Librarians serve many masters, be they boards of directors, provosts, or deans, in addition to what is often a more explicit mission of aiding a given group of patrons, be they students or members of a community. Beyond the those served, many libraries are also members of consortia, an aggregation of libraries who pool resources and expertise to benefit all members. As libraries and their staff navigate a world in which people use Google first and libraries a distant second, one in which staffing shortages and other budget cut-related obstacles seem ever-present, consortia provide libraries with significant opportunities, though there are risks as well.
In the age of Google, in which library staff are often told that "everything" is available online, consortia allow libraries to greatly expand their offerings. To wit, my place of work (MPOW) has approximately 214,000 items available for check out. The consortium to which we belong has 11.2 million items. Consortia allow libraries to play a two-level game, wherein staff efforts to improve some aspect of the library that are stymied within the aforementioned given community are on the agenda at a different, sometimes higher, level. The very existence of a consortium creates a brain trust, a group of library staff one can discuss issues of programming, planning, strategy, tactics, etc with.
The concept of two-level games comes from political scientist Robert Putnam (1988). Putnam observed that democratic countries sometimes implemented policies that were the product of not only domestic, intranational, negotiations, but also external, international negotiations, often carried out through an international organization. The overlap of domestic and international concerns create what Putnam termed a win-set, an area of agreement in which a policy had an excellent chance of being accepted on both levels. Other scholars have built on Putnam's observations, adding new wrinkles. Mandelbaum (1996) notes that when Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), its military leaders wanted protection from a neighbor that was historically an aggressor, Russia. Polish civilian leaders, on the other hand, sought protection not only from Russia, but also from the Polish military. One of the criteria for NATO membership is that a country must be governed by elected representatives, not the military. By joining NATO, Poland helped to ensure that the country would remain democratic following decades of communist rule. Civilian leaders used the lock-in effects of NATO membership to protect the country from a potential military dictatorship, cementing post-communist gains.
Libraries can, should, and do use consortia in these ways.
- Benchmarking: A consortium creates a price floor, enforcing minimum standards for membership. If most consortium partners have a resource, this exerts pressure to obtain it on a member who does not have it. In addition, consortia can be made up of similar institutions in an geographic area; this can be a boon for academic libraries because as the institutions compete for students, the libraries may benefit from something like a resource arms race, albeit a modest one given many budgets. On a more pessimistic note, it may be the case that budget cuts are mitigated by consortia membership, to which one can append the dreaded "more study is necessary."
- Appeal policy decisions: While it is rare for a consortium to override a policy decision made at a library, a consortium can lobby for a course of action counter to that policy decision. Indeed, library staff who are stymied within their library may appeal to a consortium. For example, a university with strict policies on loaning audio-visual (AV) material has to relax its policies within a consortium. This creates tension between Access Services and the AV departments. Access Services uses a consortium to ensure that the AV department maintains the same standards on access within the university as well as the consortium community.
There are other benefits to consortia. Members share resources, which may eliminate the need for multiple copies of a physical item, depending on how it is used. Members can negotiate as a group with publishers and other vendors, obtaining resources at less cost than each library would incur on its own. Consortia are able to generate data which is useful for collection development. If a library makes requests in a certain call number range, patterns may emerge that point library staff towards groups of resources that are locally underrepresented. Consortia are also useful for networking.
Associations are less binding, but they allow for similar library behavior.
- Appeal and differ to authority: Implementing an information literacy program at a school can be a daunting task in which library staff encroach on territory, the classroom, that is often the province of traditional, for lack of a better word, faculty. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) website has a wealth of information on information literacy, including standards, collaborative tools, and talking points, many of which are designed for librarians to engage other campus actors. These actors may differ to the authority of the ACRL on this issue.
On balance, the advantages of consortia appear to outweigh the disadvantages, and because of that many libraries are members. The LIS Wiki site has not been updated in almost a year, but contains links to many consortia and associations, reflecting their popularity.
Putnam, R. (1988). Diplomacy and domestic politics: The logic of two-level games. International Organization. 42(3): 427-460.
Mandelbaum, M. (1996). The dawn of peace in Europe. New York: Twenty-First Century Fund.