Overview of Acquisitions | The Principles of Acquisitions | The Nitty-gritty of Acquisitions | Format Considerations | Automating Acquisitions | Selecting and Evaluating Vendors | Further Information | Self-Assessment #10
Overview of Acquisitions
Once materials have been selected by staff or requested by customers, the acquisitions process begins - that is, locating the right item, ordering it, and processing the item and the paperwork once they arrive. Sometimes it is still necessary to do what is called “verification” which is the process of verifying the exact author, title, price, publisher and ISBN for a book or the relevant information for another type of format. With the availability of vendor online databases containing inventory information as well as reviews, most libraries have minimal verification work to be done. Selection and acquisition may or may not be separate processes, depending on the size of your library and staff.
Although acquisitions procedures may vary depending on the library’s mission and resources, all libraries have some goals in common. These include acquiring materials as quickly and economically as possible and minimizing the amount of paperwork, filing and follow-up needed. Effective working relationships with vendors are very important as well. In a small library where only one or two people handle the entire acquisitions process, some strategies work better than others in achieving these goals.
This section considers some possible acquisitions strategies and suggests ways to simplify the process using the Web. We also briefly discuss automation as one way to streamline the process. The focus of the discussion is on printed materials, especially books, although we also discuss how to acquire periodicals, audiovisual materials, and electronic resources. Sources for local and regional materials are discussed in the Special Collections section of this website.
One of the best Web sites for all sorts of information on acquisitions is AcqWeb. Included at this site are lists of publishers, vendors, pricing guides, related listservs and web sites and much more. Although this site is no longer being updated, it remains a good starting point for many acquisition inquiries. Another comprehensive list of acquisition resources as well as resources related to all aspects of technical services can be found at Technical Services Unlimited although be sure to check the last update date for both of these sites. They have not been well maintained in recent years but still provide many useful links and lists.
The Principles of Acquisitions
In 1994, ALCTS (Association for Libraries and Technical Services) a division of the American Library Association prepared and adopted the Statement on Principles and Standards of Acquisitions Practice. This statement grew out of a concern for ethical issues in the acquisition transactions especially for university libraries whose materials budgets often run into the millions of dollars. Previous to the development of this statement, acquisition librarians looked to the statements on professional ethics developed by a diverse range of professional purchasing associations including that of the National Association of Educational Buyers. The full text of the adopted statement is presented here. It is worth considering and even discussing in all types of libraries. Ethical practice is not usually an area of librarianship that receives much attention. It is of importance for those who determine where a library will put its materials and automation business. We may not be rich but we do spend a large portion of our funding on these things. Spending the money wisely and without prejudice or any appearance or intent of unethical or compromising conduct is important.
In all acquisitions transactions, a librarian:
- gives first consideration to the objectives and policies of his or her institution;
- strives to obtain the maximum ultimate value of each dollar of expenditure;
- grants all competing vendors equal consideration insofar as the established policies of his or her library permit, and regards each transaction on its own merits;
- subscribes to and works for honesty, truth, and fairness in buying and selling, and denounces all forms and manifestations of bribery;
- declines personal gifts and gratuities;
- uses only by consent original ideas and designs devised by one vendor for competitive purchasing purposes;
- accords a prompt and courteous reception insofar as conditions permit to all who call on legitimate business missions;
- fosters and promotes fair, ethical, and legal trade practices;
- avoids sharp practice;
- strives consistently for knowledge of the publishing and bookselling industry;
- strives to establish practical and efficient methods for the conduct of his/her office;
- counsels and assists fellow acquisitions librarians in the performance of their duties, whenever occasion permits.
The Nitty-Gritty of Acquisitions
The ethical issues associated with acquisition practice have not substantially changed over the years, but the actual work of acquisitions has changed even in the smallest libraries. The following steps in the acquisition process used to be very distinct operations but increasingly these steps are actually skipped entirely or are combined with other steps so that the entire process is less labor intensive than it used to be.
- Collect Orders
In a small library, both staff and customers may request materials on a regular basis. If you select many of your books from journals, publishers’ catalogs and prepublication announcements, much of the bibliographic information you need to place the order is listed in the catalog or with the review. It is not necessary to have staff complete order forms if the library agrees upon a means of marking and initialing titles/items in print publications. Many libraries now just have staff members who do selection “mark” items in a vendor’s database and the acquisitions person then verifies the order and the order is placed. Individual pieces of paper for each title ordered are not generated. However the library does it, it should be as simple as possible and not involve more forms and extra work than necessary.
For customer requests, you may want to use a formal request form (on the library’s website) so that as much of the pertinent information, including the name of the requester is gathered from the beginning. A good element of information to include on your request form is “tell us where you heard about this item” so that you have someplace to start if the information provided is very inadequate. The bibliographic information from this step is also used in placing the order and processing the book after receipt.
- Search and Verify Bibliographic Information
There was a time when this step was the most labor and time intensive of all of the acquisition operations. Once a request was received, someone had to verify that this item really existed and was in print. This is now only done when the bibliographic information is so incomplete as to make it impossible to identify the item in a vendor’s database or online catalog. Libraries also included in this searching and verifying step checking paper “on order” slips to make sure the item was not already on order. Some libraries even re-checked the catalog to be certain that the title was not already in the collection. As one can imagine, this step became a neurotic’s delight! Libraries developed extensive routines to make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. This was another way in which libraries were sometimes penny wise and dollar foolish. Ordering and receiving a duplicate copy of a book now and then is far less expensive than doing all of this detailed checking in obscure places rather than accepting an occasional mistake. Requests for purchase could be held-up for a month or more during this process. In most libraries today, the requesting staff member is the one responsible for making sure the item is needed. The staff member responsible for doing the actual acquisitions does not have to check every title in a variety of paper files to determine its status.
- Choose an Option for Placing Orders
In most libraries the next step after gathering or receiving the orders and requests is for the acquisition person to decide from which source to order the item. The first choice for most items, especially trade books and routine types of library materials, should be the primary vendor used by the library. Such a vendor is likely to be Baker & Taylor or Ingram or a similar library vendor. If the regular vendor is not an option for a particular item then the next likely choice is probably an online or in town bookstore. The online bookstore might be Amazon, Barnes & Noble or some other source which will allow a library to establish an account or use a credit card. Libraries routinely now order older books through Amazon’s and other used book sources. Libraries use this means to acquire like-new cheap copies of titles that would formerly have gone through interlibrary loan channels where the borrowing and returning of an item has a hidden cost far in access of the $1 to $15 used book price. Often the turn around time is also faster than interlibrary loan. If the vendor or a bookstore does not work, the library may have to order directly from the publisher or distributor but this is a choice to be avoided if possible. Such an order, even if it has a bigger discount, may cost more because of the extra work to process the order, pay the invoice and deal with mistakes in shipping and billing. Some small presses and reference book publishers do not distribute their materials through library vendors so that the library must order directly.
If an item is needed immediately, than a local bookstore (if there is one) or an online source may be the quickest way to get a particular title or additional copies of a very popular book. Setting up an account with a local bookstore is good business and there are times when this is the most efficient way to acquire something that the library needs now. The ultimate decision regarding the source for each item depends upon a number of variables that must be weighed by the acquisition person. These variables include how quickly the item is needed, which source has the best price or discount, the cost of shipping, how easy the ordering process is likely to be, and how reliable the various sources have proven to be in the past. Good acquisition librarians do not have to dither about these decisions. Most of these decisions are obvious to them as they gain experience. Only occasionally are there competing options to consider.
If the library uses a library vendor or a number of such vendors, it is important to choose and monitor vendors carefully and to switch if service is not satisfactory. You should expect the vendor to provide: a large inventory in stock, prompt and accurate order fulfillment, accurate reporting of the order’s status, reasonable and competitive discounts, accommodation of the library’s needs and policies (especially concerning paperwork) and a range of services that may include cataloging and/or standing order plans. Your colleagues on the state listserv or at LAPR may be able to recommend reliable sources. AcqWeb has an extensive directory of publishers and vendors on the Web.
- Assign a Purchase Order
Not all libraries are required to use purchase orders. If you do use them, then even if ordering online one must indicate a purchase order number. With online ordering some libraries use a single purchase order number for each fiscal year for their major vendors. This reduces the amount of paperwork associated with receiving a shipment of 27 books ordered over the past three months with a dozen different purchase order numbers and that many separate invoices and packing slips to track. Books, unlike most things generally ordered in the public realm, do not all come in at once. They trickle in over a period of time so that traditional purchase orders can remain “open” for long periods. On the other hand, a unique purchase order number assigned to each order is invaluable if you need to trace, return, dispute or otherwise follow up on orders. When ordering online with a library account already established, an actual purchase order does not need to be sent. A printout of the order for today along with the purchase order will be filed in the “on order” file. If an actual purchase order must be sent with an order, the following information should be included on it: a unique number, the library’s address, any special instructions about the order, complete bibliographic information for all items, and an authorized signature.
- Place the Order
The details of placing the order depend on whether your acquisitions system is automated, but one way or another you have to get the order to the vendor (electronically, by fax or by mail). Every order for a book should include complete and accurate bibliographic information. Increasingly this is actually supplied from the vendor’s database. The library may only need to know that it wants to buy the newest book by Stephen King. The complete bibliographic information is not necessary because the acquisitions personnel will find the book with all of its detailed information. One does still have to select the right edition (binding, size, etc.). Known bibliographic information should be included as part of the request or selection of the book if possible but it is no longer essential to have all of that in hand to do the ordering. One also has to indicate how many of any one thing is being ordered. In most vendor databases the default is one and the customer has to change the number to increase the number of copies.
With some library systems it is possible to download brief or even fairly complete bibliographic records from the vendor’s website right into the library’s catalog and to indicate an “on order” status for these titles. There is a charge, of course, for the records but the patrons and all library staff members know what is already on order. In addition, in most systems, if the library chooses to allow it, patrons can begin to place holds on the on-order titles. What a great thing! It also then allows the library to track more quickly those titles that are going to be in such high demand that additional copies will be needed. The sooner the library knows this, the sooner it can decide to get more copies. In most automated systems there is a way to incorporate these on-order items. For some systems it is easier than in others. Then once the item arrives, the bibliographic record is edited if necessary, that status is changed, a bar code (item record) is entered and the book flies through processing in no time at all. There are many variations on this approach but it is one that patrons are coming to expect. Some libraries have opted to put orders in the catalog only after the book arrives in the library. From a customer’s point of view, this does not seem very user friendly although it does eliminate a lot of “when will that book be in?” questions at the public service desks.
Not all libraries need to do all their own detailed bookkeeping and accounting. In some cases at least part of that work is done by the city or county government although the library does need to supply the appropriate official with the necessary details. Regardless of who does the actual accounting, the library needs to identify what account is to be charged for each item at the time that they place the order and thus encumber the funds. Some libraries have only a few accounts such as adult books, juvenile books, adult AV, juvenile AV, periodicals & newspapers, and electronic resources. Other libraries also have endowment and gift accounts, or divide their materials accounts in other ways. There are many “right” ways to determine the account structure for the materials budget but however it is done, now is the time that the encumbrance must be identified with a specific account. In most libraries the person doing the selection actually determines what account is to be charged while in other libraries it is determined in a de facto manner—the children’s librarian selected it, the children’s account is charged. Some libraries always encumber the list price knowing that the item will not usually cost that amount. Then those involved in tracking the expenses always know that in actual fact only about 2/3 of the total encumbrances for books really count and that they have another 1/3 to spend. Other libraries always deduct 20 to 30% from the list price of books to encumber dollars closer to the final cost of the items ordered. Either way can work but one then has to be consistent in how one calculates the encumbrances.
When the order arrives along with the invoice, the books or other items are checked against the invoice or packing slip and the purchase order or other record of the order. It is then determined which items are to be kept and which items, if any, are to be returned. At that time, the actual total cost to be charged to each account will be clear—it is the bottom line on the invoice (minus any credit to be taken for returned items). Now the acquisitions staff member will adjust the encumbrances but add the actual amount spent to the expenditures for each account. At any one time the library then knows exactly how much money has actually been spent and approximately how much more is on order for each account. Thus the library director can know if more ordering needs to be done or if the library needs to reduce its amount of selection. If we are 9 months (75%) through the fiscal year and 85% of the book budget has actually been spent and there is another $1,500 (in this case, 15%) on order and encumbered, the library had better either increase the amount of money for books by reducing the amount remaining in one of the other materials accounts or stop ordering books at least until a bit closer to the end of the year. Tracking this fiscal information and providing budget reports at least relative to the materials budget is another aspect of the acquisitions process. Even the smallest library today can use spreadsheet software (such as Microsoft Excel) to track this information efficiently. It is not necessary to track the cost of every book but only the amount for each order for each account.
- Receive Materials
At least 75 percent of each order from a vendor should be received within two weeks. The rest of the order should be received within 90 days. Consistent performance below this level is a sign to find a new vendor. Libraries usually establish an automatic cancellation date (i.e., 90 or 180 days). This means that 3 to 6 months after placing the order any open items are automatically cancelled and the library is notified. At that time the library can decide to forget the item or to pursue another source to acquire it. Sometimes, the library merely turns around and re-orders the title because the book was delayed and published later than previously announced. When the materials arrive, they should be compared to what was ordered and inspected for obvious damage. Publishing defects will eventually surface and books can be returned to a vendor with a publishing error (pages bound upside down, a chapter missing, etc.) even if the book was already processed by the library and even used. The vendor will return the book to the publisher and receive a refund. The difficulty is that the library may at that time not be able to find a good copy of the book to purchase. Despite this possible eventuality, it is not cost effective to delay the processing of books while someone examines each one for publishing defects. The vendor should clearly indicate what, if any, items are on back order or out of stock and when delivery is expected. Out of print or unavailable items should also be indicated.
- Return Books (if necessary)
As you receive shipments, you may find that there are materials that should be returned, including defective books and errors in title, edition or quantity. If you have not processed the book, most vendors agree to accept it as a return. Anything returned to the vendor should be accompanied by an explanation of the problem and what action is requested (a credit or a replacement book). When negotiating agreements with vendors, be sure to consider their return policy and the needs of your library. Most vendors, like other merchants doing business in an online environment, include a form to be completed for returns that guides you through the information necessary. Returns should always be done in a timely manner. It is good business to be conscious of the rights of the supplier and not just your rights as a customer. When negotiating a contract with a vendor, shipping fees are often negotiable and that includes both the fees for shipping items to you as well as the return fees.
- Process the Books
The materials have to be stamped (one or two places only, please!), bar coded or otherwise processed, unless the vendor provides those services. If you expect to return or dispute any items, do not process them.
- Make Payment
When books have been received, do your best to deliver payment within 30 to 60 days of delivery. Some vendors even offer additional discounts for prompt payment. Invoices should be checked carefully for shipment or discount errors before they are paid. Adjustments for returned or undelivered items should be taken into account. See # 6 above regarding the further bookkeeping to be done at this point.
While much of the acquisitions process we discussed for books also applies to other materials, there are some differences depending on type of material. We identify some of the acquisitions issues unique to Periodicals, Audiovisual Materials, and Electronic Resources and provide some Internet resources that should help in the acquisitions process.
The major library vendors are also supplying at least some of the audiovisual materials most purchased by their customers. DVDs and audio books are those most usually available. If the vendor you use does not supply these formats or if they do have a particular title you want than the library needs to find either a vendor that specializes in the particular format of interest or in some cases the library will have to order through the producer or distributor. An example of such an instance is PBS. Libraries generally order DVDs from them a couple of times a year. Some producers of children’s material especially are not distributed through the usual channels and thus direct orders are necessary. With the increasing use of downloadable audio books and movies, we will see more libraries having contracts for these services enabling authorized patrons to download titles directly to their IPods, MP3 players, or computers without the library actually “having” the titles in the building. These are much like e-books purchased from NetLibrary. They are available electronically and the library selects the titles, but the library does not ever actually “have” physical items.
For serial items and those items that function like serials because they come up for renewal, the acquisition process is somewhat different. For periodicals it is best to use a periodical vendor who can reconcile renewal dates for you, provide one renewal list, one invoice and one place to take questions and problems. A serial vendor will negotiate an annual service charge that will reflect the number of titles they are handling for the library, the ease or difficulty of obtaining the titles on your list, the type of price markup the publisher places on the title, and the amount of work it might be to reconcile your confusing subscription situation at the outset. The cost is worth every penny and will save many hours of staff time.
As discussed in the section on Electronic & Internet Resources, digitized data is usually licensed rather than purchased. However, it is still part of the acquisition process. Your decision to acquire - that is, to make available to your customers - online resources will be driven by the library’s ability to provide delivery platforms or gateways, the availability of user support and training, and by your community’s interest in the many types of information available. Because electronic resources often require licensing agreements rather than true purchasing, “acquiring” these resources is a continuing process not unlike that of acquiring other serials such as periodicals. The licenses need to be renewed annually or less often. Many libraries use state-wide or other consortia arrangements to purchase the key databases for their libraries. The orders, renewals, invoice payments and reconciliation of accounts are the same for these as for other acquisitions. In addition, the library does not need to negotiate a complex license agreement but merely agrees to the terms negotiated at the consortia level. It is in the best interests of the library to use consortia arrangements as much as possible to purchase electronic packages. In addition to those offered through state libraries, public libraries can take advantage of those offered through OCLC regional providers as well as some library system consortia.
When the library does decide to purchase a database or other type of electronic access license on their own, the initial review and the renewal process may include comparing prices for similar electronic resources, freely available electronic information on the same subject, considering past use as well as anticipated future use of the resource, and understanding what work will be involved in providing off-site access for your users. The library will also be directly responsible with working with the supplier to make the access work once the contract is in place.
Automation - using computers to perform some or most of the steps involved in acquiring an item - is a common solution to the problem of handling many repetitive, detailed transactions. Even a computer and competent use of spreadsheet software can greatly simplify the acquisitions process. Once the library’s catalog and circulation systems are automated, adding an acquisition module is often possible. Acquisitions software can simplify the acquisitions process further but be aware that many acquisition modules have far too many “bells and whistles” and such features sometimes make the process far more complex than a small library needs. There are many library automation systems that can offer fast, accurate transactions, and detailed reports for acquisitions; these can result in less time and money spent on the acquisitions process. Some commonly automated areas include encumbering funds, preparing purchase orders, sending orders, tracking and preparing correspondence for late or missing items, and receiving, and processing invoices. Sometimes, however, the number of times a single title record needs to be handled can increase by as much as a factor of 6 thus making the acquisition system more costly in staff time than running parallel systems such as using the vendor’s website to do ordering and to generate order reports and then using a spreadsheet software program to do the bookkeeping for each order. The decision to use an automated or manual acquisitions system depends on several factors: the size of the library and staff, budget, computer skills, and training opportunities. Considering the use of an automated acquisition system should cause you to critically evaluate the process you currently use, and may spark procedural changes even if you decide not to automate or upgrade.
Before deciding to move to an automated system, or to change the system you currently have, a cost study is a good idea. By determining how much you are currently spending on all acquisition costs, including salaries, supplies, overhead and time, you will have a better idea of what you might want from a system change. Converting to or upgrading an automation system takes time in research, planning, implementation and adjustment.
There are many sources for information about automation. Similar libraries that have considered or implemented automation systems are a prime resource. When you are ready to contact vendors, the library development division of the state library can often offer suggestions. Library automation vendors exhibiting at the annual state library association conference are more than willing to demonstrate system functions and to come to your library to discuss further considerations. Library automation vendors are being purchased, changing names, combining and totally disappearing on a regular basis. Get expert advice from other librarians before making a decision in this area. Many of the leading library journals run regular articles or columns on automation and the ads themselves can also help to expand your list of potential systems. Like all areas of technology, this is a quickly changing landscape. Consult experts at the state library and at other libraries in your area. Visit other libraries and talk to staff members from all aspects of library operations before signing a contract for an automated system.
Selecting and Evaluating Vendors
Selecting vendors is not as difficult as it once was. There are fewer library book and audiovisual vendors than there once were and those that are viable in the marketplace do the following things:
- Warehouse a large volume of popular material for immediate shipment to customers
- Have an online database that:
- Contains historical as well as current bibliographic records
- Can track customer orders, order and title status, and order history
- Allows staff members to mark records for ordering
- Places orders only when batch orders are approved by person of authority
- Can accept electronic payments
- Provide value added services such as an information packed website that provides things like a running list of vendor best sellers and other collection development aids
- Provide electronic or print advance notices regarding popular and forthcoming titles
- Handle audio books and DVDs as well as print books
- Have a philosophy of customer service and partnering with you for good business
- Deliver 75% of most orders within two weeks of the order date (When doing a retrospective or other unusual project, the library recognizes that the performance will necessarily be different because of the general content of a retrospective or special needs order.)
The best ways to learn about vendors and their services is to talk to other libraries. Visit vendor websites, ask for information, visit their representatives in the exhibits at library conferences, and realize that you can negotiate discounts, shipping costs and other issues but that these vendors should be viewed as partners with us. Together we can both succeed. Without their library and publishing expertise our work would be far more difficult and without libraries many of them would have no customers. Library book vendors are basically wholesalers who make our lives easier. We are not charities and they need to make a profit to stay in business so be reasonable in your business practices and expect the same of them.
Evaluate vendor performance periodically. If performance problems occur, it is time to document their performance and to consider another vendor. Even if you are satisfied with your primary vendors, it is wise to evaluate their performance and to examine the options in the marketplace at least every four or five years. There are many articles in the library literature about evaluating vendor performance and customer expectations are constantly changing. It is wise to look at the appropriate literature and use listservs and other means of communicating with the library community when you are ready to make a change or to do an evaluation of performance.
For Further Information
Association of Library Cataloging and Technical Services. American Library Association. (n.d.) Syllabus for a course or course unit for acquisitions. Retrieved January 2, 2007. [The bibliography attached to this outline is very outdated but the eight page outline of acquisitions topics is still useful.]
Chapman, L. (2004). Managing acquisitions in library and information services (Rev. ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
Evans, G. E., & Sapronaro, M. Z. (2005) Developing library and information center collections (5th ed.). Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Wilkinson, F. C., & Lewis, L. K. (2003). The complete guide to acquisitions management. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.