Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Steven J. Bell, Temple University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University;
Barbara Fister,
Gustavus Adolphus College;
 Larry Hardesty, College Library Directors' Mentor Program;
Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University;
William A. Mayer, American University; Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;


Vol. 31, No. 5                          printable version (pdf)   home

May 2011



Patron-driven Acquisitions (PDA):
The New Wave in Book Acquisitions is Coming

By William Miller

A sea change is upon us as libraries increasingly turn to their users to help define what books should be purchased, and sometimes allow the users to generate the orders themselves, without any mediation between librarians and the user. This process goes by many names: patron-driven acquisitions, patron-initiated purchases, user-driven acquisitions, on-demand acquisitions. Automation and the advent of the electronic book make this process much easier and faster than it could have been a decade ago. Budget reductions have helped to foster this process also, because as budgets become ever more constrained, libraries want to be sure that money spent results in the purchase of items which will be actively and immediately useful. Patron-driven acquisitions can help.

Traditional Means of Book Acquisitions

A decade from now, the idea that an academic library would spend hundreds of dollars on a book, not only ordering it but also processing it, cataloging it, shelving it, and housing it, without any assurance that anyone would ever actually use it, will probably strike us as hopelessly old-fashioned and wasteful.

The way most libraries order books now, the traditional model of what librarians call “collection development,” is based on the belief that librarians should proactively purchase what they have reason to believe that students will need for courses, and faculty will need for research, based on an in-depth knowledge of academic programs and faculty research. In this paradigm, the ideal compliment from a faculty member would be “I didn’t bother to suggest that the library buy this title, because I knew that you would order it.” At its best, this “just-in-case” model can be effective, especially for standard or classic titles, because there is nothing like having the item already at hand when one needs it.

Individual librarian selections have normally been supplemented by approval plans, in which books are automatically shipped to a library upon publication based on a predetermined profile, with the understanding that unwanted items could be sent back without purchase, or by paper (or electronic) slips representing the books which librarians or faculty could select and order to be shipped. Money is normally set aside for individual faculty and departments to request specific titles also. Such allocations, and purchases resulting from faculty (or student) request, are certainly a form of “patron-driven acquisitions,” albeit a rather slow one.

Inevitably, however, there are many titles that even the largest library will not own, at the moment that someone needs it, and interlibrary loan (ILL) was the traditional answer to access the “long tail” of the vast universe of publications which someone might conceivably request. In the journal article space, such needs could be fulfilled more quickly and easily by suppliers such as the British Library (or today through the newer RAPID ILL) which provide article fulfillment services specifically geared to fast response. Articles could be photocopied and mailed, or even faxed, and now sent digitally also.  In the world of books, however, libraries had little choice, a decade or two ago, but to rush-order the purchase, or hope that the first library they requested the book from would be willing and able to supply it, with minimal time lag. Even after the advent of OCLC and RLIN holdings symbols in cataloging systems took the guesswork out of interlibrary loan requests, speed was still a luxury seldom enjoyed.

Increasingly, however, libraries have turned to book ordering as a replacement for requesting the loan of the book from another library. ILL requests are actually very expensive as well as very slow, and result in no lasting benefit for the borrowing library. Rush-ordering the book, and perhaps lending it to requestor before it is cataloged and processed, was an effective if expensive approach to acquiring in-print books. Many libraries discovered that books purchased in lieu of requesting them from other libraries were more frequently circulated, subsequently, than books ordered through the normal process, and hence added value to the collection.

Turning to the User for Collection Development

Virtually all libraries have long accepted user suggestions for book purchases, so there is really nothing new about that, but new advances in electronic resources now make a quantum leap possible in the world of user involvement in book acquisition. Try as they might, librarians are not mind readers or fortune-tellers. No librarian can guess correctly, in advance, about everything his or her users will want, or be able to anticipate all new research interests or developments in changing fields. And given the volume of publishing that still proliferates, no library can be truly comprehensive, or afford to buy everything its users might want, “just in case,” even with extensive funding.

 User needs grow and change, and new fields develop, necessitating access to unanticipated scholarly resources. This has been dramatically demonstrated not only by the ever-increasing volume of ILL requests, but also by the surprising response to the large electronic journal packages which libraries have been subscribing to for more than a decade now.

Librarians have traditionally thought they knew which journals their users needed.  However, as the electronic era made it feasible for the large journal publishers to offer all of their titles to a library for not much more in cost than that of selected titles, and libraries began subscribing to these “big deal” bundles, librarians soon found that many titles they would never have purchased were nevertheless being used. This greater availability of journal literature, even though some of it might have seemed marginal or out of scope, nevertheless exposed users to titles they were not previously aware of, and in some cases avoided interlibrary loan requests.


“Libraries can now turn, with at least a portion of their resources, to a “just-in-time” model
of acquisition, and even empower their users to trigger the acquisition,
rather than the just-in-case model traditionally employed.”


Conversely, studies conducted in the 1970s at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere since that time have repeatedly shown that approximately half of the books purchased by academic libraries remain honored, as Shakespeare would say, in the breach—they sit unused, for years, and in some cases for their entire lives. Perhaps “they also serve who only stand and wait,” but the purchase, processing, and storage of physical books which are not actually used amounts to a huge waste of institutional resources.

The advent of e-books and electronic records which can be loaded into online catalogs now allow for vast change in the acquisitions process. Libraries can now turn, with at least a portion of their resources, to a “just-in-time” model of acquisition, and even empower their users to trigger the acquisition, rather than the just-in-case model traditionally employed.

The models are still evolving, but are based on the ability to add what look like holdings records into a library’s catalog, without actually purchasing the items in question. After one or more uses of such an electronic book, depending upon the vendor’s model and the arrangement which the library has negotiated, use might eventually result in purchase of the item, which then becomes an actual part of the library’s collection.  Alternatively, the library could in effect rent the item for a short-term use, paying a portion of the purchase price, and perhaps purchase the book outright only if subsequent uses validate the importance of the title. In either case, the user will be completely unaware that his or her use triggered a purchase, but the item has been available at the moment of need nevertheless, and not simply purchased and processed on a faith in its potential which might never be realized.

The swift adoption of e-readers presents another obvious avenue for patron-driven acquisitions. An item requested on interlibrary loan (or requested simply as a purchase), if it is available from Amazon’s or Barnes and Noble’s e-book stores, can simply be purchased on the machine, and loaned to the user that way. Alternatively, Nooks and Kindles or other e-readers could be loaned to users who would be allowed to download items of interest to them, up to a certain dollar amount. Such an approach would be particularly useful for recreational reading, which usually consumes at least a small portion of academic library budgets anyway.

Potential Pitfalls

There are obvious practical limitations to user empowerment.  “Budget authority” is not something given away lightly, and there may even be legal strictures to be overcome in doing so. Libraries can always give the vendor a dollar amount not to be exceeded. In any case, it would be the rare library that would wish to place all book purchase funds into the hands of the users, without any control or say over what is purchased.

Libraries, however, control the universe from which books can be selected by virtue of the records loaded into the catalog, so one would presume that all possible purchases are potentially valid. Librarians can also decide on various methods to control what is ultimately acquired, such as ruling out items the library already owns, or which are already owned by cooperative partners, as well as preventing the purchase of course textbooks, items freely available in the public domain, items clearly out of scope, pornography, etc. Some models also place the ultimate purchase decision in librarian hands, regardless of use.

Another practical issue may be the ability to load extensive electronic records into the library’s online catalog, for items which it does not own. This process may be time-consuming and technically challenging, especially when such records need to be backed out, or changed to ownership records in specific cases but not in all cases. These technical challenges can certainly be overcome in time.

Another downside of electronic book purchase has been that these books have generally not been available for interlibrary lending. However, MyiLibrary has recently signed an agreement to make its titles lendable through the OCLC ILL system, and that drawback will probably be worked through by other vendors over time. The same is true in the area of portable e-readers which cannot be used to download ebooks which the library owns; for instance, EBSCO Netlibrary books can be downloaded to the Nook, but not the Kindle. One can only hope that proprietary barriers will come down over time.

Yet one more issue is publisher reluctance to make books available in electronic form until print sales have subsided. One can only presume that this problem will disappear as electronic publication becomes the dominant mode.

Potential Benefits

The most obvious benefit of patron-driven acquisitions is that users have immediate access to the full text of books they need, without the time delays inherent in Interlibrary Loan, or even in going to the stacks to obtain the book physically.

The corresponding benefits, for libraries, are that they are able to satisfy user need more fully, in an immediate time frame, without having had to guess that the item in question was one that the user would have wanted. Simultaneously, they are building a collection of greater demonstrable use than the one they might have been able to create on their own, and have saved institutional resources in the process.


“Patron-driven acquisitions is just one more step in a process of disintermediation that has been going on for 50 years, in which librarians have disengaged themselves from circulating books, paging books from closed stacks, cataloging routine items, doing extensive database searches...in order to concentrate on higher-order tasks...”


It is human nature to fear the unknown, and librarians may initially fear “giving away” control to the users. Early results, however, indicate that although some caution must be exercised, the worst case scenarios rarely occur. People do order scholarly materials, by and large; student and faculty needs are met, quickly. Library budgets are spent on materials that are demonstrably used. Library collections are built based on demonstrated need.  And everyone’s time is saved.

An additional benefit for libraries is that staff can be freed up from routine, lower-order tasks, while still meeting user needs, perhaps an important consideration in an era when staffing levels are stagnant or even being reduced. Time saved could be devoted to more important activities, or simply respond to a reduction in available staffing.

Patron-driven acquisitions is just one more step in a process of disintermediation that has been going on for 50 years, in which librarians have disengaged themselves from circulating books, paging books from closed stacks, cataloging routine items, doing extensive database searches, etc. in order to concentrate on higher-order tasks, either through delegating work to support staff or by empowering the users to carry out tasks themselves.

Emerging Models: the Wild West

 Current vendor models for patron-driven acquisitions are, quite honestly, all over the place, and we are still in the experimental phase. Typical is the EBSCOhost model, in which a purchase is only triggered when “meaningful use” occurs. What is “meaningful use”? EBSCO defines it as an email of content, a download, or meaningful time spent viewing the book online (10 minutes or more). Other vendors define meaningful use as the printing of a page. Still other vendors define use in terms of the number of clicks—3 clicks on a book, or 10. To a certain extent, what constitutes meaningful use can be a matter of negotiation.

 One might assume that one advantage of an electronic book would be unlimited simultaneous access for multiple users, and that is indeed an electronic possibility, but as with electronic journals, vendors can meter and control use, and charge for it. Models include one user “check-out” so that only one person at a time can use the book, for a two-week check-out period; two simultaneous users, at double the price; and unlimited use, at a yet higher charge.

Publishers rarely create models that lose money, and basing electronic access on the model of the physical book is a good way to control access and charge for it. If an electronic book is “checked out” to someone, it could theoretically be recalled from the current user, placed on hold for the next user, or purchased yet again for the second simultaneous user (NetLibrary requires multiple purchases if more than one copy at a time is desired). However, libraries do not normally want to purchase additional copies of the same book, and the idea of placing a “hold” for an electronic book which is checked out to someone else, while feasible, is difficult to explain and implement.

A way around this problem is to purchase temporary access to titles, with a short-term lease plan which provides seamless immediate access to the user, who has no idea that the book is already in use by someone else. Indeed, it is possible to conduct the entire PDA process this way, in a model akin to the iTunes, pay-per-view method in which a small, set amount of money is paid for every use.  Alternatively, it is possible to negotiate an escalating model in which each subsequent use incurs a greater cost, culminating ultimately in a purchase if warranted by demand.

A most interesting model now being offered by Elsevier involves a payment up front, followed by a year of unlimited use of the entire publisher’s stock of ebooks. The cost of the books ultimately purchased (the percentage of discount from full price) is ultimately determined by the amount of the prepayment which the library has tendered. At the end of the year, or during the course of the year, the library can look at use of the materials and decide what to purchase, or not to purchase. The normal choice would be to purchase based on frequency of use, but if there is a reason not to do so (e.g. the person who used the materials has retired, moved to another institution, etc.) the library could still choose not to purchase. The up-front payment, if not “used up” by items which the library’s users have found valuable, could be spent on materials in areas related to items which have been found valuable. Access to the unpurchased corpus of books expires at the end of the year, if not resubscribed to.


“The primacy of electronic books will serve as the final death-knell for
size of physical collections as a criterion for library excellence.”


The main ebook vendors—EBL, Ebrary, MyiLibrary, and NetLibrary--currently offer 150,000+ to more than 250,000 titles, and of course this number will grow. These companies operate directly with libraries or through traditional library book vendors like Yankee Book Peddler. Individual publishers like Elsevier and Sage offer their own electronic book plans, and might or might not make some or all of those books available via the third-party vendors as well. Some vendors allow downloading to multiple devices, while others limit downloading to specific devices or using specific software. Some of the vendors impose set-up fees, and yearly maintenance and access fees.  

Long-term Implications

 As the public becomes increasingly accustomed to and comfortable with electronic books, it is inevitable that academic libraries will soon be spending the bulk of their book money on this format of book, as they already do for electronic journals. Libraries will soon be reexamining their collection development policies, and deciding if electronic access will normally be the preferred format for new books, with which exceptions, and whether rent or purchase will be the preferred option. Libraries will also be changing their technical services workflows to reflect this shift in acquisitions format. Fewer staff will be needed for physical processing, but more help may be needed in records management.

The primacy of electronic books will serve as the final death-knell for size of physical collections as a criterion for library excellence. Some things never change, however, and the role of libraries as the agents which pay for access to information will remain largely unchanged. Total expenditures for information will be the new criterion for excellence, along with new initiatives in publishing and digitization, as well as involvement in the teaching and research endeavor.

As librarians look for better ways to measure the value of their services, increase their effectiveness in support of teaching and research, and make the best use of scarce institutional resources, patron-driven access to electronic books will soon become a standard tool for academic libraries. Looking further down the line, pay-per-view models for access to journal literature are certainly coming, as subscription costs for “just in case” journal subscriptions become untenable, and ultimately, the distinctions between book and journal content will blur. The essential work of the library, however, will remain the same. Patron-driven access, to all information, will enable that work to be more efficient, and more targeted directly to the needs of the researchers than was possible using only the older just-in-case purchasing models.


Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 31 no. 5 © 2011 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $84/one year; $144/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $26 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: editor@libraryissues.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified:

May 2011


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