Buying E-Content: Librarians, Salaries, & Opportunities

CommuniK Commentary by K. Matthew Dames

Commentary by K. Matthew Dames, executive editor.

A friend and colleague sent me this job posting from a well known academic institution located in a major city in the Middle Atlantic region:

Collection Management & Electronic Resources Librarian. [institution name omitted] seeks an energetic and innovative librarian to join the library team and be responsible for the development and management of the library’s collection, including its electronic resources, and for managing the transition from print to electronic resources. He or she will coordinate various aspects of collection development, licensing, and management and implementation of electronic resources, including promotion, access, patron assistance, and troubleshooting. This position reports to the library director and has one paraprofessional assistant. The successful candidate also will participate in library planning and in the library’s education and outreach programs.


– Master’s degree in Library Science from an ALA accredited library school or equivalent

– Demonstrated organizational, time management, and team work skills


– Background or experience in managing electronic resources or licensing

– Experience with electronic resource management systems or digital library implementations

– Training and experience searching MEDLINE and other biomedical databases

– Basic database creation and management skills

– Ability to handle multiple projects

– AHIP accreditation

Salary: Hiring range $38,000 – $45,000, depending on qualifications and experience.

This job solicitation reflects a recent trend: organizations have begun to appreciate the cost of buying electronic content (or “e-content”), the skill needed to negotiate e-content contracts, and the skill needed to manage and distribute e-content once it enters the building. To the extent that this posting is an institutional acknowledgment of the importance of e-content use, access, and procurement, I think it is positive.

Unfortunately, this posting reflects another trend: organizations — particularly libraries — still are not compensating e-content managers and negotiators at a level that is commensurate with the importance of the position. Said more simply, the salary range for the instant job posting is a joke, and suggests that the institution is not taking the position seriously, is unaware of what the position entails, or both.

In this article, I’ll discuss why this salary is woefully inappropriate, why most librarians are ill-prepared to fill such positions, and offer some suggestions to improve both circumstances.

I. Today’s IT Budget Is More Information Than Technology

Increasingly, organizations from all sectors are recognizing the importance of managing their electronic resources, and they are doing so partly because they recognize the vast amounts of money they spend annually on e-content. Outsell, a California research and consulting firm that provides metrics for the information industry, values the information market at $263 billion (.pdf). From this total, I estimate that approximately 63 percent of the market (or about $167 billion) consists of electronic resources used to help managers make better business decisions, including real-time data streams and fee-based database content. Bill Noorlander, a partner at BST America and a veteran e-content negotiator, says that many companies’ annual content costs are second only to their labor costs.

Unfortunately, e-content costs often slip managers’ notice because it typically is not considered part of the traditional IT budget; that budget almost always is reserved for hardware and labor. In fact, for today’s companies, a typical IT budget can comprise more e-content costs than hardware costs.

II. Buying & Managing E-Content Falls to Underpaid & Inexperienced Librarians

In many organizations, the job of managing e-content collections traditionally has fallen to a person whose job title includes the term “librarian.” This usually is a problem for two reasons. First, there is an inequality between the librarian’s salary and the value he or she is bringing to the organization by negotiating a solid content deal. Librarians and other information professionals get little respect in most organizations, even in an environment awash with information and related problems. This lack of respect directly influences the low salaries librarians receive, even when the librarian is responsible for negotiating and managing content contracts whose aggregate value may be several millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, there is a second, more important problem at play here: most librarians – whether new or experienced – do not know how to negotiate e-content contracts so that they receive maximum value for their institution. This points to a failure of contemporary library science education and post-graduate training. Let’s look at how this plays out by analyzing the current job posting.

(a) The Disparity Between Salary and Contract Value

A quick analysis of the instant job posting illustrates the disparity between the offered salary and the value of the contract this librarian would be responsible for negotiating. Our library is offering a maximum salary of $45,000, so the total cost of that position to the institution is approximately $63,000. (Benefits packages typically cost an institution approximately 40 percent of salary. In this case, the 40 percent benefits value on a $45,000 maximum salary is $18,000. Add the $18,000 benefits package value to the $45,000 maximum base salary and you get a maximum cost of $63,000.)

Since we can reasonably determine from the job description that the library is a science or medical library that is affiliated with a large university — usually large universities are the only academic institutions that can afford to have a separate library reserved particularly for a professional school — we can assume that the institution buys and uses a good amount of highly specialized technical or scientific information. An annual subscription fee for this type of e-content routinely can exceed $250,000. Another reasonable hypothesis is that the institution buys more than one of these specialized databases, making it likely that the library’s minimum content buy for two specialized databases is $500,000.

Let’s go a bit further. This library probably subscribes to several non-specialized databases like Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe. If the library is affiliated with a professional school within the university, it also is likely that this school prefers not to share its access to these databases. Instead, it will reserve access for its own faculty and students. This means this library is buying this general information separately and paying full price, instead of having its costs cut by sharing access. (I have worked in two specialized libraries, and I can assure you that specialized, professional libraries are notoriously loathe to share resources with other parts of the university.) Let’s assume that the price of the library’s general content buy is worth $150,000. Thus far, the estimated content total is now $650,000.

Then there will be a handful of resources that a single professor absolutely cannot do without, despite the availability of viable alternatives. On a faculty of 35 professors, approximately one in 10 – or three professors – will make such a demand. Let’s assume that the cost to the library of fulfilling these demands adds another $100,000 to the content buy. Our total estimated content buy now is $750,000.

So this institution is asking a person whose salary is $45,000 to negotiate a $750,000 purchase. Put another way, the librarian is responsible for buying and managing property that is worth more than 16 times her salary. To me, there seems to be a gross value inequity here. Absent extraordinary circumstances, a person with a $45,000 salary would not qualify to purchase a $750,000 home. Then why would an institution pay only $45,000 to a person that reports directly to that unit’s chief official, and manages a content asset portfolio that is reasonably valued at $750,000, but whose value easily could exceed $1 million? Even if one were to halve all the estimates, there remains a gross value inequity, hence my opinion that the institution is not taking the position seriously, or does not know what the position entails.

(b) Licensing & The Failure of Library Science Programs

Let’s move past the value inequity and discuss this $45,000 librarian’s readiness to negotiate this contract. At $45,000 salary level, this institution can reasonably expect to hire a new librarian that has experience totaling three years or less. The institution also can reasonably expect that the librarian has no clue about how to fulfill the primary function of this job. For the past four years, I have taught or trained new and experienced librarians in the art and science of content licensing. Without fail, all of them say they are attending the course because e-content acquisition and management is part or all of their current job and they have no idea what they’re doing. Additionally, they all say they were never taught this in library school.

This leads me to an analysis of the second problem: most librarians do not know how to negotiate content contracts in large part because library schools don’t teach these skills. The absence of instruction in licensing or copyright is a glaring failure of contemporary library and information science training. When I proposed my copyright and licensing courses to Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies several years ago, one of my selling points was that no other institution was offering regular classes in these critical skills. Four years later, most accredited library science programs have yet to erase this glaring educational omission, and right now, Syracuse’s graduate library and information science program remains one of the few — perhaps the only — program in the country that regularly offers licensing and copyright courses.

It is sheer lunacy to graduate librarians into the work force who have no idea how to negotiate an e-content license. Talk about having a butter knife at the proverbial gunfight: without proper training, librarians have virtually no chance of knowing how to obtain optimal value for their e-content dollar, and therefore the institutions that hire them to negotiate these deals likely are overpaying for that content. In an era where every institution is charged with doing more work with less money, the combination of no training and a flexible content landscape means that many libraries and information centers are economically inefficient when it comes to e-content. Inefficiencies, of course, ultimately get eliminated.

Further, everyone loses in this scenario. The librarian loses because she is being poorly paid and poorly supported to do the job she is being asked to do. The institution loses because the librarian’s lack of experience directly leads to the institution overpaying for commensurately less e-content value in terms of access, support, and training, among other factors. The library schools lose because its alumni end up wondering why they paid tens of thousands of dollars for a graduate education that ill prepared them for the realities of professional practice.

III. Suggested Solutions

The solution to this problem is complex, but I offer a few suggestions:

1. Make Intellectual Property Courses Mandatory for Graduate Information Science Curricula. Many information schools are offering library science students core classes that develop skills in finding, classifying, and contextualizing information. These courses should remain in the curriculum. But each school’s core curriculum must be updated to include instruction on topics like copyright and licensing. Both topics are integral to the creation and transmission of original, recorded thoughts and ideas. Just yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that HarperCollins plans to digitize its own book collection with the goal of licensing that content to Google, Yahoo!, and other search players. “Now is the time to build a digital infrastructure that will allow us to protect our rights and the rights of our authors,” said Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins. “We will make all of our books available digitally, but we will store the digital copies and license them out to those who want to use them.”

“We didn’t like being seen as Luddites,” she added. “We see what’s going on, and we get it. We want to be the best collaborator, but we also want to take charge of our future.” I think well-trained, qualified librarians are uniquely positioned to lead and manage initiatives like this one and Google Book Search because no other profession has the broad skills to find, manage, present, display, contextualize, reformat, archive, and (with some mental reprogramming) monetize information while preserving the characteristics that make that information unique. All of those tasks, however, implicate copyright, and many of them implicate licensing, so being without these skills in this day and age makes a graduate library science degree incomplete at best, and marginally relevant at worst. If HarperCollins, part of the notoriously conservative publishing industry, is suddenly resisting being seen as a Luddite, why would you expect it to hire, do business with, or even retain Luddite librarians?

Library and information science programs would do well to begin implement required clinical programs that emphasize business and legal skills, similar to the clinical components of many top law schools. Such an initiative would allow students to secure critical skills before they begin their work, and would help inflate salaries. (Of course, librarianship also could benefit from formal continuing education requirements, but we’ll reserve that for another article.)

One workable idea would be to develop a licensing clinic that helps local public libraries buy needed e-content, form consortia, and train staff. This same program architecture could be used to train librarians in copyright, taxonomy development (which already is a hot area that is woefully underrepresented with librarians), print and electronic indexing and information architecture.

2. Offer Higher Salaries for Information Professionals That Buy and Manage E-Content. Low salaries are nothing new to the information science sector. Much of that can be attributed to librarians’ failure to demand proper compensation and share salary information among themselves. E-content licensing, however, is an area, however, where librarians can begin to earn salaries that more accurately reflect the work they do and the value they bring to their institutions.

Unlike traditional public services and technical services staff, the content buyer is a unique hybrid of librarian that must understand both public services and technical services functions while having a firm understanding of legal topics such as copyright, licenses, and contracts; and business topics such as budgets and return on investment. Further, e-content buyers are unique information professionals because they can develop metrics (money saved, increase in number of users, diminished year-to-year cost increases, greater access for more units, etc.) that clearly demonstrate value to their institutions’ bottom line.

To return to the our librarian position, if a librarian earning $45,000 is being asked to manage a series of assets worth $750,000, and she can achieve a seven percent cost savings in her first year, that savings ($52,500) is more her salary. But again, absent unusual circumstances, a librarian earning $45,000 will have neither the skills nor the experience required to extract that seven percent savings. In order for the institution to see real savings, it must hire uniquely experienced professionals for such a position, which, of course, are available only at a higher salary level. But committing to the higher salary also is worthwhile for the institution: it is a better strategy to pay a good salary for a qualified professional that can demonstrate value than to pay a lower salary for an inexperienced worker that is much more likely to overpay for content.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you probably want to know what I think is the appropriate salary range for this position. We already have established that seven percent savings on the estimated value of the content portfolio is $52,500, so I would consider that figure the salary floor. A direct report to the library director of a specialized library at a major Eastern university probably moves the salary past $60,000. Cost of living adjustments (the position is in a major city), easily add another $5,000, and the prospect that all things digital ultimately will fall to this person adds yet another $5,000. Thus, the salary for a qualified professional filling this position should be approximately $70,000 (or more than 50 percent higher than its current level).

3. Leave the Word “Librarian” Out of the Title. This seems like a radical proposal, but it is astonishing how often money disappears when a librarian is present. Again, librarians – as much as any other group – are to blame for this predicament: we consistently fail to recognize or promote our value within organizations. Yet there are librarians doing library work, and getting compensated well for that work. They just don’t call themselves librarians, or call the work they do librarianship. For example, if you call someone an “information architect,” then respect and salary follow. (Both Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, authors of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, are librarians. Both received their degrees from the University of Michigan.) If you call someone a “knowledge manager,” respect and salary follow. (Laurence Prusak, one of the leaders of the knowledge management movement and co-author of the book Working Knowledge, is a librarian with a graduate degree from Simmons College.)

Institutions seeking to suppress salaries will continue to refer to the instant position as an “electronic resources librarian.” But if you call this a librarian’s position, it will never get the respect, compensation, and resources that it deserves, especially in the educational environment. Instead, I suggest taking a page from the book of Duke University Libraries, which recently has advertised for a Scholarly Communication Officer. A private sector organization can call the position an Information Resources Director, a title bestowed upon my colleague Barbara Hirsh at NERA Economic Consulting.

But just don’t call the position a librarian. If you do, then you end up getting paid $45,000 to manage an asset portfolio whose value could reach $1 million.

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Kevin J. Delaney. HarperCollins Plans to Control Its Digital Books. The Wall Street Journal. Dec. 12, 2005.

Outsell. FutureFacts: Information Industry Outlook – 2006. (.pdf, 285 KB) Sept. 19, 2005.

CopyCense™: K. Matthew Dames on the intersection of business, law and technology. A business venture of Seso Digital LLC. CopyCense and CommuniK. are trademarks of Seso Digital LLC.

Written by sesomedia

12/13/2005 at 09:00

Posted in Uncategorized

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