A co-operative model to circulating technology collections

Circulating technology collections are seeing increased popularity in academic settings. Devices like the iPad are designed to be refreshed about every year. Observers of the consumer electronics market will note that many of the devices so coveted are designed for obsolescence. This planned obsolescence poses problems for collecting and circulating technology.

Technology is a different type of resource than a book. Librarians know how to preserve books, but in general, the preservation and conservation of electronics is related to a rapidly changing marketplace. Considering the rate of obsolesce and the game we continually lose in the purchase of consumer electronics, what rental models do libraries need in order to maximize collections budgets in this area?

image of circulating technology
Circulating technology at the Undergraduate Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The Nash Equilibrium may be instructive for co-operative models applied to library circulating collections. Two or more libraries that know each other’s choices can cooperate and still pursue individual best interests.  In general, this works because each cooperating group doesn’t change its approach based on what the other agent is doing; it assumes the other will continue its maximally beneficial strategy. This is germane to the collection of tech in circulating collections if we consider that no library is entering into the consumer electronics market alone; rather, we are all entering into the same problem area.

We all have a limited collections budget and we are all highly concerned with getting the most out of our shrinking collections budgets — all while innovating and keeping pace with a changing digital landscape.

One non-profit business model I’ve pondered is setting up a type of library co-operative where libraries (the set of all libraries that collect technology for loaning to patrons) do not actually purchase any of the electronics that are planned to become obsolete but rather, by size of their co-operative set are able to pool resources into rental paradigms. We would be able to do this through an open online interface that showed what individual libraries wanted to offer, and what they were able to contribute in order to rent the given technology.

On the co-op’s website, a library or other educational institution would indicate they would like to rent consumer electronics equipment, once the co-op hits a profitable/break-even threshold for renting, then all libraries will get the contract to rent. The reason why this works is because all libraries have chosen to rent for a set period at a set price using Nash equilibria to modulate the rental threshold algorithm.

When the renting contract expires, the co-op can (a) get our rentals back, and sell wholesale, but not as a rule keep any inventory, or (b) if the library (rentee) thinks the technology isn’t obsolete by the time the contract ends, they can purchase at a marked down rate. This is not completely without precedent, since many libraries use a rental option for their new release books.

Such a tech cooperative helps to mitigate the risk of consumer electronic obsolescence for libraries – – there isn’t any purchase, except as managed through the cooperative. And since we know all too well that consumer electronics are built in with designed-obsolescence, it doesn’t make financial sense for a library or educational institution to purchase an item that will not be in demand later, or will only be useful for a short time.

Is this the year for a library technology co-op? Is ALA a place that could manage such an operation; a Tech Co-op housed within LITA? Would your institution participate in such a rental paradigm?

The Start-Up Library

“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” – David Foster Wallace*

What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?

To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.

Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.

Search services would act and look contemporary

If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.

Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.

We would embrace perpetual beta.

If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?

We wouldn’t settle.

For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?

We would be bold.

We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.

The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.

If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.


* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace