Becoming a 600-pound gorilla

Just like corporations who are forming alliances between themselves to create bigger and better organizations, libraries must continue to strengthen consortiums between themselves and other institutions for the purposes of resource sharing. The key to success in these ventures is communication and your ability for interpersonal organization. If you have these skills, then you too can become a 600-pound gorilla sitting just about anywhere you want. At the very least you will have more control over your economic, information, and computing resource environments.

Resource sharing

You could say that resource sharing has been one of the fundamental principles for supporting library services, but the object of the sharing has changed over the years. Generally speaking, before the use of "computers in libraries" (all puns intended), resource sharing meant the sharing of bibliographic materials like books and journal articles for interlibrary loan or the creation of union lists of serials. More recently, resource sharing has come to mean the sharing of computing resources since economies of scale apply:

There were several reasons for this. First, systems-oriented, computer-based networks were seen as an evolutionary next step in library cooperation, and libraries shifted from their participation in less formal cooperative arrangements to membership in formal resource-sharing networks. Also, the development of regional networks and bibliographic utilities in the 1970s shifted the emphasis in library cooperation from that of sharing bibliographic information to sharing technology for bibliographic control. The success of these large systems in accomplishing technical processing tasks (such as shared cataloging) which benefit from economies of scale tended to minimize the benefits of interpersonal networking. [1]

For example, here in the Research Triangle, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University formed a consortium decades ago called TRLN, the Triangle Research Library Network. It had it beginnings in sharing catalog cards and collection management policies. Recently, North Carolina Central University has become a member of the consortium, and collectively, TRLN can boost a collection rivaling all but the largest of academic institutions. A situation especially attractive to students, faculty, and nearby businesses because of the universities' close proximity. With the advent of computer databases replacing card catalogs, TRLN created a shared OPAC in the 1980's called BIS (Bibliographic Information System) but it has since been replaced with a commercial vendor product, DRA. While there is still some coordination of collection management policies, now, much more effort is put into acquiring computing resources and bibliographic databases for each of the institutions.


The development of consortiums were/are an outgrowth for the desire for resource sharing, nothing new either, and consortiums seem to be getting bigger and bigger. The global development of OCLC is a prime example. Newer consortiums like Virginia's VIVA, Maryland's Sailor, Texas's Texshare, Colorado's CARL, Ohio's OHIOLINK, Georgia's GALILEO, and North Carolina's embryonic NCLive are newer consortiums on the scene. These consortiums are simply larger organizations of smaller consortiums that have been a part of library organizations for quite a while. All these consortiums have one goal in common, pooling their collective financial resources to leverage greater economic control over their marketplace.

But in an environment where change is the norm, we always have to be on the lookout for new ways to improve old techniques -- techniques for resource sharing and consortium building. Its the Darwinian way; only the organisms (read organization or institutions) who adapt to their environment are the organisms that continue to thrive. Put another way, interlibrary loan is no longer the only resource sharing game in town since our information expectations (like the perdonerance of bibliographic databases, Web pages, and document delivery services) have increased in an age of networked computers. Thus we have to think of better ways to network, literally.

Advantages and disadvantages

At the risk of sounding tright, it is generally considered that two heads are better than one and there is strength in numbers, but working with other people and across library specialties can have its difficulties. Some impediments to consortia development sometimes include:

  1. unaffordable membership fees
  2. slow bureaucracy
  3. difficulty of making a "paradigm shift" to resource sharing [3]

Similarly, there are a number of licencing issues consortium members must be aware of when forming such organizations for the purposes of sharing electronic/bibliographic/computing resources:

Some licensing issues to be aware of are: 1) the number of simultaneous users; 2) the number of participants in the consortium; 3) security methods; 4) selection of resources; 5) pricing formulas; and 6) negotiation for consortia. Advantages of cooperative situations are probable best price, wider, consistent access, more cooperative development with vendors and publishers, and that funding comes more easily from both internal and external sources. Disadvantages are that one may not always get the best price, that it takes longer to make decisions, enforcement of licensing agreements is more difficult, and when negotiating, who does the negotiating? There is also an increased workload in the areas of selection, setting up access with good security, training, and decision making. [3]

Continue your growth

This being said the question is, "Should you put more effort into resource sharing and consortium building?" The answer is, "Yes, especially if you want your to continue to thrive in the foreseeable future." One good reason is true institutions usually outlive individuals. If you participate in the creation of institutions (consortiums) and you have ongoing participation in the institutions, then your interests are likely to be considered in decision-making processes.

Another good reason is the development of the information economy. Libraries were never the only information game in town, but in today's world this is even more true. The newer "players" in this game are increasingly economically motivated -- businesses. Their goal is not to guarantee an informed public. Their goal is not to educate. Their goal is not to save lives. Their goal is make money, and they are not going to charge just enough money to insure a profit. They are going to charge as much money as the market can bear. The goals of libraries and librarianship do not coincide with the goals of business, and since there is strength in numbers it is important to form consortiums so you can make an effect on the marketplace. Consortiums allow you to speak with a voice of authority rather than a murmur.

Digital resources put a new spin on resource sharing. They eliminate some impediments and create others. (Sometimes, and this may be blasphemy, I really wonder whether or not all of our computer technology is really improved our lives but that is another column.) In an age of digital content, there is less of a need for everybody to have each item. If you knew that one institution was responsible for collecting and maintaining specific resources, and you knew the institution would continually provide access to the collection, then digital resource sharing makes a lot of sense. Since copies of digital items are identical to their originals, there is less and less of a need for everybody to have a copy of the same items.

Modern librarianship as defined by the last 100 years assumes an underlying resource sharing and cooperative work ethic. It has always been a profession of partners and not competitors. Developments in modern resources sharing, whether they be document delivery services or computing services, do not have to alter this ethic. Learn to keep your old traditions but apply them to new environments and your institution will grow and continue to provide useful services.


  1. Ladner, "Resource Sharing by Sci-Tech and Business Libraries: Informal Networking and the Role of Professional Associations.", LIBRES v2n12 (December 15, 1992)
  2. Cavanaugh, "Automation Through Consortiums - The Best Way!", LITA Newsletter v17n4 (Fall 1996)
  3. Clark, "Summary Of Meetings: 1996 Charleston Conference.", ACQNET v6n36 (November 26, 1996)

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This article was originally published in a Computers in Libraries column.
Date created: 1998-04-15
Date updated: 2004-11-07
Subject(s): consortiums; resource sharing;