It’s been an interesting week in digital scholarship. The American Historical Society’s “Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations” kicked off a firestorm of comment and criticism. Public discussion has taken place on Twitter and any number of blogs, and has encompassed everything from the role of the AHA to the selection policies of university presses and the plight of junior scholars in the humanities. A very timely recent article in C&RL (“Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings From a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers”) provided some useful backdrop for the discussion, as have personal statements by history scholars (Jennifer Guiliano’s was particularly interesting) and thoughtful commentary by librarians and others (Kevin Smith at Duke University is, as always, worth a read).

One voice that has been largely missing, however, has been that of library acquisitions. What libraries will and will not buy would seem to be the linchpin of the whole discussion: Scholars are afraid to make their dissertations openly available because presses won’t publish them. Presses won’t publish them because libraries won’t buy them. Or will they? The policies and motivations of acquisitions librarians seem to be the least well-explored aspect of the whole situation, so I asked Dracine Hodges, the Head of the Acquisitions Department at the OSU Libraries, to respond to a few questions. I think her answers shed some light on what goes into an academic library’s decision to buy a book – or not, as the case may be.

Q. What are the criteria we use when selecting books to purchase? 

A. Content selection is largely based on support of existing and emerging teaching curriculum, research agenda, and institutional priorities. We must support core undergraduate learning along with advanced and niche graduate study and professional scholarship.  We also make content selections based on materials obtained through cooperative partnerships in consortia like OhioLINK and the CIC. In addition, selection decisions can also be based upon the availability of material through shared resources via interlibrary loan services. Obviously, quality and cost are important factors as well.

Q. Does OSU have a policy of not buying books that are based on openly available ETDs?

A. We do not have a policy that prohibits buying books that are based on open access ETDs. However, I would say it is a rational approach for libraries because budgets have generally been reduced or flat and libraries have to make their budgets go further with less. In addition to being good stewards, I see it as a means to reduce duplication just as we do when making the choice between electronic and print formats. Generally, libraries are interested in ETDs associated with their institution so it seems a very practical thing that ETD deposits in an IR are becoming the norm. Think of the many ETDs that would have been lost to time if some library hadn’t retained a copy in perpetuity. They are not all readily accessible.

For ETDs originating at other institutions, libraries are able to leverage interlibrary services. I would guess that fulfillment is often a result of OA availability and/or library holdings of a physical copy. There are those elusive TDs that prove difficult to find. However, if cost isn’t prohibitive, which it often is for hard to find TDs, we definitely will purchase them whether original manuscript TD or edited book format.

Q. Can an ETD and a published book really be considered substitutes for each other in the same way that print and electronic versions of the same content are?

A. It is dependent upon a number of factors. Does the “published” version have substantial revisions and updates? Is it a progression of the prior work? These are the same questions we ask when deciding to buy a newer edition of a title. Is it revised, updated, and/or expanded in ways that merit the investment of acquiring it for this new information. The e-book vs. print book scenario isn’t necessarily a one-to-one comparison with the ETD vs. edited monograph publication, though some of the same issues have to be considered around the content. It is not unheard of to have an e-book version of a print title that is missing substantive content such as images due to issues with copyright and related costs. I think it is particularly pertinent for TDs in the arts and humanities, which frequently aren’t as readily available electronically because of the format and multi-media aspects. Additionally, there are definite costs associated with publishing and images in some areas that might not be a factor if fair use can be applied in the library open access scenario. This is a complex topic with significant nuances.

Q. When an electronic version is different from the print version in the ways you mentioned, how do we decide which one to buy?

A. Again, it depends on several factors with the first being availability. Frequently, there is a lack of simultaneous publication across formats, which make it an issue of “just in case” vs. “just in time.” Libraries continue to transition to more and more digital content and in some cases have e-preferred collection development philosophies. However, in these scenarios we have to ask is it better to go ahead and purchase the print edition to provide access to the latest information on a topic of interest in a timely manner? Or is it better to wait for the preferred format? In addition, it is not always possible to know in advance if images will not be included in an electronic version.

I am interested to see how these questions and issues are addressed in models where university presses are part of the library infrastructure. Is there any cooperation? Is there innovation?

I think that last question is extremely interesting, and would love to hear from our colleagues at libraries that have close relationships with their Press – has that relationship informed your selection policies at all? Has the Press gained a greater understanding of how libraries make purchasing decisions?

Finally, a big thanks to Dracine for taking the time to answer my questions!