Ultimate Discovery Engine

Peter Brantley -- January 9th, 2012

Both academic and public libraries have struggled to cope with declining budgets while facing continuing demands to meet the needs of their patrons. With the amount of literature being published continuing to grow, it gets harder with every passing month for libraries refine their purchasing strategy. One of the most interesting ways of dealing with the Scylla and Charybdis issue of too many books, and too little money, is called Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA), or sometimes Patron Driven Access, depending on where emphasis is placed.

Basically, PDA is a way of crowd-sourcing acquisition. In most scenarios, a set of potentially available titles is loaded into a library catalog, and then once a specified number of library patrons request the title, it is automatically ordered for the collection. There are a wide number of permutations; for example, initial requests arriving prior to the purchase threshold may still be able to obtain the book if the library consents to rent the title from a distributor or aggregator. PDA models have become increasingly sophisticated; one of the most astute analysts for the academic market is Joe Esposito, who has blogged on PDA several times at SSRC’s Scholarly Kitchen.

PDA is particularly suited for titles where a library’s acquisition strategy is unclear; this makes it very attractive in the academic market where the challenge of matching faculty research interests with narrowly focused literature is often informed guesswork. Since major frontlist releases are de rigueur purchases for public libraries, it is difficult to see simple PDA schemes working for the next Franzen novel. Other strategies may be better suited to control the roller coaster demand for literary bestsellers, such as combinations of upfront purchase with flexible rental.

However, there’s at least one really interesting exception for public libraries: literature that serves specific community needs. This is most apparent for specific ethnic, national, or language communities whose reading interests might be otherwise underrepresented in library acquisitions. Even the Queens Public Library, which famously serves more languages than any other library in the country, has only a limited number of selectors. In a community like Jackson Heights, NY, which has large numbers of residents from Southeast Asia, Columbia, Ecuador, and other areas, the ability of residents to help the library select Bengali, Hindi, and Latin American titles would be immeasurable. PDA is a perfect match for this.

At a time when it is increasingly unclear whether there will be any national bookstore chains left standing, libraries can serve as the ultimate discovery engine for books. Connecting specific communities with a wide ranging literature list through PDA and other services enables libraries to become expert barometers on what titles are of interest to underserved readers. If the titles are available for sale in the U.S. market, a retailer willing to create a flexible PDA mechanism for public libraries would be able to gather very useful data on title desirability that could inform marketing and sales opportunities.

The ability to obtain marketing research to better serve the entire publishing ecosystem is just one more reason why libraries and publishers should be BFF. Although there is no predetermined direct monetary relationship in PDA, it would be trivial to incorporate a recommended “buy link” for titles in library catalogs that were particularly attractive to readers, and where the library was unable to meet peak demand for titles through permanent acquisition. The bond between public libraries and their communities generates a fantastic amount of data. It’s time for us to learn how to leverage it to build a world with more readers, and more cool books.

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