Book Review: Managing Suppliers and Partners for the Academic Library
Managing Suppliers and Partners for the Academic Library. By David Ball, Facet Publishing, 2005, ISBN 978-1856045476, 192 pages.
As someone who has been involved for longer than I care to remember in various aspects of library relationships with suppliers and other partners, and knowing David Ball of Bournemouth University to be a leading practitioner and advocate in this field, I looked forward with anticipation to working my way through this volume. Nor was I disappointed - this is a fascinating guide to current practice and developments in areas such as procurement, outsourcing, and collaboration with libraries in different sectors.
The book is divided into two main sections, the first covering commercial negotiations with library suppliers of various kinds, the second detailing collaboration with academic (specifically Higher Education) library partners, particularly Further Education (FE) colleges and the UK National Health Service (NHS).
Until comparatively recently, UK academic libraries in the main did not undertake systematic evaluation of their suppliers of journals and books, despite the very large sums of money changing hands. This has now changed completely, and almost all university libraries are members of regional consortia, which carry out regular tendering exercises involving close co-operation between procurement and library professional staff. There is no doubt that this has greatly improved accountability and the achievement of best value for money. David Ball was one of the pioneers in this field with the Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium , and this book provides much background on the advantages of these developments. Even more usefully, extensive practical guidance is provided on the mechanics of preparing specifications and evaluating tenders from potential suppliers, and the author stresses the importance of completing all steps in the procurement cycle, from identifying a need to measuring and monitoring performance.
Although current trends began with tenders for print journal and book supply (and for library management systems, which are included in this volume, but not emphasised, perhaps because their procurement is a book-length topic of its own), the provision of electronic resources is now equally or more important, and receives due prominence in this volume. Business models are discussed, and the 'big deal' for e-journals examined with a critical eye. But e-book models are also given attention: the author feels that this less-developed market may allow libraries to be more proactive in steering business practices in a less restrictive direction. As with other topics, the stress is very much on UK practice - international comparisons are not ignored, but are not prominent.
More generally, this book has much of interest to say on the broader theme of outsourcing, using examples from public libraries as well as Higher Education. Ball contends that there are opportunities for academic libraries to move further in this direction, examining processes such as book selection, binding, cataloguing, and the provision of shelf-ready books. He goes into some detail on the various factors which will influence an outsourcing decision - one fundamental and non-trivial point is the need to know how much an activity is costing to perform in-house - and provides a useful decision matrix to aid judgements in this area.
Moving on to the second part of the book, analysing relationships with partners as opposed to suppliers (though Ball contends that the two are related in many ways, highlighting the vital importance of communication and openness for example), two case studies are offered. Partnerships in general are constantly increasing in importance for academic libraries, with an emphasis on access and making best use of scarce resources, and the two studies exemplify this.
A growing number of Higher Education students are based in Further Education colleges, necessitating agreements between a university library and the libraries in the FE colleges where some of that university's students are now studying. This book draws on experience at Bournemouth as well as elsewhere, and covers strategic management, planning, funding, service provision, training and quality assurance, among other aspects. A useful checklist supporting evaluation of the library services provided by Bournemouth University Partner Colleges is available on the publisher's Web site .
The second study considers relationships with the NHS, a subject of byzantine complication where a 16-page chapter cannot by any means cover all angles and possibilities. Nevertheless, a lot of ground is gone over here, with particular emphasis on nursing, and the same headings - strategic management, planning, funding etc - are used to give a framework to the discussion as in the chapter on Higher Education students in FE. The authors are optimistic that inter-relationships and resource sharing are improving here, while recognising the need for cross-sectoral procurement, something that is now beginning to take shape under the auspices of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the UK Higher Education funding councils and the NHS.
A final chapter looks at collaboration more generally, covering regional developments, and also what seems today to be the pervasive importance of bidding for project funding (usually involving working with a number of partners) from bodies such as JISC including a useful introductory description of the main aspects of project management.
Although there is a good deal more that could be said on quite a number of the subjects covered in this relatively short book (144 pages, plus appendix checklist, abbreviations, bibliography and index), it is an excellent introduction to the whole question of the academic library's relationships with partners of many different hues. It offers very useful practical analysis for library staff grappling with some of the problems and opportunities inherent in providing a modern and cost-effective service in this era of inter-dependence, when no library could or should exist in isolation.
- Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium http://supc.procureweb.ac.uk/
- Checklist to support evaluation of the library services provided by Bournemouth University Partner Colleges http://www.facetpublishing.co.uk/ball/