National Monograph Strategy: scoping the problems

The_Shard  Credit: Ben Griffin.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

I spent last Friday in the shadow of The Shard with an assorted group of librarians, publishers (commercial and Open Access), JISC programme managers and project team, and representatives of RLUK and SCONUL working jointly on one of the strands in the National Monograph Strategy project led by JISC.  For those new to the project it is described as “exploring the potential for a national approach to the collection, preservation, supply and digitisation of scholarly monographs”.   The project blog page at provides more background but the three main outputs will be:

  1. A landscape study: A report that provides a coherent picture of the monographs issue.  This is complete and very comprehensive.
  2. The monograph problem: A report defining and assigning value for the problems that need to be addressed by a national monograph strategy.
  3. The monograph solutions: An outline of the possible solutions which could address the problems identified.

Last week’s workshop focussed on identifying the problems.  A number clustered around the unstable nature of publishing: the problem of sustaining monograph publishing, both commercial and OA, but particularly small university presses, when business models are breaking down; fragmentation of the monograph itself and its changing value in the eyes of academics; demand for publishing outstripping supply; pressure from the REF.

Business models also featured in discussion of the problem areas around shared acquisition, licensing, and access. While shared acquisition has the potential to deliver a better return on public investment there are significant challenges – how would we build a collaborative shared model acceptable to all stakeholders, particularly publishers? A true national collection needs to be widely accessible.  Licensing and copyright legislation were seen as barriers, although it’s possible to see licensing as part of the solution.  National licenses for substantial electronic collections already exist and there are models beyond the UK that would be worth exploring, particularly in Scandinavia.

Having seen collaborative collection development initiatives come and go over the years, I put down a marker for sustainability as one of the key problems, both in terms of long-term commitment from the libraries to maintain collections and in terms of preservation.   There was still a surprising amount of scepticism about digital preservation, which seems like a short-medium issue.  Sustaining the storage, maintenance, and acquisition of print collections is a costly problem with no easy solutions.  In a response to an earlier document from the project John Tuck and I pointed out that not all UK libraries are purchasing only to meet local needs.  The legal deposit libraries, those with a national research support role, and the specialised libraries with unique and distinctive collections, take a much wider view. Any funding model to support a NMS has to recognise the long-term costs of sustaining their role, which by implication would be enhanced.

The workshop concluded with participants voting on their personal top 3 priority problems and explaining why they had been chosen.  At a glance, voting was heaviest for defining the scope and purpose of a national monograph strategy and discovering what stakeholders want from it, followed by that hardy perennial, “uncatalogued stuff” (understanding what we have), and the lack of co-ordination in digitisation, where there is a danger of expensive duplication.  The absence of reliable methods of knowing what has been digitised and whether it can be re-used was lamented. If we are moving to large-scale supply of digital surrogates the problem will need to be overcome.


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