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Volume Discounts
OhioLINK is a purchasing consortium, and a state-of-the-art library system

By Ron Feemster
Gambier, Ohio

For most of her 25-year career, Kathryn Edwards, a professor of biology at Kenyon College here, trekked to Ohio State University two or three times a month to keep up with the latest journals. Like small-college professors everywhere, she requested reams of photocopies, shared journal subscriptions with friends at other schools, and papered her office with stacks and stacks of reprints. But even the most vigorous correspondence was no substitute for browsing a well-stocked periodical room. Only a large university could afford the specialized subscriptions that sustain professional research, so day trips to Columbus became part of her job.

Over the past few years, a reorganized higher-education library system has cut down on Edwards' travel time. The Ohio Library and Information Network, a statewide consortium of university, community college and private college libraries known as OhioLINK, began purchasing journals and research databases together.

OhioLINK allows Kenyon College astrophysicist Keith Rielage to assign arcane honors thesis topics.

The group buys one large discounted subscription-often the entire collection of a publisher-and pays the bill with dedicated funds from the state budget. When state funds don't suffice, OhioLINK prorates the costs across the member schools according to their enrollment. Either way, small private colleges get essentially the same access-and the same discount-as large universities. Journals and databases that were once out of reach for Kenyon are now available directly on Edwards' desktop.

"For years I asked for the Science Citation Index, but Kenyon couldn't afford it," Edwards remembers. "Now I teach students to use it online. While I'm at it, I point out the Social Science and Arts and Humanities indexes. We get them all bundled together in a database called Web of Science. Humanities students sometimes don't know it's there until I show them."

By purchasing as a group, the consortium has cut about 75 percent off the list price of electronic journals and reference databases. If all 83 member libraries in the state had subscribed individually to the electronic journals ordered by OhioLINK, they would have paid $77.6 million in 2002. Instead, the state paid $19.4 million. Similarly, the group licensing cost of reference databases was $3.1 million, about one third of the cost if schools had paid for individual licenses.

Of course, most schools in the state could not have afforded these resources without the discount. The state's libraries never would have paid $82 million for online materials. In fact, their expenditures likely would have remained in the $20 million range, which was, after all, the amount of money the state had available. OhioLINK simply made it possible for the state's higher education libraries to get more resources for the dollar and to distribute them to all schools, instead of reserving them for big-budget research universities like Ohio State.

"Our goal is to leverage the purchasing power of the state's higher education libraries," said Tom Sanville, the chief executive of OhioLINK since 1992. "We go to publishers and try to give them a little more money than they are making at our schools now, in exchange for a lot more access. The advantage to the publisher: They have one customer and they only have to send out one invoice." Sanville holds a University of Michigan MBA, not a library degree. He began his management career as a soft-drink marketing executive, and learned the library business during a ten-year stint at the Online Computer Library Center in Dublin, Ohio.

Kenyon College biology professor Kathryn Edwards no longer must travel to Ohio State University to obtain scholarly journals; now OhioLINK brings them to her desktop computer.
(Photo By Larry Hamill, Black Star)

Viewed simply as a purchasing consortium, OhioLINK is not unusual. By some counts, as many as 200 library consortia have sprung up around the world since the mid-1990s to negotiate volume discounts with electronic publishers. Sanville says "definitional problems" make it hard to determine just how many consortia exist, since many overlap and some are short-lived. Sanville calls himself the "unofficial leader" of the International Coalition of Library Consortia, an informal group of about 100 consortia that maintains a web site at Yale University.

Today, in fact, most schools in every state reserve part of their acquisitions budget for joint purchases of online resources. However, many of these groups are loosely knit buying clubs with no funding source outside the individual schools' acquisitions budgets, and no centralized decision-making bodies.

In Ohio, even widespread disagreement about the value of an online product can be exploited for the common good. If only a few schools are willing to pay for a particular database, Sanville will often try to get the product for all schools and bill only those who intend to use it heavily. This he refers to as the "NPR model," after the fundraising techniques of National Public Radio. Karen Greever, the acquisition librarian at Kenyon, said her school paid $8,000 in "NPR" fees in 2001 to maintain access to a biographical index, as well as bibliographies and databases on anthropology, art and the history of art. Kenyon, a liberal arts college, did not pay for an engineering database but did receive access to one.

In 2003, as OhioLINK dealt with a budget cut of nearly nine percent (from an operating fund of $7 million), Sanville asked librarians to contribute to what he calls a "war chest" for essential items that the budget no longer covers. War chests assess each school a fee based on the number of full-time equivalent students. In fiscal 2004, with a budget even tighter than last year, some data bases are being closed.

With the notable exceptions of Georgia and Utah, few states have successfully wedded libraries from different types of institutions. OhioLINK's members include 15 universities, 42 liberal arts colleges, 23 community college libraries, two stand-alone medical school libraries and the state library.

OhioLINK was the first consortium to support public and private college libraries with state money, and the first to promote not just interlibrary lending, but the effective unification of public and private collections in a single catalogue.

"The Ohio Board of Regents' mission is higher education in the state-not just public higher education," said Sanville. "That is the root of our non-exclusionary policy." The regents submit OhioLINK's budget directly to the state legislature. As a dedicated line item in the state budget, OhioLINK offers publishers a stable negotiating partner and provides non-public member institutions with a back-door subsidy.

Private schools do have to put a certain amount of money into the communal budget of OhioLINK-one college with 1,200 full-time students paid $12,000 in 2001, for example. But the return is enormous: access to all books in all of the 83 member libraries, to the system's entire online journal and database collections, as well as to digital materials in house-from historical maps and photographs to art images, audio and visual files, even satellite downloads.

"What OhioLINK does is create a huge state library," said Stephen Foster, library director at Wright State University, in Fairborn. Foster arrived in Ohio in 2001 from Central Michigan University, a school with an enrollment slightly larger than Wright State's 16,000 students. "In comparison to what we could offer there, the same amount of money goes much farther here," Foster said.

OhioLINK, which will celebrate its eleventh anniversary in October, did not start out as a purchasing consortium. In fact, it was born of a library space crisis. In the late 1980s, the Ohio Board of Regents was overwhelmed by requests for $120 million in library construction funds to house expanding book collections on several campuses.

The regents quickly determined that this request was the harbinger of an unaffordable cycle of library construction. The state had completed a similar round of construction less than 20 years earlier, and research indicated that university collections generally double in size every 20 years. Attempting to find a new solution to the problem, the regents appointed a Library Study Committee, which made two recommendations that changed the way libraries operate in the state. They also laid the groundwork for OhioLINK.

First, the committee called for an off-site storage and delivery system for library materials. Ultimately, the state built six depositories in different regions of Ohio, each with a capacity of roughly 1.5 million volumes. Books are stored in climate-controlled warehouses and sorted by size instead of subject matter, in order to pack them more densely.

Trays of books perch on industrial shelving 30 feet high, 180 feet long and three feet deep. Workers use specially modified electric forklifts to retrieve and restock volumes. Together, at the end of last year, the facilities contained about 5 million books and journal volumes. The collective cost of construction was less than $12 million, compared to projected costs of $75 million for conventional libraries housing a similar number of books.

This method of book storage, which was pioneered at Harvard University in the 1980s, has made it possible for Ohio State to reconsider the consequences of the utilitarian renovations to its Main Library building in the 1950s and 1970s. After seeing the success of OhioLINK's book storage, OSU raised money for a book depository of its own. The school is beginning to store new acquisitions off site and will remove 500,000 of the 2 million volumes housed in Main Library, which was built in 1913. There are plans to restore work spaces for patrons, including the ornamental main reading room, which were lost when the school built a false ceiling and turned it into two separate floors.

"No more libraries will be built to store books," said Joe Branin, Director of Libraries at Ohio State University. "We will be building or renovating for public spaces from now on."

What made the book depository system work, and later proved to be the cornerstone for statewide cooperation, was the regents' commitment to develop a unified electronic catalogue. Under the new system, individual users could access bibliography records from any library online and request direct delivery to their home library. In November 1992, the catalogue was activated with six libraries online. Today, the system's 83 member libraries hold 7.9 million unique entries.

Even OhioLINK member librarians have been surprised to learn that 56 percent of these titles were single copies unduplicated by other libraries. Only 30 percent of the bibliographic entries on the system referred to books held by three or more institutions. "There was more unique material in the small libraries than any of us knew," said Carol Pitts Diedrichs, the head of collections development at Ohio State. She points out that having an online overview of statewide holdings helps individual libraries to plan. "At Ohio State we ask ourselves, Do we really need this book if the computer shows there are three or four copies of the book elsewhere in the system?"

In the beginning, librarians expected the small schools on the system to "raid" the libraries of the universities. If anything, the breadth of the collection has led to the opposite result. Scottie Cochrane, the library director at Denison University (enrollment 2,100), recently catalogued part of her school's late 19th century journal collection for OhioLINK. "We put it online and it has been requested constantly ever since," she said.

Joe Branin, director of libraries at Ohio State University, stands in one of six massive book depositories the state has built.

Unifying the catalogue has made the best of small collections visible to researchers at larger schools. Bringing these dispersed treasures to light has helped make independent colleges major lenders as well as borrowers in the system. Last year, they made 23.4 percent of all borrowing requests, but their libraries were lenders in nearly as many transactions.

The system uses algorithms to spread the lending of common items as evenly as possible in order to keep large schools like Ohio State from becoming overly strong borrowers. University borrowing requests lagged slightly behind loans in 2002-69 percent to 70 percent. (In 2001, university borrowing outstripped lending 73 percent to 71 percent.) Two-year colleges processed 7.2 percent of the system's borrowing requests and 6.3 percent of loan requests in 2002.

OhioLINK's member institutions enroll full-time 450,095 students. Approximately 60 percent attend universities, while about 19 percent are enrolled at independent colleges, and another 21 percent at two-year institutions.

Direct online borrowing is not to be confused with traditional interlibrary loan programs. Instead of going to the library and filling out interlibrary loan requests, which are then processed within the sending and receiving institutions before a book is taken off the shelf, OhioLINK patrons find an item they want in the catalogue and order with a single mouse click. Most books from outside libraries are delivered within two to three days, instead of weeks for many interlibrary loan requests. The quick turnaround makes outside lending a viable option for undergraduates, whose projects are often on tighter deadlines than graduate students' work.

For example, at Wilberforce University, an historically black college with 63,000 volumes on campus, students typically borrow books from several schools to complete a single larger project. Rachel Armour, a senior who wrote about the influence of Western mass media on Nigerian culture last fall, had 14 books on loan from nine libraries one day last November. "I could never have done this project without OhioLINK," she said. "We have a good collection of African American literature, but I need other resources for studying Nigeria."

"For other undergraduates, it is the multiple copies, not the esoterica that matters," said Jean Mulhern, the Wilberforce library director, noting that students can sometimes borrow books that they would otherwise have to buy. "Or sometimes it is possible for a professor to order a book for a single chapter. Maybe it would be too expensive to buy, and we don't have it. OhioLINK's unified catalogue has increased the range of reserve-desk materials."

Some faculty members have found that the larger OhioLINK collection allows students to tackle projects that would be too ambitious, even for good small-college libraries. Keith Rielage, a 28-year-old astrophysicist on a one-year teaching appointment at Kenyon College, was initially reluctant to supervise an honors thesis on primordial black holes. The literature on what he described as "smaller black holes formed near the beginning of the universe" is widely scattered. Rielage was concerned that too few articles could be assembled to sustain a thesis.

"We found that some of the key literature was published in an Italian journal during the 1970s and 1980s," Rielage said. "OhioLINK delivered copies within five days. At that point, I let the student go ahead with her thesis." Rielage had done his undergraduate work at Miami University of Ohio, so he was familiar with OhioLINK. But he had not anticipated the rapid improvement in journal access. "OhioLINK was pretty good when I was here as an undergraduate. But it is much better now."

Member librarians can download statistics on journal use, school by school, on the OhioLINK web site. From the largest research library to the smallest private college, students are accessing more journals than ever before from the Electronic Journal Center. Between 1998 and 2002, users made 7.1 million downloads from the EJC. Nearly 80 percent of the articles were downloaded during 2001 and 2002, and usage continues to increase.

EJC has not only increased the volume of journal use on Ohio campuses, it has brought journals to the library that have never been available in print. At 15 OhioLINK university campuses, which subscribe to an average of 800 journal titles in print, users downloaded articles from more than 3,500 different publications last year. At independent colleges, which average fewer than 50 print titles, users downloaded more than 1,300 different publications.

Tom Sanville, who has run OhioLINK since 1992, says "our goal is to leverage the purchasing power of the state's higher education libraries."

At most schools, natural science students and faculty tend to be among the biggest EJC users. Bill Feld, a member of the chemistry department at Wright State since 1972, has done weekly journal searches since his graduate school days at the University of Iowa. "We got a sheaf of articles to read every week," he remembered. "When I came here, I used to make photocopies and hand them out to my students. Now I just send around a list of URLs."

The new technology has also required students to acquire a new set of skills. "For many students, success in research depends on skill in searching," said Feld who teaches polymer synthesis. "The ability to search becomes the ability to find a model for what they plan to do."

In humanities and the arts, OhioLINK has also helped students range further afield in search of projects. "We use it to find scripts," said Joey Adams, 21, an acting major at Wright State University. "Our library has the classics," she said, "but OhioLINK tends to have more new scripts-the ones whose rights just became available."

Other students working on musical or dance numbers use the system to find music. Although scores circulate, recordings often do not. Wright State and the University of Akron share CDs through OhioLINK. But many other programs with larger collections do not. Some even require their own students to listen on campus.

One of the fastest growing areas on OhioLINK is also one of the most accessible to the general public. Most of the wide variety of material on the Digital Media Center is not password protected. OhioLINK has effectively become a publisher for professors and institutions willing to digitize materials. The holdings include foreign language and physics videos, Ohio State's squeeze collection (molds of inscriptions found at a variety of archaeological sites), photos from the Wright Brothers aviation archives at Wright State, even current satellite images of the earth. In the near future, Ohio State's bio-acoustics lab wants to mount its collection of animal calls.

As rich as it is, OhioLINK does not reach quite far enough to satisfy some users. For Kathryn Edwards, the Kenyon College biology professor, research heaven is a summer collaboration with her colleague at Case Western Reserve University. "I download a lot of what I need at Case Western," she said. "I can get almost everything else I need through OhioLINK during our school year." Almost, but not quite everything: "I still go to Ohio State once in a while. Not often, but I still go."

Freelance writer Ron Feemster lives in New York City.

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