Vampire Publishers, Zombie Libraries: Severing the Head of the Big Deal

Posted: October 17, 2014 in Essays
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A/N: An essay written for the subject; LIS230 – Collection Management.  I received a Distinction.

Since their creation libraries have continued to change and evolve throughout history.  Declining budgets have been a constant concern since World War II (Greenhill, 2014a); this has inevitably made the task of collection development and management a difficult one.  Prices of serials have been dramatically increasing to beyond affordable levels (Jones, 2014a); which led to libraries not only having to decide what serials to purchase for the library, but rather what serials were essential to continued growth of the collection.  With the introduction of electronic serials and e-books, libraries were presented with yet another problem, to continue purchasing hard copies of material or to develop infrastructure to support their fractionally cheaper electronic counterpart. During this shift to a increasingly technological based library, publishers and suppliers saw an amazing opportunity to develop a practice aptly named ‘aggregation’ more commonly referred to as ‘the big deal’.  This practice became a popular option for libraries as they could receive hundreds, possibly even thousands in some cases, of journals and articles at incredibly discounted rate, subsequently allowing them to develop a diverse collection at a fraction of the cost.  This essay aims to discuss this practice and the effects it has had on traditional collection development and management practices.  It will look at the potential benefits and issues resulting in acquiring and managing aggregations and finally display evidence of this benefits and issues in the Curtin University Library Collection.

Historically, the bigger the library the better, more books, more prestige; the size and content of the library reflected the intellectual capabilities of the community around it (Greenhill, 2014a).  Of course throughout early history libraries were reserved for academics only; as we moved into modern history we see an increase in public libraries and the wish for people to better themselves through reading (Greenhill, 2014a).  Libraries, even in modern history still collected as much material as they could in hopes that patrons would find something that benefited them.  It wasn’t until after World War II that libraries were forced to change the way they developed and managed their collections.  Serious budget cuts required librarians to re-evaluate the way they developed their collections and the decline in funding has continued steadily into today’s environment (Jones, 2014b).

The shift into the twenty-first century has seen many developments in technology; often referred to as the ‘Information Age’ today’s electronic environment has seen an ‘information explosion’ so to speak (Elliot, Rundle-Thiele & Waller, 2012).  As libraries scrambled to catch up with this rapid change in the way patrons view information, publishers and suppliers seized a golden opportunity to supply electronic serials to libraries, ultimately saving the libraries much needed money to contribute to other areas of the collection.  These electronic serials were then developed into collections aptly named ‘aggregations’, similar to the ‘buy four for five dollars’ deals at the local supermarket these ‘big deals’ contains hundreds, even thousands, of journal titles made accessible to the libraries for a fee (Jones, 2014c).  These types of deals seemed like a dream come true at first, allowing libraries who previously could only afford some journal titles to have access to a seemingly endless amount of journals and articles, these aggregations have many benefits, however they are not without their issues and downfalls, which will be discussed in depth in the following paragraphs.

There are many benefits of libraries accepting aggregations, the first and foremost is the accessibility to extensive amounts of content.  For academic and specialist libraries these aggregations are invaluable sources of information, it allows their cliental access to a vast amount of information available for them to download, print, highlight and read online.  While serial aggregations are most prominent in academic, research and specialist libraries, that is not to say that public libraries do not receive some benefits from aggregation.  There are many public libraries that subscribe to aggregations on a lesser scale, primarily in the areas of e-books and audio e-books (Brisbane City Council, 2014). These sources of digital content continue to shape the way libraries develop their collections (Johnson, 2009).

Humans have entered a technological age of information, and libraries are beginning to reflex this change in the way we view information.  Historically, libraries were about keeping information safe, there are scrolls telling us many books in the great library of Alexandria were in fact chained to the shelves to protect the tomes from people, while this ideal seems ridiculous now library professional attempt to do a similar thing in modern times (Battles, 2003).  That is not to say we are censoring information, quite the opposite, today’s Information Age is filled frequently with unreliable and useless information, that is difficult for users to sift through, which leads to an ‘information overload’ of sorts.  Librarians attempt to filter this information in order to help patrons achieve the desired goal of finding the information they seek (Greenhill, 2014b)

Accessibility is the key in this goal, another benefit of aggregation is that clients are able to access the content from both in house and online, they are able to look up specific journals and articles in the library catalogue and access them using one of the many aggregated databases (Best, 2009).  These have simple user interfaces that make it almost effortless to navigate and decreases confusion for users. From a patron point of view these aggregated resources are essential too; accessing journals and articles from the web is trouble-free when using standard search engines such as Google, however, without a library log in, access can cost upwards of thirty and fifty dollars, per article!

Cost is a rather large issue in libraries, especially when on a strict budget. To combat this some aggregation packages allow for a ‘pay per view’ system. This system allows the library to show the aggregated package as part of its catalogue, allowing access to people online, when a client is interested in an article and clicks the hyperlink to view it; the library is charged a fee for its usage (Jones, 2014d).  This can contribute to keeping costs down for many libraries, it also allows for the rather important task of recording and evaluating what parts of the collection are actually being used (Jones, 2014d).  This can lead to the purchase of items that incur repeated use; however this is more common with e-books than electronic serials (Jones, 2014d).  There are many benefits to the aggregation system, however, libraries have to decide whether these benefits out way the many problems associated with the ‘big deal’, discussed subsequently.

Cost is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to the aggregated system.  Not every publisher allows libraries to use a ‘pay per view’ system, which can inflate prices astronomically especially when a library is required to subscribe to more than one.  Librarians can require more than one aggregation package to receive the core journals of their collection, with this necessary evil comes duplication of journals within the collection, this can become confusing for catalogue users who are unsure whether they are looking at the same article or a slightly different one (Roth, 2013).  Subscribing to aggregations can be frustrating for librarians as there is a distinct lack of choice of what the library receives.  These collections of serials can be divided up in many ways, usually the subscription will be to everything the publisher has, and other times there are divisions by subject or genre (Kennedy, 2006).  This lack of choice also bleeds into receival of journals that are either not wanted or even needed for the library’s current collection.

If a librarian decides to subscribe to one or more aggregations, they unfortunately have little say in what they receive, to exacerbate the situation further they may be subscribed to a particular aggregation for one or two journals only.  When entering a contract with the publisher it is quite unfortunate the library generally gets the sharp end of the knife; these contracts are riddled with licensing clauses, embargo requirements and the right for them to remove a journal from the collection with no notice what so ever.  To escalate the frustration to dizzying heights often the cancellation of a contract incurs an exorbitant fee and revokes all access to items you previously paid to subscribe to (Koehn & Hawandeh, 2010).  The removal of journals from an aggregated collection can be done at anytime without notice to the institutions subscribing, usually the only way the library finds out about these items being removed is from users, who can no longer access a journal or article.  This can be maddening for both the librarian and the end user, especially if that item is a core journal in the collection (Jones, 2014a).

Licensing clauses can cause real problems for librarians, limiting access for clients and making life generally difficult for everyone.  Limited user licenses can be among the most annoying, in this case access is restricted to a set number of users, once the maximum amount of people are viewing a particular journal or article no one else can be admitted until someone logs out (Jones, 2014d).  Embargoes can be another extremely irritating quirk in the bundling of electronic serials, embargoes entails delaying the appearance of the full text of a journal in the database; it usually is postponed for six months but in some cases can be up to a year (Jones, 2014d). Access to abstracts is sometimes allowed but in most cases the item will not appear at all until the publisher sees fit, this is to encourage institutions that wish to have up to date journals to take out other expensive premium subscriptions, which accordingly increase profits for the publishing company (Lamoureux, Chamberlain & Bethel, 2010).

There is evidence of both the positives and negatives of aggregation in the Curtin University Library Collection.  The vast amount of content accessible on the catalogue is a clear indication of the benefits of aggregations for academic libraries.  Accessibility of content is very important for libraries, if clients cannot get information, they will naturally go elsewhere for it!  It is pleasing to see that approximately ninety percent of Curtin’s catalogue is accessible online, by logging into the website.  There is also evidence of the negatives of aggregation present in the Curtin Catalogue; particularly in the area of duplication.  Being an academic library, Curtin offers courses in many areas, thus they require a fair amount aggregated databases to cover the core serials needed by each unit.  This leads to multiples of journals in the online catalogue, this author found up to six of one journal in a previous evaluation.  While this is not a terrible issue, it does create confusion and unnecessary expenditure for the library. Licensing issues is another problem Curtin University Library faces; publishers have strict licensing clauses built into their contracts (Lamoureux, Chamberlain & Bethel, 2010).  This can be especially frustrating for both the librarians and the end users.  If, for example, a unit requires a certain essential reading and the library has say three copies of this book available online. However each of these copies has a licensing agreement of three users maximum at any one time, this means that a maximum of nine users are able to access this reading at one time, if there are fifty students taking the course a significant problem presents itself.

Aggregation presents many benefits and issues that libraries in the twenty-first century must face.  This author would rather like to think of aggregated databases as vampires; they look too good to be true on the surface; cheap, content rich, instant access.  But as one delves deeper, one notices the life slowly draining out of the deal; licensing clauses, removal of journals without notice, embargoes, and subscription for access only with instant access revoked if the contract is cancelled.  In keeping with the morbid theme, libraries are rather like zombies, one was bitten with the ‘aggregation virus’ and everyone subsequently followed.  But finally information professionals woke up from their zombified state and are fighting back.  Like a small group of survivors in an apocalyptic world, libraries are joining together to make aggregation work for them, increasing the benefits and exiling the negatives.  The vampiric publishers are being banished back to the darkness, from whence they came.  Information is all about choices, and libraries are finally realising they have the choice to say no to aggregations and to adopt methodologies that work for them, delivering access and content to users that is both useful and issue free.


Battles, M. (2003). Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Best, R.D. (2009). Is the “Big Deal” Dead? The Serials Librarian, 57(4), 353-363.

Brisbane City Council. (2014). Collection Development. Retrieved from

Elliot, G., Rundle-Thiele, S. & Waller, D. (2012). Marketing (2nd ed.). Milton, QLD: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Greenhill, K. (2014a). Lecture Notes, Week Four: The History of Libraries. Retrieved from LIS100 Librarianship Concepts and Practice Unit, Curtin University.

Greenhill, K. (2014b). Lecture Notes, Week Six: Sources of Information. Retrieved from LIS100 Librarianship Concepts and Practice Unit, Curtin University.

Johnson, P. (2009). Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management (2nd ed.). Chicago: ALA Editions.

Jones, M. (2014a). Lecture Notes, Week Four: Topic Four – Selection I: The Process [Word Document].  Retrieved from

Jones, M. (2014b). Digital Content [iLecture]. Retrieved from$Role:STUDENT

Jones, M. (2014c). Lecture Notes, Week Five: Topic Five – Digital Content [Word Document].  Retrieved from

Jones, M. (2014d). Consortia [iLecture]. Retrieved from$Role:STUDENT

Kennedy, J. (2006). Collection Management: A Concise Introduction. Wagga Wagga, NSW: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University.

Koehn, S.L. & Hawamdeh, S. (2010). The Acquisition and Management of Electronic Resources: Can Use Justify Cost? Library Quarterly, 80(2), 161-174.

Lamoureux, S.D., Chanberlain, C. & Bethel, J. (2010). Basics of E-resource Licensing. The Serials Librarian, 58(1-4), 20-31.

Roth, K.L. (2013). Shared Ownership: What’s the Future? Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 32(2), 203-208.

Creative Commons License
Vampire Publishers, Zombie Libraries: Severing the Head of the Big Deal by Sheridan Brownlie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


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