Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Perspectives on Resource Sharing Costs

flying books in blue sky
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Guest Post by Joshua Steans, University of Wisconsin-Stout

For all libraries, the push of user expectations counters the pull of rising costs, budget gaps, and an aggressively shifting information technology landscape. Strategic decisions emerge from this scrum with the objective of providing as many relevant resources to as many patrons as possible, and to do so as fast, as often, and as simply as possible. 

Resource Sharing is no exception. In fact, more than perhaps any library service, Resource Sharing is remarkably transparent, with each transaction offering a microcosm of the whole library enterprise: acquisitions and metadata for holdings and discovery; reference to help patrons find and request an item; ILL to quickly, cost-effectively, and compliantly source it; lending ILL to screen, pull, update, and ship the item (plus their own Circ staff to keep it in the right place); ILL to receive it, connect loose ends of the transaction and plug the business end of it all into the Circ department; and then Circ to hand the item to the patron. Quite some effort to get one item for one patron.

And what does all that effort cost? First, one caveat: Resource Sharing is the only library service that has periodically undergone thorough cost studies. The anecdotal estimates for some other library services—$95 to add a book to the collection (after purchase); $105 for a reference question; $10 to simply store an item for one year—outpace even the highest estimates for Resource Sharing.

As for those Resource Sharing costs, another caveat: there’s no clear answer. Great variability exists between loans and articles, in-consortium and out-of-consortium transactions, lending and borrowing, academic and public, true Resource Sharing and commercial services. There are at least 10 cost categories, each with a different benchmark. Estimates range from a low of about $3-$4 per transaction to a high of $9-$17. The highest end of this spectrum comes from out of date research: ARL studies from 1993 and 2003 that were conducted at large research universities. In addition to skewing heavily toward high-budget university libraries, these studies predate modern Resource Sharing tools, workflow efficiencies, and hiring/staffing practices. More recent research, published in 2012, benchmarks the average cost of transactions at about $4-$9. For the most meaningful cost picture, each library should run its own numbers. And to that end, OCLC is developing an ILL Cost Calculator, which was inspired by a similar calculator developed by Lars Leon and Nancy Kress.

Regardless of exact numbers, there are universally accepted trends: consortium transactions and lending articles cost the least, borrowing articles are in the middle, and the undisputed heavyweight high cost champion (notwithstanding commercial document services) is out-of-network borrowing loans. But ranges trend higher and lower according staffing levels (ft/pt, librarian, assistant, clerk, page/student, etc.), policies, workflow efficiencies, and request volume at individual libraries.

Here’s one fact we can nail down: staffing is the biggest cost factor, and there’s no close second. But this is true of all library services and should come as no surprise. After staff, the other standard costs are: request systems, management tools, lender fees, shipping, equipment, and supplies. As mentioned above, the objective should be to get the most out of what you have. We know that when the number of transactions increases, the average cost declines. Implementing sustainable policies and workflows that encourage increased volume will lower the cost of each transaction and add value for users.

Written by:
Joshua Steans, University of Wisconsin - Stout