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A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals:
Changes in Library Operations and Costs between Print and Electronic Formats

by Roger C. Schonfeld, Donald W. King, Ann Okerson, Eileen Gifford Fenton
June 2004

Many academic and research libraries are in the midst of what may ultimately be a major transition for various parts of their collections-a shift from print to electronic format. Libraries that had long subscribed only to print versions of journals are, in increasing numbers, licensing electronic versions to replace the print. What effects will this transition have on library operations and on nonsubscription expenditures? To answer this question, the authors collected data on staff activities and costs from 11 U.S. academic libraries. They then performed a life-cycle analysis to study the longer-term cost implications of the transition.

Library collections and operations stand to change significantly as a result of the transition. At all but the largest academic libraries, collection sizes in the electronic format are significantly larger than they ever were for print. Notably different activities are required to manage and maintain an electronic collection. Staff-compensation profiles for the formats vary as well.


To perform a life-cycle analysis, the authors divided the costs for print and electronic formats as they exist today into one-time (often first-year) and annually recurring costs. For the average title in each format, they added 25 years’ worth of recurring costs to the one-time costs. This yielded the average nonsubscription cost for a given title over an estimated total life span. While this time period was arbitrary, it was used to highlight the long-term implications of the format choice.


The findings of the study suggest that nonsubscription costs are lower, on a per-title basis, in electronic than in print format. The per-title effect is more pronounced at smaller libraries, mainly because they license relatively large collections of electronic titles in comparison to the size of their print collections. Relative to collection size, however, the cost advantages of the electronic format exist across the board. These findings suggest that, other things being equal, an electronic collection should achieve lower nonsubscription costs than a print collection.

To further examine how these findings might affect libraries, the per-title cost differentials were modeled under a variety of assumptions to determine their likely implications. For example, large journal packages have led to significantly increased numbers of periodicals titles available at many institutions; while bringing major advantages in terms of access, for some, the increasing number of titles may offset the per-title savings that were found. The authors report that, while many of the cost implications will depend on local conditions, initiatives, and management practices, the likely outcome of the transition for many libraries will be reduced nonsubscription costs for periodicals. In the long run, some libraries may benefit significantly, although there are important short-term management challenges to be considered. In particular, during the transition period itself, total costs may be driven up substantially as expenditures for the electronic format rise well before print format costs decline commensurately. This partial transition scenario is one in which many libraries now find themselves.

Moreover, any dollar-for-dollar comparison of the two formats is complicated by several shifts in system-wide costs. Some costs that are borne by libraries or publishers for the print format may be borne by the other party in the electronic format. The cost of day-to-day storage of the information resource is one example: Publishers, rather than libraries, generally provide for the server storage of electronic periodicals. In addition, some costs that are borne by libraries for the print format, most notably the cost of archiving, have not yet been taken on by either party for the electronic format. There is as yet no archiving solution for electronic periodicals, and so it is not possible to calculate the costs or determine how they will be borne. Given the complexity of the problem and unanswered questions such as these, the objective of this study was to offer a set of conclusions that will help inform the transition rather than to provide the final word on system-wide cost shifts.


Although much remains uncertain, one thing is clear, write the authors: the failure to resolve the issue of responsibility for archiving has hindered the transition to electronic journals. If archiving is to be achieved, it must be paid for. While it is unclear whether libraries alone will be able to fund archiving, the cost advantages found in this study may constitute the most likely source of library funding for this purpose and may therefore present an opportunity for the library community to shape the archiving solutions that eventually emerge. If these cost advantages can be realized by individual libraries and used to stimulate the implementation of archiving solutions, they might expedite electronic access to appropriate resources and the accompanying advantages to scholarship-even if, after accounting for the costs of archiving, the format transition were to be cost-neutral.


The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals: Changes in Library Operations and Costs between Print and Electronic Formats
by Roger C. Schonfeld, Donald W. King, Ann Okerson, Eileen Gifford Fenton
June 2004.
ISBN 1-932326-10-3. 66 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.

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