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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 051-107-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Acquisition and Collection Development
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 107
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Dinosaur or dynamic: exchange of art publications in the digital age

J. Margaret Shaw
National Gallery of Australia Research Library
Canberra, Australia


Until recently, it appeared that the structured exchange of art publications, particularly between museums, was firmly in place. In March, 1999, I carried out a survey on exchange between art museum libraries. The survey was distributed on ARLIS-L, the international art librarians discussion list and copies were faxed to a further 15 libraries. It contained 20 questions including questions about the effect of electronic publishing on exchange . The results confirmed that there are signs of cracks in the structure.

The environment is changing rapidly and art librarians must take account of the changes and incorporate them into their plans for the next 5 to 10 years.

Why do we have exchange programmes?

  • To augment acquisitions funds , particularly for those with hard currency problems
  • As a reliable way of ensuring acquisition of all publications from key partners
  • As a reliable way of acquiring publications which may be invisible or elusive through commercial channels
  • To place our own publications strategically in other libraries around the world.
  • As part of our role as a public institution with a responsibility to increase access to our collections
  • As a philanthropic gesture or, on the other hand, as a source of philanthropic donations
  • In the digital environment, I would add another purpose: to ensure the survival of our publications.

What are the existing patterns of exchange between art museum libraries?

Some of the key factors in exchange were surveyed.

  • Exchange partners
    Most libraries surveyed operate with more than one type of partner .
    79% work with a regular, profiled list of partners and only 11% with an un-profiled list; 32% work with a tiered list of partners, i.e. they send more to those who send more in return; 61%, including across all the previous groups, also operate one-off title-for-title exchanges.

  • Frequency of despatch
    76% of libraries batch their publications for mailing with an average of 1-2 batches each year. Cost of postage and the number of publications available are the key factors setting the patterns.

  • Staffing
    Staffing is a fairly complex question with a few libraries having a dedicated officer, some having the work spread over a number of positions and others including voluntary helpers in the exchange process. On average, none of the libraries surveyed appeared to allocate more than ca. 1 FTE member of staff to exchange.

    Exchange is a labour intensive process and the balance must be in the perceived benefit versus the cost. For libraries which can afford to purchase materials out-right, there are more cost-effective ways to use staff time if the acquisition aspects of exchange are the only factors being taken into account.

  • Automation
    In 1991, the automation of exchange programmes was virtually non-existent. Today, 59% have automated their mailing lists and 35% have automated the listing of items sent or received to some degree.

  • Electronic formats
    30% of the survey respondents came from museums which have published in digital formats. In most cases just 1 or 2 CD-Roms. Only 9% had actually distributed a CD-Rom on exchange although 50% were prepared to consider supply if / when they become available.

    Material published on line has not yet come into the exchange arena and only 44% gave mostly tentative acceptance to the possibility. Disturbingly few are collecting web information, even from their own institution but this is the subject for a different paper.

    Interestingly, and probably predictably, the willingness to receive electronic materials was higher, at 67%.

What are the possible threats to exchange?

  • Imbalance in the number of publications being supplied has always been a problem for the larger players.
  • Delay in distribution has always been a problem in exchange programmes. This is generally caused by the batching of materials for despatch.
  • Occasional joint publishing between museums and commercial publishers has now become the norm for many museums, including mine.
  • Travelling exhibitions but they appear to be increasing in number and in the number of venues they visit. In the exchange situation, who distributes the catalogues and to whom?
  • Increasingly, publications sent on exchange have now to be purchased from ever reducing acquisitions funds.
  • However, while all of these factors have caused varying degrees of disruption to the smooth flow of exchange, it is the effect of new publishing formats which I believe will have the greatest impact. I should like to look at just 2 formats CD-Rom and on-line publishing on the World Wide Web.

CD-Roms are currently enjoying rapidly increasing popularity as a publishing medium for museums. In some cases they take the place of an exhibition catalogue, more often of a hard-copy collection catalogue or as educational materials.

Only three libraries had included their CDs in their exchange distribution.

One of the problems raised by 3 respondents was that CDs are too expensive.

Of course, the successor to CD-Rom is already in the wings and technological shelf-life is an ever-present problem.

Web publications are a far more complex matter.

Art museums are taking to the web with fervour and there is no doubt that this is a very positive development in terms of remote access to collections and information about the collections; as a general source of information about activities; and as a means of facilitating contact with museum departments and staff.

However, in many museums there has been a parallel decline in the number of hard copy publications both because of the diversion of resources into the more glamorous digital agenda and because, for some forms of publication, the web is easier and cheaper. This includes the publication of the results of important research.

Of course, the standard of digital imaging is still far from satisfactory and I share the belief of many of my survey respondents that the beautiful art exhibition catalogue or monograph will be around for a long time yet. I cannot, however, accept the view that, because our readers prefer lovely hard copy catalogues, they will continue to be available at the same level of publishing as we have seen in the past.

We do have to come to terms with the fact that web publishing is increasing and is likely to continue to do so for a number of purposes.

  • Information about particular works or artists
  • Newsletters, calendars and annual reports are appearing on line. Scholarly journals are potential targets
  • Exhibition catalogues and virtual exhibitions

What have the responses of librarians been to the place of web publications in the Exchange system?

There was a very small amount of activity by one or two more advanced libraries but generally the survey produced four groups of responses.

  • Those who want to ignore web publishing. Their attitude is "My readers prefer books so that is what I shall continue to collect, to distribute and to accept."
  • Those who envisage dropping exchange for all sorts of reasons, often with the prediction that it will probably cease to exist within a decade anyway.
  • Those who do not themselves publish on the web and therefore considered the questions irrelevant. To me this is a view of exchange as a one-sided process.
  • Those who do not yet publish on the web, or only in a limited way, but thought it was something that we should be considering.

What can we do/ should we be doing, in practical terms?

  • Carry on regardless.
  • Incorporate digital publications into our programmes.
  • Use on-line methods of delivery to cut costs
  • Rely on the continued, free, on-line availability of materials published on the Web.

Even if, as many of us hope, the superiority of hard copy publishing for highly illustrated art materials means that for many items the book format continues to thrive, the increasing irregularity of publishing patterns will continue to cause difficulties for exchange programmes.

In conclusion , a prediction

It would be cowardly to pose all these questions and not even hazard a guess at the answers. My guess is that over the next five years exchange will continue but with increased disruption to the standard patterns. Beyond this, it will either cease to exist or develop a very different pattern by the end of the next decade.

If it does survive:

  • exchange will play a reduced role in the overall acquisition process;
  • lists of partners will be shorter and much more carefully targeted;
  • exchanges will tend to be between institutions of similar interests and size;
  • automation will mean that procedures in general will be more streamlined;
  • automation will permit much closer analysis of the balance of an exchange partnership with the recording of detailed financial balances between partners;
  • individual digital format publications which cause fewer administrative problems will be included;
  • inclusion of on-line publications will be limited to a small number of important publications which are unique and core to the continued study of a field;
  • larger, better-resourced libraries will, for practical reasons, continue to drop out - although they may maintain philanthropic donor programmes.

Finally, the problem remains of what we put in its place, particularly for those for whom exchange has been crucial to their capacity to collect. My dream solution would be a world-wide, art museum virtual library into which we submit our quality on-line publications and from which they would be available to all other contributors on a continuing basis. The problems involved in doing this would take up at least a large sized hard-copy monograph. Realistically it is an impossible dream - but then twenty years ago how many of us would have predicted the World Wide Web as it is today?


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