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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


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Meeting Number: 90.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Library-Publisher Relations in the Next Millennium: The Library Perspective

Dr. Marianne Scott
National Library of Canada


I will say at the outset that I find any invitation to speculate about the next millennium a little daunting. The pace of change has been so rapid in recent years—in technology, in the economy, and in society more broadly—and the effects of change have been so far-reaching, that I find it difficult to predict what kind of change we might see in the next two years, let alone what we and our successors might witness as the next millennium unfolds.

I am therefore going to take a measured approach to our topic this afternoon. What I propose to do is to highlight what I view to be key aspects of the current relationships between libraries and publishers, and to look at significant trends affecting those relationships that have emerged over the past ten years or so. Using that as a frame of reference, I will then try simply to identify what I see to be the key challenges that lie ahead as those relationships evolve over the next few years and as we cross the threshold into the next millennium. I do not propose to venture further than that.

Because the relationships between libraries and publishers are multifaceted, I am going to approach the topic by looking one by one at three broad dimensions of those relationships—the commercial relationships, the legal relationships, and thirdly, the collaborative relationships.

Commercial relationships

First, some general observations on the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers as they stand currently. These observations should probably be self-evident; nevertheless, I believe they bear noting.

Libraries rely heavily on publishers as the suppliers of one of the library's most important resources. By the same token, publishers rely heavily on the library market. For many publications, the purchases made by libraries represent a significant proportion of total sales; for some publications, libraries may in fact be the publisher's primary market.

Although it is difficult to establish the overall monetary value of commercial relations between libraries and publishers, it is safe to estimate that it is in the range of billions of dollars a year. Statistics compiled for the 121 member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries in the U.S. and Canada show that those libraries alone spend over $700 million dollars a year on the purchase of monographs, serials, and other materials for their collections.1

Over the past ten years or so, the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers have been strained by economic pressures. In many sectors library budgets have declined significantly; in others, while budgets continue to increase, they have failed to keep pace with price increases and with increases in demand for library services. Adding to those pressures, libraries in many countries have had to deal with the declining value of their domestic currency against the foreign currencies in which their suppliers' products are priced. The impact on acquisitions budgets has been particularly acute.

If we look again at the statistics compiled by the Association of Research Libraries, we see that over the past ten years the average unit cost of serial subscriptions purchased by ARL member libraries has increased by more than 9% a year. Total expenditures on serials have more than doubled over that same period of time, and while fewer titles are being purchased, serials acquisitions are consuming an increasingly large portion of the library's total budget. Inflationary increases on monographs have been less dramatic (averaging about 4.5% a year), but the price increases, combined with the pressure to maintain serials collections, has resulted in a significant decline in the number of monographs purchased.2 And those figures, we must remind ourselves, represent the situation as it exists in one of the strongest economies in the world. In weaker economies libraries find themselves under even greater pressure.

For some time now, libraries have looked to the emergence of electronic publishing with the expectation that the technology would reduce their costs, particularly for subscriptions to scholarly journals. But that has not yet happened. For the most part, electronic journals have not yet displaced their paper counterparts. As a result of pricing strategies adopted by publishers, a subscription to the electronic version of a journal often requires the library to continue its subscription to the paper version as well, and as a result there are no tangible savings to the library. There may in fact be add-on costs to cover the "supplemental" electronic version of the journal. There have also been cost studies done by publishers of scholarly journals that suggest even once the transition to electronic publishing is complete, and the paper versions of journals have been displaced, the total cost of the publishing activity will likely not decline to the extent that might have been anticipated.

The continuing pressure on library budgets, and the tempering of expectations with respect to cost savings associated with electronic publishing are further exacerbated by a perceived threat to libraries resulting from a growing trend toward the concentration of publishing interests in the hands of a relatively small number of multinational corporations. From a consumer's perspective, that kind of concentration carries with it the spectre of further price increases as a result of less competition in the marketplace.

Another emerging trend that has affected the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers in recent years is a move toward licensing of publications. With the introduction of CD-ROM products, publishers moved from sale of the product to licensing of the product. With the introduction of on-line electronic publications, licensing has become the norm. For the library this trend has two significant implications. First, it means the library must develop the capacity to deal with licenses as legal contracts—ensuring that the terms and conditions of any pre-set licence are fully understood, and defining terms and conditions in a negotiated licence that will satisfy the library's needs. Second, it means the library must put in place the administrative mechanisms necessary to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of the licence. The net effect is that dealing with a licensed publication is more complicated than dealing with a purchased publication. Multiply that effect by the number of individual licences a library may have to deal with, and the differences in terms and conditions there may be from one licence to another, and it should not be difficult to appreciate the overall impact of licensing on the kind of high-volume service operation that libraries have to manage.

The factors currently affecting the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers that I have highlighted are not unique. Budgetary pressures are widespread, not only in the public sector but in the private sector as well. Market pressures resulting from the globalization of trade are impacting industries and consumers in virtually all sectors of the economy. And the new information and communication technologies are having far-reaching impacts on commerce across the spectrum. My reason for highlighting some of the specific impacts of these pressures and changes on the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers is not to suggest that the problems we face are atypical, or that they are of disproportionate magnitude, but simply to serve as a reminder that the pressures are real, and that they do affect the day-to-day relationships between libraries and publishers. It is also important to note that the effect of pressures on commercial relationships cannot be compartmentalized; they inevitably form a backdrop to relationships between libraries and publishers in areas that are for all intents and purposes quite separate from their commercial dealings.

Legal relationships

That brings me to the legal relationships between libraries and publishers, and to some observations that again may be self-evident but bear noting.

Probably the most important area of law pertaining to the relationship between libraries and publishers is copyright law. International conventions and national legislation relating to copyright and the so-called "neighbouring" rights provide the legal framework for the use of the intellectual property that is central to the publishing industry's commercial viability. In protecting the copyright owner's exclusive right to authorize a wide range of uses of an original work, copyright law ensures the owner's right to control the commercial exploitation of the work for the duration of its term of protection. However, those same international conventions and national laws also recognize the need to protect the "public interest" through limitations and exceptions to copyright that permit certain uses that are carried out for purposes of research, education, and private study. Libraries and their users obviously have a large stake in those exceptions.

In Canada we have recently been through the process of amending our copyright legislation to address a number of outstanding issues, among which was the matter of exceptions for libraries, archives, and museums. In the debate over the proposed legislation, those representing authors, musicians, publishers, and the copyright collectives argued that the exceptions proposed in the bill were too broad in scope. Some went so far as to suggest that the very notion of exceptions to copyright is inappropriate. They claimed that the sole purpose of copyright law is to protect the economic and moral rights of authors, and that copyright law is not the place for government to address the interests of the users of copyrighted works.

It is not uncommon for librarians and publishers to take opposing views on this issue. As a librarian, I cannot accept the argument that copyright law should have as its sole purpose the protection of the rights of copyright owners. I believe that copyright law is ultimately an instrument of public policy, and that it cannot be viewed in such narrow terms. Clearly the protection of intellectual property rights is an issue of central concern in copyright law. But copyright has important implications for more than just property rights. As an instrument of public policy, copyright law must address broader social values as well. It should promote research and the advancement of knowledge; it should promote and protect our cultural heritage. We should not, therefore, limit the scope of what can be achieved through copyright strictly to the protection of individual property rights. Copyright law provides us with an opportunity to support cultural enterprise in a broader sense, to protect the works of our writers, musicians, and artists for future generations, and to do what we can to ensure the continued vitality of both creative and scholarly endeavour.

The Berne Convention makes it clear that exceptions and limitations to copyright are entirely appropriate, provided they do not detract from the author's right to control the normal economic exploitation of his or her work. If we accept the basic notion that copyright law is about more than just the protection of individual property rights, and that the protection of rights must be viewed in the context of broader social values and public policy objectives, then it seems to me that it comes down to submitting specific proposals for exceptions to a test of common sense and to our collective perception of what is reasonable.

From a library perspective, what is reasonable includes provisions within copyright law to permit the "fair use" of copyrighted works for the purposes of research, education, and private study. Publishers and librarians may differ on how we define "fair use," and on how exceptions permitting the use of copyrighted works for purposes of research, education, and private study should be framed, but I would hope that on the question of principle both sides would acknowledge the legitimacy of providing for such exceptions.

One of the most contentious issues dividing publishers and librarians today centres on the interpretation of "fair use" in the context of digital technologies. As a librarian I would argue that the debate on that issue needs to be grounded on the underlying principle of reasonable access and the broader purposes that are served by copyright in promoting research and the advancement of knowledge, and in protecting our cultural heritage. Obviously digital technologies have the potential to undermine as well as to enhance copyright protection, and we need to be certain that the economic and moral rights of the copyright owner are not infringed by the illegitimate use of those technologies. But it is important to make a distinction between illegitimate use and legitimate exceptions to copyright. Our efforts should be directed toward reaching consensus on what constitutes a legitimate exception, and finding mutually agreed ways of expressing those exceptions in our copyright laws.

Collaborative relationships

Despite current pressures on the commercial relationships between libraries and publishers, and the tensions that exist over issues of copyright and its application in a digital environment, libraries and publishers continue to collaborate in a number of areas, and those collaborative efforts continue to be very productive.

For a number of decades, libraries and publishers have collaborated at both a national and an international level in the development of standards that have benefited both sectors. The collaborative development of the International Standard Book Number, the International Standard Serial Number, and the International Standard Music Number, and the joint investment by both publishers and libraries in the programs that control the assignment and registration of those numbers stand as examples of the kind of success that can be achieved and the benefits that can accrue to both sectors when publishers and libraries work together.

Similarly, programs initiated by libraries to support bibliographic control—such as Cataloguing in Publication programs and the CONSER Abstracting and Indexing project—have enlisted the cooperation of publishers and have had significant benefits for both sectors. Libraries and publishers have also worked together with paper manufacturers, the microfilming industry, the information technology industry and others to develop standards, implement processes, and define software requirements that have served to benefit libraries and publishers alike.

In the past few years we have seen an emerging interest within both sectors in the development of standards for metadata in the context of electronic publishing and networked access. Again both sectors have participated collaboratively—in initiatives such as the Dublin Core and the Warwick Frame—in an effort to define requirements and to develop metadata standards that will serve to meet our mutual needs.

With the emergence of electronic publishing we have also seen collaborative efforts in the development of standards and systems to support the administration of copyright in a digital environment. Under the aegis of the European Union, projects such as COPEARMS and Imprimatur are bringing together experts in a wide range of fields, including librarians and publishers, to address the complex issues in this area.

One area of mutual interest in which there has been less collaborative effort to date than might be expected is the development work on a digital object identifier (DOI) initiated by the International DOI Foundation. Libraries worldwide have an obvious interest in the development of an identifier scheme for electronic publications, and undoubtedly could contribute expertise to the development effort from a user's perspective. To date, however, libraries have not been represented in the International DOI Foundation, presumably because the minimum $10,000 fee serves as a formidable barrier to membership. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that plans relating to the administration of the DOI that will affect a large number of national libraries that function as ISBN Centres worldwide are being developed without the involvement of those libraries.


That brings me to the challenges that lie ahead for libraries and publishers as we enter the next millennium. In all three dimensions of our relationships—commercial, legal, and collaborative—there are major changes at work that affect us both individually and collectively. Both sectors face significant economic pressures; both are experiencing the impact of technological change. There are issues emerging from our inter-relationships that need to be resolved so that we can move forward to achieve our goals.

If I were to compile a list of the strategic issues requiring resolution and collaborative effort by libraries and publishers as we begin the next millennium, taking as my frame of reference the pressures and trends that I have attempted to highlight in this paper, the priority issues in that list would be the following:

  1. The resolution of outstanding issues related to "fair use" and other exceptions to copyright in a digital environment.

  2. The development of an economically viable means of maintaining the support structure for scholarly communications.

  3. The establishment of an effective and efficient means of formulating and managing licences for the use of electronic publications that meets the needs of consumers as well as suppliers.

  4. The development of standards for metadata, electronic resource locators, and electronic document architecture to facilitate access to and management of electronic publications.

  5. Cooperative planning of infrastructure programs to administer the registration of electronic publications.

  6. Joint research on the preservation of digital media and the archiving of digital documents. Libraries and publishers play an important role in the information continuum. Through our efforts individually and collectively we add significant value to the process of information exchange. We have very real mutual interests in the efficient management of published materials and effective user access to those materials. As we grapple with the newly emerging technologies and with a changing market environment, we are in very significant ways attempting to re-define and re-position ourselves. The transitions that we have to make are not easy. And our objectives are not always mutually compatible. But I expect that we will continue to operate in close relation to one another well into the next millennium, and that our interests in many areas will continue to converge. I believe that through constructive dialogue and collaborative effort we can successfully resolve the issues that challenge us today, and lay the groundwork for productive and mutually beneficial relationships in the future.


    1. Association of Research Libraries. ARL Statistics, 1996-97. Washington, D.C.: ARL, 1998.

    2. Ibid.