targeted at “government libraries”.  They took a fairly broad definition of that term, as being any publicly-funded organisation that was not in education or healthcare. Thus there were some central Government department libraries, some quangos’ libraries, some police and legal libraries, and some research institute libraries represented. We probably all felt initially that we had little in common with the other attendees, but by the end we’d made connections and all felt that the event had been useful and should be repeated.

Part of the success of the day was its interactive nature, encouraged by an expert facilitator. There were two main breakout sessions, where we split into smaller groups and discussed

  1. Our e-content strategy
  2. What we wanted in a business model for e-content

These certainly got us talking, and I hope gave the publisher some insight into what our world is like. Most of the librarians agreed that we didn’t have one, at least not one formally expressed. I found it difficult to understand even the questions that we were set about e-content strategy – they just did not relate to the environment that I work in. It was encouraging to hear that most of the others in the room had a similar experience. As for business models, it was probably unwise to ask us!  We agreed that we wanted as much as possible, as flexibly as possible, for as low a price as possible.

There were a couple of presentations.  One was an attempt at an overview of e-content strategy.  It was marred by too much emphasis on one particular rather large, unrepresentative and (dare I say?) arrogant library.  The speaker did make some good points:

  • Moving from print to electronic resources will entail losing some control over your collection
  • Publishers’ packages are not always helpful as they include unwanted material along with useful material
  • User surveys and feedback can be valuable but don’t represent the full picture
  • Benchmarking against other libraries and broad surveys of the market are of limited value if they don’t reflect local circumstances
  • The knowledge and experience of the librarian are crucial

The last three points in particular I found encouraging, reminding me that there is a place for professional judgement, to say “It is important that we do XYZ”.

The other presentation was about the publisher’s approach to Open Access. I had thought I was well-informed about OA developments, but I learned a few things I hadn’t known before, e.g. they publish a mega-journal that I had never heard of.

I thought it was interesting that Open Access was brought up in the context of e-content strategy. I can see that right now there is a strong link between journal subscriptions and open access, and libraries are managing both.  But if we move forward several years I would expect that link to be weakened.  I think Open Access will be seen as part of an organisation’s research strategy rather than part of its content strategy.

I would have liked it if we had spent more time discussing ebooks. Some other delegates said they saw books and journals all as one continuum of e-content, but I still think of them as rather different kinds of beasts, hunted and devoured differently. I am much less clear about the way forward for books than I am for journals.

So, a good time was had by all (and not just because the event was followed by cocktails in the hotel bar!).  I think it could have been more interesting still if there had been two or three other major publishers there.  Perhaps we should suggest that UKSG organise an event for the “Government libraries” sector, or organise our own event and invite several publishers along.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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