Many academic and research libraries are in the midst of what may ultimately be a major transition for various parts of their collections-a transition from print to electronic format. One of the major challenges in providing for the long-term availability of research literature today is the lack of an acceptable archiving solution for electronic publications. Several efforts are under way to develop such a solution, including work at the British Library, the Library of Congress, JSTOR, Stanford University, and elsewhere.1 In designing its business plan, the Electronic-Archiving Initiative (launched by JSTOR and now being incubated by Ithaka) wanted to learn more about the transition to electronic journals. The study summarized here was part of this effort to learn more about the effects of the transition from print to electronic format on the higher education community’s ability to ensure the long-term availability of electronic publications.

For years, observers of library economics have noted that there may be significant cost advantages to moving away from print collections and toward electronic collections.2 Librarians routinely express the conviction that cost savings is an important reason for shifting toward electronic resources. Should this shift become more pronounced, some have suggested that publishing and library processing costs would be lower, that faculty and student time expenditures would be reduced, and that the quality of research would increase because of more effective searching techniques. Although there have been skeptics, optimism abounds.

In the past 10 years, projections about the cost impact of a shift to the electronic format have led to hard-nosed considerations of business models and prices.3 With the advent of journal package deals, consortial negotiations, and alternative proposals such as open access, libraries’ subscription and license costs, as well as collection sizes and profiles, are changing.

As significant as these changes are, they do not capture all of the important shifts in operations and costs that have taken place. For example, storage of back issues has been the responsibility of libraries for the print format, but publishers have tended to provide storage for previously published years of an electronic journal (although neither libraries nor publishers have assumed formal archival responsibility for the electronic format). Substantive changes are also taking place in the daily operations and associated costs of academic libraries. These changes are the topic of this study. We refer to the costs of these library operations as the “nonsubscription” costs associated with the periodicals collection.

In addition to staff time, nonsubscription costs include computer workstations, binding costs, and capital and maintenance expenditures for space,4 among others. Some have believed that these costs would be lower, perhaps much lower, in the electronic format than they have been in print. As one observer has noted, “A not unsubstantial amount of our staff time is devoted to making sure print issues get to the shelf. Mail handling, issue check-in, security taping, bar coding, stamping, and shelving the issues are labor-intensive activities that absorb entire job descriptions or multiple clerk hours every day.”5 The assertion that these costs could be avoided for electronic periodicals, and that savings would be realized, was important in the early days of JSTOR as well.6

There has, however, been little formal consideration of how library operations and nonsubscription costs may vary with the transition to electronic format. Yet these costs are not trivial, and shifts to the new format are already under way. A better understanding of these cost issues is clearly needed. This study sought to bolster the existing data and analysis and provide a basis for a firmer understanding of the changing nonsubscription cost structure that will accompany the transition to electronic periodicals.7

This report is an expanded version of a previously published article.8 It contains a more detailed description of our methodology and a complete overview of library operations as well as costs. It also includes a significantly expanded analysis. Following the literature review and an explanation of our data-collection methodology, we examine the differences in library operations between the two formats, as revealed by our survey. We then apply the life-cycle analysis and present the findings of this analysis. We conclude with several sets of projections that estimate likely implications of the transition from print to electronic format on total library costs.


1 For information on the four projects named here, see, respectively,,,, and

2 For papers that touch on all sides of this issue, see Ekman and Quandt 1999.

3 See, for example, the Ingenta Institute 2002; Frazier 2001; and International Coalition of Library Consortia 2001. For additional references, see Quandt 2003.

4 The construction cost of space is usually borne by the institution in its capital budget, while maintenance costs are frequently included in a facilities-department budget. In both cases, space-related costs are often not included in the academic library’s budget.

5 McDonald 2003, 24.

6 See Schonfeld 2003, 122-23.

7 For a framework of metrics that can be used to analyze and assess library services, which puts our approach in its broader context, see King et al. 2004.

8 Schonfeld et al. 2004.