Guest Blog: Supporting Our Consortial Partners

Guest Blog from Cynthia Bassett, Collection Management & Electronic Services Librarian at University of Missouri School of Law.

I would like to confess – I made a mistake this fall while renewing access to a database that I think might have bigger ramifications in our profession than I am comfortable with. But let me rewind and give some context.

I am new to my role as the head of a Collection Management department. I have been an electronic services librarian for a number of years so I am familiar with providing access to a database and managing its life cycle. As an electronic services librarian, I did not participate in negotiations with vendors or decisions about which partners to work with to secure a purchase. The actual purchase of the databases had always been handled by my predecessor.

Since my predecessor’s retirement, I have begun to learn the acquisitions process. I have some influence (subject to director approval) regarding where I purchase a resource. This spring, I was having some difficulty working with a consortial partner to purchase a needed database. It was the only purchase that my library made with that particular consortium; I thought it would be easier to move the purchase to a consortium that I work with regularly, if the price was similar and reasonable. While in the process of making this change, I spoke to a vendor rep personally and they offered me a better deal to work directly with the vendor, cutting the consortium out of the middle. 

I took the deal. 

Of course, we had every right to take the deal. In the short term view, it was smart to take the deal because it saved my library money at a time when our budget has been cut and cut again. But I question why we were offered the deal in the first place and I think I made a rookie error that possibly weakens the profession at large by diminishing the purchasing power of the consortium. Much like a monopoly is harmful to the buying public and union busting is harmful to labor, I think my failure to support the consortium may weaken it a bit, making it less powerful in its next negotiation with that vendor, and then with all the other vendors. And I may have ultimately weakened my own position by leaving the group negotiation. Possibly I got a slightly better deal this time, but next time may not be so favorable.  

I am curious what other, more experienced, collection librarians think about their duty to buy consortially. Do they feel they have a duty or is the higher duty to saving their library money? Are vendors eager to separate us so that eventually we don’t stick with group, weakening our individual and collective bargaining power? Is my one small decision a ripple in a pond that may have larger ramifications than I realize? Time, and experience, will tell.