The Charleston Conference: Usage and Innovation

For the past 29 years, academic librarians and academic publishers have gathered in Charleston, SC, in early November to discuss common "Issues in Book and Serials Acquisition." In 1980, it was an informal group of 20 sharing problems and brainstorming solutions—now, the Charleston Conference hosts more than 1,000 attendees every year.

This past November, while the hallways seemed less crowded than in 2007 (before the current economic decline had taken hold), plenary sessions were still filled to capacity and the program was overstuffed with interesting topics. Despite its growth, the conference maintains its reputation for collegial professionalism between publishers and academics—and still puts the emphasis on practical knowledge sharing over visionary set pieces.

One particularly well-conceived panel of interest to AAUP members was a session on the e-Duke Books project subtitled "What have we learned?" The session featured Michael McCullough, Sales Manager at Duke University Press; Lois Schultz, the Duke librarian handling cataloging and MARC record creation for the e-book collection; a Georgia State University librarian who acquired the collection; and a representative of collection vendor YBP. The session was a frank discussion from all sides of how an innovative e-book experiment was developed, and the real challenges they met.

Other AAUP members spoke at sessions on how the economy affects editorial programs and on advising librarians on best practices in publishing. Doug Armato, University of Minnesota Press Director, and Kevin Guthrie, Ithaka President, spoke at the annual "I Hear the Train A Comin'" plenary, focused on what's around the bend in scholarly communications. Many of the plenary sessions were recorded and are being made available, after editing, at

The official 2009 Charleston tagline was "Necessity is the mother of invention," but another, one-word theme seemed prevalent in many sessions and informal conversations: "usage." In the journals world, usage statistics have long been an important component of pricing and licensing discussions. A detailed presentation on how the Institute of Physics develops journals digital pricing made clear how key the "cost-per-access" data point is (as did several tough questions from purchasing librarians in the audience). As monograph-length scholarship begins to ford the book-journal digital divide, usage statistics are going to have an increasing impact on value perceptions in the book world. Indeed, the GSU librarian mentioned that e-Duke Books' offering of COUNTER-compliant usage data was a point in its favor.

There are "usage stats" in the print world, too, of course, though they are often more anecdotal and based on the only partial picture of circulation studies. Highly specialized monographs in small fields can be reasonably assumed to have low circulation (or usage). While it is reasonably argued that increased discoverability of e-books may increase even the most esoteric title's usage, the expectations, standards, and patterns of usage will always be different for books and articles.

The most primal of a book's "usage stats" is at the base of one of Charleston's hot topics this year: patron-driven acquisitions. Under this model, books (in whatever media) are not purchased until requested by a library patron. The University of Denver shared details of their demand-driven acquisitions pilot project. Blackwell Book Services maintains the Denver library's approval plan, and is paid for metadata and profiling work. While certain collections remain on an automatic approval basis (not waiting for a patron request), other books are simply exposed through library systems until a user requests the title. Books are sourced through whatever means will be the appropriate mix of fastest and cheapest, and patrons are given the choice of print and/or e-books when possible. Denver selectors continue to do their usual job of selecting library acquisitions up to the point of purchase. At the end of the pilot, selectors' choices will be compared to user requests and general collection needs to see if this model will continue.

While the Denver librarians talked of this experiment, their hometown was host to another relevant conference, Educause. There, the overlapping ideas of e-books and library-catalog-as-storefront were implicated in Syracuse University librarian Suzanne Thorin's bombshell statement that "the library, as a place, is dead." The basic research tool of browsing the stacks may be taken out of the toolbox, with online search and discovery serving as a substitute (though not a replacement). Days later, Thorin faced an uprising of scholars on her own campus protesting the plans to move part of the Syracuse print collection to a storage facility more than 200 miles away. The bits and bytes and algorithms are thriving, but the stacks have life in them yet. Back in Charleston, publishers and librarians strive each year to bring some harmony to the resulting clamor of scholarly communications.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic & Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP