We librarians live in a nonprofit world founded on a belief in serving the common good. Trusting by nature, we have yet to learn how to protect ourselves when doing business in the competitive world of information brokering. Businesses supposedly price according to the old adage "Charge what the market will bear." As purchasing librarians, we are the market, yet we have allowed the cost of databases to get completely out of hand. The time has come for the market to correct itself—with a little help from us.
In 1993, the year I started working in libraries, there were reputedly 284 locations on the entire World Wide Web. Within a few years, over 170 million domain names were in use. Between 1998 and 2001, when I was lucky enough to have my first directorship in a small library in Pennsylvania, spending on subscription databases had increased from $17 million to $50 million a year. Fortunately, Pennsylvania had instituted a program called AccessPA Power Library (now facing state cuts, see News, p. 12), which made a host of subscription databases available to libraries free of charge from the State Library. At the time, we were all aware that we needed to market our databases to the public, convinced that they were not being used simply because the public did not know what was available.
Back then, the advantages of simultaneous users, remote access, and freed-up shelf space had us all giddy, and we allowed anticipation of usage to define pricing. We accepted the idea of billing based on population or number of patrons, even though we had no usage statistics to show whether this made sense economically.
Now that we have these statistics, we must ask whether the original pricing model makes sense. Perhaps a pricing mechanism based on actual usage would be better, especially as rumblings are being heard about the need to increase database usage, cut database budgets, or both. By looking at current usage statistics, rather than projected usage, we could see more easily whether we could justify the expense of a particular database.
If we insisted on making usage statistics the focus, so that pricing reflected actual demand rather than what we hoped to achieve, we would be doing due diligence—and reducing upfront costs. Certainly, vendors would then have to take a more active role in promoting their products to the public. Database publishers would have to recognize that while there are costs associated with access and updating, they are saving on printing costs and cannot indulge in price gouging. (Are we subsidizing the costs of print with our online subscriptions?) And both vendors and pubishers would have to recognize that we are now beyond the need to price by expectation—the results are already in.
Supply and demand
How closely do we follow web page statistics, much less individual database stats? Probably not as much as we should. In our defense, maybe the technology for measuring these statistics was not there before, but why didn't we ask for it to be created? And why aren't we demanding that it be used now? Of course, vendors might be reluctant to volunteer this level of support; it could mean lower fees for their products. But, as the market for these databases, we would save.
At the moment, there is no meaningful relationship between database supply and demand in the library world. We have created the demand for products that we helped produce. We are effectively testing the products, but our vendors often capture information from our tax-supported programs or projects, use it to create new products, and then turn around and resell these products back to us. No question, there's "learning by doing" here for publisher, vendor, and library, but we aren't being smart about our contribution to the process and the need to fight for what serves us best.
Subscription-based vs. general
Maybe we are trying too hard. Often a patron comes into the library wanting a simple answer for a simple question, and we bombard them with a range of resources. Given a choice between vertical, specialized databases that are subscription- or fee-based and horizontal, general databases or search engines, we opt for the former under the assumption that they alone are authoritative and can be trusted. But as more information becomes available for free, this argument holds less sway.
Right now, librarians are essentially marketing often unknown products to the public, but shouldn't our mission be simply to provide these products, not create a need we have no hope of filling? And shouldn't the cost of these products be based on actual demand? In classic McLuhanese, the quality of the massage/message can only be determined by the receiver. What kind of deals have your sales reps been offering you recently to renew? Do you think that this has been out of generosity and good will? Or perhaps we are seeing a crash of the authoritative database market comparable to the current fiscal crisis, giving us an opportunity to reinvent a world where information just wants to be free.