The invisible market

How much do publishers really know about librarians' needs? Freelance writer Ralph Adam reports on the findings of the first survey into the library market for bibliographical data</p><p>
Many in publishing still see a "bibliographical record" as the 5"x3" cards that the British National Bibliography (BNB) once sent to subscribing librarians, who then made local changes before filing them in their catalogues. In those not too distant days "hi-tech" meant having matching 5"x3" n.c.r. (no carbon required) order slips, with enough copies to be filed by acquisitions librarians, library suppliers (i.e. booksellers) and reservations clerks. There was room for mysterious supplier codes, such as "ask", "mod" or "foy" to be inscribed and little boxes for O/O, NYP or O/P.</p><p>
Use of the various bibliographical sources has, in the past, tended to be split on a functional level. In a typical library, the acquisitions department (the "buyers") would either select directly from BNB, aided by publishers' catalogues, jackets and other bibliographies, or else the department would circulate this material to relevant staff. In the case of industrial and academic libraries, the acquisitions department might circulate the material to particular users (the "selectors") to mark items they felt ought to be purchased.</p><p>
Cataloguers and classifiers used BNB cards, supplemented by the examination of individual books, to create local records; staff dealing with readers' enquiries verified bibliographic details with Whitaker's British Books in Print (and its electronic successors, BookBank and LibWeb) as well as with BNB and other bibliographies.</p><p>
Cataloguing the book stock and classifying it by one of the standard sets of rules (such as the Dewey or Library of Congress classification schemes) were seen as arcane, but essential, library functions. In many libraries all staff were (grudgingly) expected to do their share. As library school subjects, cataloguing and classifying were often compulsory. Yet few asked why so many resources were employed in such labour-intensive, artisanal activities in modern libraries. And no one questioned whether sources that were basically designed for booksellers were particularly suited to the needs of librarians.</p><p>
Race for market domination
However, much has now changed. Bibliographical records now power sophisticated library management systems. In the dotcom world, inhabited by the likes of Amazon and Bol, bibliographical records have effectively become shop windows. A whole range of commercially aware organisations is competing - and forming alliances - to grab a share of the potentially lucrative bibliographical data market. One will surely emerge as brand leader. That is why publishers are developing enhanced services, suppliers are adding new features, such as book jackets, contents pages and reviews to their products, and cross-industry groups are creating standard data formats.</p><p>
But for whose benefit?</p><p>
Until recently, the major bibliographical data suppliers - Whitaker and Book Data - geared their efforts primarily to the book trade, and librarians had to make the best of what was available. Apart from the British National Bibliography and the British Museum Catalogue, very few of the librarians' "standard" sources were designed with them in mind, and it was a case of making do with what was available. That leaves librarians as the unknown quantity. Little is known of what bibliographical tools they need, and whether they might form a viable "market" - or "markets", since different types of library appear to need different forms of service.</p><p>
It is known, however, that pressure of time has increased librarians' frustration at not being able to use the widest range of sources for book selection, and that they are increasingly forced to use short cuts.</p><p>
A team of researchers from London's City University, led by Dr David Nicholas, has attempted for the first time to identify the elements of this market. The researchers asked librarians and industry experts (both in this country and abroad) what they felt librarians wanted and needed from bibliographical information. The project looked at the basic record, where it comes from and how it is used. It also investigated who pays for the records. Major conflicts were identified, such as the need for more money to develop new ordering mechanisms, at a time of governmental pressure for "efficiency" (through outsourcing, for example) and against the reality of decreasing funds.</p><p>
The research involved a literature review; a survey covering all types of libraries; interviews with librarians, booksellers, publishers and data suppliers; and an examination of the alliances being formed between the different sections of the industry. Interviews were also carried out with overseas librarians and suppliers in order to see how they view the British market, and how easy it is for foreign librarians to find out about and obtain UK imprints.</p><p>
Need for publishers to refocus
So, what did the researchers discover? A key finding was that publishers should see the library and bookselling markets as very different. And that means refocusing their data supply mechanisms if they plan to stay in both.</p><p>
The library market is still segmented along functional lines: acquisitions, cataloguing and enquiry desk staff, for instance, may have quite different needs. In one library it took systems, technical services and reference librarians to be brought together in order to get a full response. Different types of library (for example, academic, public or industrial) may have quite different needs. A service that works well in one sector may not be appropriate for others, while an approach that suits bookshops may have little relevance to libraries. One person described bibliographical data as "library wallpaper", and how many of us can answer questions on our wallpaper accurately?</p><p>
It is no surprise that, when asked to rate the key characteristics of a good bibliographical supplier, most librarians cited "accuracy of data" and "timeliness/currency" as the most important factors, followed by "authority" and "ease of use" (though "accuracy" and "authority" may have been confused in some people's minds). "Cost", as one might expect from people who think in terms of "free" information, came low on their list of priorities. Not surprisingly, it was also very hard to get any idea of the budgets available for bibliographical information.</p><p>
NMarket leaders
Who is the market leader for bibliographical data provision? The survey shows that, as yet, no one has a major share. The British Library was quoted most often as the main supplier (though by fewer than 15% of respondents), with nearly 20 companies mentioned. The situation becomes even more complicated when one considers that many bibliographical data suppliers take feeds from more than one source, mixing and matching the information to create their own compound products. They need high-quality, well-trained staff to disaggregate and reassemble the data and maintain its accuracy.</p><p>
One large academic library illustrates how complicated this can get. It uses the Dynix library system, which comes with preconfigured bibliographical databases (supplied by the British Library and the Library of Congress). It also uses Dawson's Web-based service and obtains "shelf-ready" books from the same source. But the British Library and Dawson's both receive data from Bibliographic Data Services (BDS) of Dumfries (which currently operates the British Library's cataloguing-in-publication service), with Whitaker, Book Data and, no doubt, others also in the mix. (An interesting feature of this market is the fact that retailers of bibliographical data often compete with one or other of their suppliers to sell on elements of the same information.)</p><p>
The project also looked at how librarians handle bibliographical data. As already mentioned, there is still something of an artisan approach to cataloguing and classification, and the labour-intensive nature of these activities inevitably makes them expensive. Creation of records locally is justified in several ways: the need to amend standardised records so as to cater for users' subject interests; the creation of new records where these are not already supplied; and the addition of data on the location of particular titles (such as which branch libraries or specialist collections have copies).</p><p>
Although the main bibliographical services may omit highly specialised or ephemeral books and the output of small publishers on cost grounds, some services, such as those provided by BDS, are now attempting to fill the gap.</p><p>
While the total library market for books is not massive, according to Simon Edwards, Whitaker's head of marketing, the library community is important as it provides a high percentage of business for companies such as Whitaker. (Although booksellers buy more books, they are less preoccupied with data and information.) Librarians are demanding, and require both a high degree of accuracy in the data provided and conformity with certain specialist protocols, such as AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules). Although recent estimates have valued the library market for book data at around &pound;250m, it appears to be highly segmented.</p><p>
More and more services in the pipeline
New bibliographical products, such as the various "shelf-ready" services (through which books arrive in the library ready catalogued and classified), have either recently come on stream or are about to enter the market. Meanwhile, new services are continually being developed. Respondents to the survey did, however, question the adequacy of the market research underlying some launches.</p><p>
Jon Windus, head of IT services and product development at Book Data, sees these as exciting times: librarians' needs for accurate, timely and full information, both before and after publication, are increasing. He foresees considerable opportunities for the development of high-quality data to improve access to materials for users, to streamline processes and to help librarians develop their roles within their communities.</p><p>
An unusual feature of the library market is that the "consumers" (i.e. librarians) do not consider themselves to be part of a market. Perhaps this is because they find it difficult to see bibliographical data as an identifiably separate element of their work, rather than as something permeating many aspects of it. Indeed, there is an element of mystery: librarians often appeared unclear as to where bibliographical data comes from, who supplies it and how much it costs.</p><p>
Cost is a key issue
Cost turned out to be one of the key issues of the findings. Librarians often think that bibliographical information is, and should be, free. It has never, of course, really come free - in the past it was concealed among other charges. Now, however, cataloguing departments are being cut and the only viable alternative is outsourcing. But who is going to convince librarians that book descriptions are commodities that are bought, resold and require "hard cash" - commodities that can be cheap only in a high-volume market?</p><p>
One factor contributing to this confusion over cost is the wide range of sources from which librarians get information on new books. The information comes not only from publishers, but also through wholesalers, information suppliers, booksellers and conventional library suppliers. Some information comes from Internet bookshops, such as Amazon, or through other Web- sites. Reviews, press advertisements and readers' recommendations all play their part, too.</p><p>
There are, however, signs that librarians are beginning to develop an awareness of the need for cost control in this area. Recent articles in The Bookseller (18th February and 2nd June) have reported how Liverpool City Libraries have made significant cost savings as a result of outsourcing selection of new titles to their suppliers, Askews and Cypher. In an experiment in another part of the country, a major public library is sending the ISBNs of titles on order to BDS, and receiving catalogue records by return. Pressure on local authorities to adopt the government's Best Practice approach is sure to lead to other tests like these.</p><p>
When asked what makes them decide to order a title, most survey respondents claimed to be strongly influenced by "pre-publication reference materials" such as flyers or jackets. "Suppliers' feeds" and print bibliographies were also important. Librarians also find electronic reviews helpful; and "shelf-ready" books are, too, seen as a significant plus factor.</p><p>
The most popular methods for receiving bibliographical data are through a library supplier with the books - though contracts for book supply do not necessarily include the relevant bibliographical data - followed by CD-ROMs, hard copy and the Internet, which all scored equally.</p><p>
Librarians were also asked about the additional work they do to add to or enrich the data received by these methods. Two-thirds claimed to add classification numbers, while a significant proportion said that they enhanced the records with annotations or other information, edited records or altered their format. Increasingly, the library staff responsible for selecting books and using bibliographical data sources are far removed from the managers who deal directly with booksellers and data suppliers.</p><p>
In academic libraries there is an increasing tendency to base selection on the content of lecturers' reading lists, hardly a source for comprehensive and unbiased book information. (At one time, libraries bought multiple copies of most student texts. Now, despite increased student hardship, libraries are unable to afford them.)</p><p>
Academics choose the Web
But, where do lecturers find out about new titles? Much of it comes from the World Wide Web, a major source of information for both academics and librarians. The Web has an image of being the "clean", easy, quick and modern way of getting information - notice, though, that "accurate" does not appear anywhere in the list. Fast delivery is another feature of the image - but there may well be a difference between image and reality. We know very little about how paper and electronic sources compare for currency and ease of access.</p><p>
The Internet has had a big influence on library activities, and the leading brand name is unquestionably Amazon's (because it is free?). The City University project found that librarians of all types depend on Amazon to a surprising degree for information - especially for bibliographical checking. Indeed, some US libraries reported that it is the main source available to reference staff. Yet nobody gave "accuracy of content" as a reason for using Amazon's site, even though its data is compiled from reliable sources (such as Book Data and Whitaker, for the site).</p><p>
Here is a test: pick up a book, any book, and see how it is listed. The nearest book to hand, as I write, turns out to be a text on algorithms. A check of the local library's online catalogue shows all the details correctly recorded. And the Web? makes the book seem poor value by knocking a third off the pagination. So does Blackwell's Website, with an identical record. Surprisingly, perhaps, the publisher's own Website has the title quite wrong (and unretrievable through a title search; I could find it only by looking under the author's name), even though the entry includes a jacket image with, of course, the correct title.</p><p>
Most major publishers now have a Web presence, but few make any attempt to speak to librarians. One has only to look at Penguin's site, where there is an announcement of its new brand strategy that states: "The new brand message should appeal to all audiences: from investors and staff to authors, booksellers and, most vitally, the consumer." The rebranding of Penguin will be expected to appeal to everyone, but no one thought to tell its advertising agency that librarians might form a (lucrative) market segment.</p><p>
While the City University project has not, as yet, looked at Websites in detail, the Robert Gordon University in Scotland has launched a related investigation - to see how publishers are using the Web to get their messages across to different audiences.</p><p>
Big Bang in bibliographic provision
The library market is substantial, although there are far too many suppliers for any one to have a significant share. The days when the British Library and Whitaker were bywords for bibliographic provision are long gone. A shake-out will soon be necessary if the market is to remain viable. The expression Big Bang is being used by some observers, who feel that someone in the industry will need to make a breakthrough during the next 12 months, and that that someone will soon dominate the market.</p><p>
Libraries are investing significant parts of their hard-pressed budgets to buy in bibliographical data (even if they are unaware that the money is being spent). Yet they continue to see a need to amend this data, which suggests a mismatch of resources. One supplier of bibliographical data commented that new services are being created in a "haze", and arrive on the market as if by osmosis. It might be wise for more substantial research to be undertaken, so that we know more about librarians' needs, before the industry explodes with too big a bang.</p><p>
A summary of the City University project will appear in a forthcoming edition of THE JOURNAL OF LIBRARIANSHIP AND INFORMATION SCIENCE.</p><p>