Library as Publisher Revenue Generator

Libraries can’t stand alone. They need partnerships and collaborations, and some of those come with costs. But I’ve found that there are lots of publishers who are interested in creating interesting solutions.  At the same time, the same publishers are just as happy to pitch ideas where the only net value is to them.  Here’s a case in point.

A legal publisher contacted us and suggested that we add links in our MARC catalog records that point to their e-resources.  Technologically, this is an easy thing to do.  Tactically, I like to have our catalog link to resources that our researchers can use without necessitating a library visit.  If we have a catalog record, it means we have a document in our collection.  We frequently link to public web documents, so that a researcher can get immediate access rather than having to touch the library for the same document.

But we don’t license their e-resources, only their print.  A link from our catalog would send our researchers into a paywall at the e-resource, unless the researcher had her own license.

That’s great for a legal publisher.  I can see the value to them of creating that workflow.  But it’s not great from the library service perspective.  We don’t use our catalog links to provide purchasing options.  This is a potential revenue source for public libraries, usually through an add on from an ILS provider, but those tend not to work with legal publishers.

From a researcher’s standpoint, they’ve just been sent to a dead end if they end up at a paywall.  If they buy, assuming a frictionless interaction, they get access and the publisher gets paid.  I’m assuming that anyone who already had a license wouldn’t have ended up at a catalog record for the title.  Which means that most or all of the clickthrough traffic would be dead ends, and that reflects badly on the library experience.

As Mickey says in Snatch, “Why would I want a caravan with no $%!*%!ing wheels?

Here are some options I’d prefer instead:

  1. Get URLs from the legal publisher that, if clicked on, allow free access to the eresource (a) even though we don’t license it and (b) regardless of whether the researcher has a license.  This would be similar to the soon-to-be-departed Google First Click Free idea.  But, like the demand-driven acquisition of the broader ebook market, we only pay if there’s an access.
  2. Some financial quid pro quo for providing the links.  These are ads, whether they resemble them or not.  Why should a library do legal publisher advertising for free?  In exchange for links, the publisher could provide in-house access to the e-resource for free, or librarian-only access so that we could do document delivery more easily than from our print collection.

The pitch should also have some basis in reality and be surrounded by metrics.  Let’s say the publisher was trying to promote e-books.  I don’t  believe legal publishers have cracked e-books yet.  A colleague of mine did a great summary of the state of the playing field.  I would think more than twice about deep-linking to ebooks.  The ebook platform would have to be browser and OS neutral, have an easy to use and intuitive interface, and be seamless to the researcher.  Otherwise it’s a non-starter.

If a legal publisher’s approach is net-neutral or net-negative for the library, it doesn’t make any sense.  Even if it’s a positive for the library, it also has to be a positive for the researcher.  The whole point of catalogs is to get people to information, and links to paywalls don’t cut it.  Publishers who want libraries to help them generate revenue should be up front about a revenue share or other offset, and the library should be upfront about being a reseller.



David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.