by Kim Armstrong (Executive Director, Orbis Cascade Alliance)
Writing about the impact of COVID on consortia and longer-term effects on collaboration (staff, programs and services) seemed risky in April when the editor approached me about this article. The country was still watching diagnoses and deaths climb each day, and our educational institutions were scrambling to adjust to online-only environments. What could my consortial colleagues share about their experiences and their predictions for the long-term impact, when most everyone was working on the fly, and remaking priorities and communication channels daily? Now, almost six months later, these questions still remain. How long will our libraries continue with primarily remote workers, and how long will we provide services almost entirely online? Has the pandemic fundamentally changed our priorities?
While neither predicted the pandemic, Lorcan Dempsey (OCLC) and Roger Schonfeld’s (Ithaka) recent articles about consortial futures raised questions that are echoed and amplified through the voices of consortia directors in this article. Dempsey’s 2018 series of blog posts, “The Powers of Library Consortia,” lays out areas where consortia leverage scale for capacity, learning, innovation and influence.1 In the posts, Lorcan accurately points out that there is a “cap on what every consortium can do,” and what consortia can do is dependent on available funding and library commitment to collaborative work. Likewise, in Schonfeld’s March 2019 article entitled, “Restructuring Library Collaboration: Strategy, Membership, Governance,” he explains the challenges of adapting existing consortial structures to meet new and emerging priorities.2 Effectively, the pandemic has acted as an accelerant for all of us working collaboratively to address these issues — funding, willingness to do collaborative work, and how to adapt to new and existing priorities.
The ICOLC community (International Coalition of Library Consortia) is comprised of intelligent, thoughtful and generous folks, who have a long history of providing guidance and advice when asked.3 The ICOLC listserv this spring was filled with discussions about suspension of print resource sharing; PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) relief funds; financial contingency planning; and publisher free access offerings. The annual North American conference, usually held in the spring, became a virtual conference in July. Key topics over our three days together included: open access and affordable course content, COVID responses, and tips and tools for moving events to virtual. The program also had presentations on transformative agreements; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the consolidation of the ILS market. Those presentations were a welcome reminder to keep our collective eyes on longer-term priorities and issues that a pandemic makes no less important.
Following the ICOLC conference, I invited consortial colleagues to talk with me one-on-one about their experiences since March. I had no script for the conversations. Rather, I asked each of the volunteers to talk about the ways that their consortia had been supporting member libraries since March. I asked these (mostly) Executive Directors to reflect on the short-term effects of COVID on their organizations, but also to predict what some of the longer-term effects might be. The respondents work primarily for academic library consortia, and the responses will reflect that perspective.
Short-term Consortial Impact
I interviewed ten consortial directors, read written notes to the ICOLC listserv, and have included my own consortium’s (Orbis Cascade Alliance) experience in these responses. In the short term, defined here as March-September 2020, several common themes emerged. Consortia quickly created informal opportunities for their member libraries to get together and share information. Zoom became the star and the lifeblood for distributed organizations. The virtual meeting tool gave consortia the ability to connect people, to encourage community engagement, and to foster information exchange in a very fast-moving environment. In some cases, consortia offered specialized/topical virtual events on topics such as copyright consulting, or how to locate online learning resources and tools. Others offered space for peer groups to get together in “birds of a feather,” or “water cooler” events.
A second theme to emerge was the suspension of virtually every print resource sharing and delivery program. Before the OCLC/IMLS/Battelle REALM4 study to determine the length of time that COVID survived on materials, the safety of handling and shipping print between libraries was unknown. Library staff raced to get as many electronic materials as possible to fill important course reserve needs. However, in many cases library staff were not in their buildings to pull material for shipping or receipt. The loss of access on faculty and student work has been significant, with tenure clocks being paused and theses and dissertations suspended.
Libraries and consortia discovered an immediate and pressing need for online content to support instruction. Streaming media packages were in high demand for faculty who had to redesign courses to go entirely online with little preparatory time. Likewise, libraries sought to replace print course reserves with digital equivalents. The consortium directors expressed frustration and dismay with book and textbook publishers whose inflexible business models were insufficient to meet library demand. The necessity of acquiring content led libraries to take advantage (when possible) of the Internet Archive Emergency Library, the HathiTrust emergency library, and institutional controlled digital lending (CDL) projects.5, 6
When consortia organized meetings for library leadership, conversations focused on the financial impacts of COVID. These included reduced state funding, reduced income from student tuition and housing, and reduced revenue from programs and services. The consortial response? Keep membership fees flat, reduce consortial costs, and start renegotiating every electronic content package (databases, journals, books, etc.). The renegotiation of pricing is a significant undertaking. Consortia often spend months securing pricing, content, and terms that are acceptable to their members for a single offering. In some cases, publishers acted quickly to announce how they would handle pricing and inflation. Just as many perhaps, disappointingly, are the publishers and content providers who are choosing to work case by case, requiring consortia to provide specific information about library funding reductions during COVID.
As one consortium director said, “when do we move out of crisis mode and think about our strategic directions? Where do we want to be after COVID?” From an operational standpoint, there are consortia that will lose members, as libraries feel the budgetary effects of the pandemic for some years to come. The consortia whose operations are funded from brokering e-resources offerings are likely to experience reduced revenue to support their infrastructure. Libraries are reporting significant cuts to their materials budgets, making even some of the best deals unsustainable.
For consortia that have their origins in print resource sharing, pre-COVID levels of print-sharing activity may not return. Rather, successful collaboration will emerge from improved access to digital materials. The level of consortial activity around controlled digital lending is significant. While currently most CDL activity is limited to a single institution or campus, the extension of CDL to consortial sharing is within reach. Additionally, there are investments being made in technology and infrastructure to support CDL, most notably by Project ReShare.7
Pressure to accelerate the development of, and access to, open materials (OER, articles, books, data, science) will persist. Many state consortia have been very successful in securing project-based funds to develop OER and affordable learning programs. But much more can be done collaboratively to expand the library of open content through digitization, working with publishers on new access models, and directing consortial investments to open access support. The availability of content to support student learning and research is a critical element in equitable education. Even when pandemic conditions are eased, textbook affordability, reducing the amount of content behind paywalls, and the open sharing of scholarship will be necessary elements of libraries’ support for all users.
While there are examples of consortia working together to build and offer shared programs (shared print, resource sharing agreements, accessibility initiatives) post-pandemic collaboration will necessitate that we all find economies of scale for our services and offerings. Leveraging partnerships, or meta-consortial programs, will continue to evolve. Strategic compacts made between consortia to share investment, spread risk, and scale successful programs will be crucial to meet the needs of libraries going forward, and to prove consortial value.
Overall, the impact of COVID on academic library collaboration has been a clarifying event. We will grapple with reduced budgets, high interest in the development of new services, and how to demonstrate our value to our membership. However, COVID has also made it imperative that consortia and their members be more intentional about committing to cost-effective and strategic areas that will improve access to information. In particular, a move to open scholarship, controlled digital lending, and improved business models for textbooks will shrink the gap between print and electronic, and make equitable and affordable access our collective responsibility.
With thanks to consortial directors that participated in interviews: Cynthia Holt, Executive Director, Council of Atlantic University Libraries. Teri Gallaway, Associate Commissioner, LOUIS (Louisiana Library Network). Amy Pawlowski, Executive Director, OhioLINK. Celeste Feather, Senior Director of Content and Scholarly Communication Initiatives, Lyrasis. Scott Garrison, Executive Director, MCLS (Midwest Collaborative for Library Services). John Burger, Executive Director, ASERL (Association of Southeast Research Libraries). Pam Jones, Executive Director, ConnectNY. Jill Morris, Executive Director, PALCI. Mark Jacobs, Executive Director, WRLC (Washington Research Library Consortium).
1. Dempsey, Lorcan. “The Powers of Library Consortia.” Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog. OCLC Research. Feb 28, 2019. https://blog.oclc.org/lorcand/the-powers-of-library-consortia-1-how-consortia-scale-capacity-learning-innovation-and-influence/
2. Schonfeld, Roger C. “Restructuring Library Collaboration: Strategy, Membership, Governance .” Ithaka S+R. 6 March 2019. Web. 9 November 2020. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.311147
3. International Coalition of Library Consortia. http://icolc.net
4. Realm Project. http://oclc.org/realm/home.html
5. Internet Archive. http://blog.archive.org/national-emergency-library/
6. HathiTrust. https://www.hathitrust.org/ETAS-Description
7. Project ReShare. https://projectreshare.org/products/reshare-controlled-digital-lending/