Our work is not the first to explore how costs change as periodicals are increasingly delivered in electronic format. The most important work previously undertaken on this topic was performed by Carol Hansen Montgomery, under whose leadership the Drexel University library system radically shifted its periodicals collecting from the print to the electronic form. The transition at Drexel is notable for its speed and comprehensiveness, and it has been documented in an effort to measure the impact on both costs and “value.”9 Drexel’s work built in part on Donald King’s many years of methodological experience in studying the cost structures of libraries.10

Our study built on these experiences; however, it had a somewhat different focus, used a revised methodology, and collected data from more libraries. We examined library operations, but our cost analysis focused strictly on nonsubscription costs, thereby excluding the actual costs of the subscription or license. We also set aside measures of value, such as those derived from the level of usage. We compared the existing costs for each format at each library, rather than making use of the opportunity to compare before-and-after costs that was possible at Drexel. In addition, we used a life-cycle model to analyze our findings in order to compare the costs of the format choice over time.

Using the life-cycle approach for cost analysis is not a new idea. Technology companies regularly use it to demonstrate that a higher sticker price may, over the life spans of their products, result in lower total expenditures, if service and maintenance costs are low. The first published adaptation of the life cycle by the library community took place in the 1980s at the British Library.11 More recently, the British Library has applied this experience to work toward understanding the implications, within its operations, of accessioning items in a variety of formats and publication types.12

The studies mentioned thus far, like our own work, focus on future publications; however, a transition to electronic periodicals might also affect existing print holdings. One exposition of the space savings made possible by access to electronic versions of already-held print journal titles estimates that 25% or more of the volumes held in a large university chemistry library could be moved off campus immediately.13

Our study compared the two formats both for operations and, across the life cycle, for costs. We believe that these comparisons can help libraries understand how a shift from print to electronic periodicals may affect their operations and costs. One should keep in mind-as we have tried to do in this study-that there are limitations to our data. Nevertheless, we hope that this study will help inform the choices facing libraries and academia in this time of transition.


9 Montgomery and King 2002. Montgomery has published several other pieces on the transition, making Drexel by far the most well documented of the libraries that have shifted their periodicals collections to the electronic format so completely. See Montgomery 2000, Montgomery and Sparks 2000, and Montgomery 2002.

10 For a helpful overview, see King et al. 2004. Another recent article has used a different approach to project the cost differentials. See Connaway and Lawrence 2003.

11 Stephens 1988 and Stephens 1994.

12 Shenton 2003. Our thanks to Ms. Shenton, and her colleague Stephen Morgan, for a series of valuable conversations while both our studies were under way. For another recent application of the life-cycle approach, see Lawrence et al. 2001.

13 Chrzastowski 2003.