Farewell to All That . . . Transforming Collection Development to Fit the Virtual Library Context: The OhioLINK Experience

David F. Kohl

Throughout history, one of the dreams of scholars and librarians alike has been that longed-for library that has it all—the whole record of human achievement and thought. From the days of Alexandria, to the traditional riches of the Bodlian, to the powerhouse collections of the modern era at Harvard or the University of Illinois, the ideal has always been to have all the resources in one place, in one glorious, fabulous collection—a kind of library “Camelot,” as it were.

Of course, it never happened, though the flame of hope burned brightly for a while during the extravagant growth in library collections in the 1960s. But more important, as the twentieth century wanes, the fundamental premises underlying that ideal have changed irrevocably. Increasingly, we have realized that the purpose of heaping up great stacks of books in one place was not an end in itself (prestigious though that might be) but, given the technology available at the time, it was simply the best way to provide relatively quick and easy access to those materials. With the maturation of the information revolution over the past decade, as well as, prolonged inflation of material costs, it has become progressively clear not only that grand, single-site library collections are no longer an ideal method of providing access but that this whole approach has severe limitations and drawbacks. Research specialization and publication proliferation, overall decline of funding sources, and additional costs of electronic resources and services have collectively overwhelmed academic library budgets. Yet, as the traditional ideal of all-encompassing libraries has waned, the electronic era has given rise to new prospects for both comprehensive and cost-effective collection development.

Academic libraries of Ohio are in the forefront of a long-term process to restructure collection development models through a new kind of library consortium—OhioLINK (OL). As both a virtual library and a “just-in-time” collection, its organizational structure is based on a strategy of resource sharing through networked access and delivery systems so that materials housed in any location are equally available to everyone in the consortium on a timely basis. Thus, instead of having fifty-four autonomous library organizations with self-contained collections, OhioLINK develops and distributes its resources, as needed, throughout the state. The sheer strength and economy of this strategy is captured in the hypothetical case of attempting to create the equivalent of OL’s twenty-million volume collection at each of the fifty-four member institutions at a cost (if it could be done at all) of $106 billion, compared to OL’s three-year cumulative operating budget of under $10 million.1

OL’s strategy of developing and sharing resources has depended on the creation of a distinct technological infrastructure and on a reassessment of print-age practices and norms, as well as those for electronic resources and services. To describe OL’s restructuring of collection development, it is helpful to begin by outlining the relationship between infrastructure design and service philosophy.

What Is OhioLINK?

Begun in the late 1980s, OhioLINK now includes all publicly supported institutions of higher education and the state library, as well as a growing number of private colleges. Its resources range from small community college holdings to those of Carnegie Research Universities I, from special collections to electronic databases. Its services extend to approximately half a million students and faculty at more than ninety sites, and its network presently handles more than 3,400 simultaneous users. More specifically, OL provides to each member institution on a round-the-clock basis access to:

  • the library catalogs of all Ohio institutions of higher education, accessible from local library, office, or home computers;
  • an aggregate collection of twenty million volumes, available within two days through patron-initiated circulation system requests;
  • more than fifty commercial bibliographic databases (e.g., the Wilson line, Medline, ArticleFirst, English Short Title Catalogue, among others);
  • fifteen full-text databases, including Hannah Online (Ohio legislative information), Chadwyck-Healy’s Verse Drama and British Poetry, and Britannica Online;
  • full-text articles from more than 300 PowerPages journals, 174 Academic Press journals, and 1,140 Elsevier journals;
  • the Internet via both gopher and Web browsers.

The underlying network handles more than a million system searches and ten thousand patron-initiated interlibrary requests per week. On a more general plane, OL’s organizational development reflects two complementary frameworks—one based on a new model of technological unity, the other on a radical reinterpretation of library cooperation.

The Framework of Technological Unity

The vision that shaped OhioLINK’s infrastructure was the implementation of the same hardware and software at all OL sites. Rather than attempt to link a diverse, historical crazy quilt of individual-institution automation choices through some interpreter (such as Z39.50), OL saw the overriding need for a common system of hardware and software. Libraries that had not been using the Innovative Interfaces system were required, at OL’s formation, to shift to that system. Although those libraries experienced substantial change and some inconvenience in the late 1980s, the unified system clearly improved patron service and facilitated technological progress. More subtle, but equally important, in the early years of OL’s organizational development, such technological unity delivered a message to patrons and librarians that they were part and parcel of a unified system. The resulting ease of use, the infrastructure’s robustness, and its real and symbolic unity have been key factors in OL’s success.

At the same time, this infrastructure was not meant to eliminate local library autonomy. It is essentially a “federal” system operating on two levels: Each institution’s local system coupled to, yet on a different level from, the central network. This network has three main functions: (1) serving as a union catalog of all bibliographic and item-level records in the state, (2) operating as a switching station for libraries to distribute patron-initiated circulation requests, and (3) providing a common platform for electronic databases and Internet gateways. Each site’s system handles local inquiries to the local catalog and is the originating site of all consortium item-records. This federal design keeps heavy local traffic at the local level while enabling seamless linkages to the central system or to other local systems. The seamless character of the infrastructure is enhanced by immediate, real-time record updates (e.g., a bibliographic record loaded locally is almost simultaneously uploaded to the central database) and also by the common search engine at all OL sites.

The ability of a patron to make direct book requests to any member institution has probably had the biggest impact on OL’s service performance.2 The library-to-library relationship for book borrowing is akin to that for library-branch borrowing in a traditional setup. An OL patron identifies an item he or she wants and, if it is not locally held, simply types his or her name, identification number, and home library for the book to be sent for pickup. Delivery between libraries is handled by a commercial firm at an average round-trip cost of 40 cents per item. Thus, inexpensive and rapid circulation transactions have replaced more costly and cumbersome interlibrary loan (ILL) procedures. Studies have shown that 87 percent of books requested through the patron-initiated circulation system are indeed available and delivered—with over 50 percent of the requests filled in two days and over 80 percent in three days. Such speed and reliability have been critical to the development of a sense among patrons and librarians alike that the virtual library is effective and worthwhile.

There continues to be concern in one area: browsing the stacks. As it turns out, the solution lies in how the problem is defined. As long as it was perceived as a need, primarily expressed by the faculty, to physically see and handle books, it remained a frustrating and difficult issue. In fact, few of the faculty were really lamenting the loss of a trip to the library during not always convenient open hours to wander through often poorly lit and dreary stacks to handle dusty books. What they were describing as they talked about seeing the size of the book, flipping it open and scanning the table of contents, checking the index, perhaps doing some spot-reading, was a search for information as to how valuable a particular book was likely to be for them. The problem with using the electronic database was not just a romantic longing for the physicality of the print materials but the relative poverty of bibliographic information. Although the same problem existed earlier with the card catalog information, faculty had learned to browse the local collection to supplement limited card catalog bibliographic information. Once we realized that within OL, or any virtual library, the change from a card catalog to an electronic catalog was not just substituting one component for another in the same system but, instead, represented the first step in implementing a whole new system—a whole new ecology, so to speak—the solution became not only possible, but obvious. We needed to add to the electronic bibliographic record as much of the information provided formerly by browsing as possible.

The first step has been to add commercial table of contents information. With the recent ability to hot-link MARC records, OL is also experimenting at some sites with book review links. The Chadwyck-Healy database of individual book index information offers possibilities for even further bibliographic enrichment. OL is hopeful, indeed reasonably confident, that such bibliographic advances, coupled with twenty-four-hour networked access, from home or office, to the online catalog will more than offset the tradition of having to be physically in the stacks to browse only a relatively small, local collection.

The Framework of Radical Cooperation

Although the technical vision of a unified, yet federal infrastructure was significant for the development and acceptance of OL’s virtual library, even more important has been the radical redefinition of library cooperation among both librarians and university administrators. Traditionally, library cooperation had been confined to the periphery of operations—ILL, cooperative collection development, and reciprocal patron privileges—and represented whatever gestures of service or economy were feasible, given the autonomy of libraries and the primacy of their clienteles. Although local autonomy retains a marked importance in OL’s federal system, the main framework of energy and activity centers on a conviction that local problems cannot be adequately solved locally but, instead, require the larger context of a consortium. In this perspective, cooperative arrangements are designed to reshape the very core of library operations in OhioLINK and its member institutions.

It means training local staff to be as responsible for serving consortium patrons as they are for serving local clienteles—for example, allocating staff and setting procedures to make two-day book deliveries a reliable routine. Radical cooperation also means occasional local sacrifices for the collective good; for example, the policy that article requests within OL’s system are provided without normal ILL charges entailed a serious drop in the revenue stream for many medical libraries. Radical cooperation means that individual member institutions do not own a collection in the traditional sense but, rather, are stewards of collections for the consortium. In that regard, OL libraries provide access to local materials on the same basis for consortium patrons as they do for local clienteles.

Collection Development in the OhioLINK Context

The evolution of OL’s virtual system—based on a unified, yet federal infrastructure together with a radical reinterpretation of cooperation—has led inexorably to fundamental changes in collection development. Indeed, any effort to retain the tradition of autonomous, self-sufficient collections would have cut off practically all opportunities for the consortium to resolve once-intractable problems of resource costs and demands. OL’s restructuring of collection development practices and norms falls under three rubrics: moving from ownership to stewardship; participating on the consortium level in the information revolution; and transforming the role of the local bibliographer.

From Ownership to Stewardship

Because it enables academic libraries of Ohio to share materials almost as easily and reliably as if they were held locally, OL represents a truly feasible opportunity for coordinated, statewide collection development. In retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that such an approach to collection development must follow, not precede, the construction of a virtual library and delivery system. Until librarians and patrons are convinced by personal experience that the physical location of materials is largely irrelevant for their purposes, it is difficult to make the case for a genuine division of statewide (or regional) collection responsibilities. Once that Rubicon is crossed, however, significant opportunities for cost-effective resource sharing open up.

Although the new strategy of building collections on the basis of shared stewardship, rather than autonomous ownership, is still evolving, certain key points are emerging. The first point is that collection development is still an important local responsibility. This is philosophically obvious, in that a virtual library where everyone relied on someone else to do the actual collection purchasing, processing, and housing would be “virtually” no library at all. Unfortunately, in practice, philosophical clarity is easy to lose if some librarians, or especially university or college administrators, see system participation as a chance to solve local budget problems by relying inappropriately on common resources. Individual institutions cannot be allowed to “overgraze the commons.” Sadly, the more successful OL becomes, the greater the temptation for administrators to neglect their local libraries—a sure recipe for eventual disaster. OL libraries, both individually and together, have had to remain vigilant and vocal to oppose such thinking. Especially in a shared system, each local institution retains responsibility for contributing appropriately to the common good.

A second point is that even with a quick, convenient, and reliable method of sharing resources, it seems likely that each institution will continue to need to identify and take responsibility for providing a core set of materials for its particular constituency. Heavily used core items should continue to be held locally. The key change is that responsibility for marginal, esoteric, or highly specialized research materials can be divided up—a kind of state Farmington Plan. Because it is no longer necessary (let alone feasible) for each institution to attempt to be self- sufficient in all areas, it becomes possible to replace superficial width across the subject spectrum with more narrowly defined, multiple, specialized collections at the research or comprehensive level. OL has found that using the ARL conspectus to provide a detailed breakdown of present collection strengths around the state provides a helpful beginning. The important point to keep in mind is that the conspectus looks backward and that the issue here is future responsibility. In some subject areas where strong internal subgroups already exist (e.g., music and law), discussions are already under way to establish areas of subject responsibility for specialized collections within these broader areas. The goal of the exercise is to make sure that the composite of the specialized areas adds up to full coverage in all important subject areas. Early statistics indicate that the duplication rate among OL library collections—just over 40 percent of books being held in more than one library—is substantial enough to allow much more in-depth coverage if the funds could be reallocated. Clearly, there will be substantial political problems to overcome, with both local academic departments and colleagues around the state.

A third point is that cooperative collection agreements need to be relatively formal, written agreements, possibly with commitment at the provost or presidential level. Casual understandings do not provide the reliability needed for an institution to stop collecting in an area and rely on someone else’s collection. Because librarians do not control their central funding allocations, it seems likely that the collection commitment must be at the institutional rather than library level. Clearly, in a situation of considerable mutual interdependence there must be strong and clear assurances of follow-through on the part of all players. Developing the mechanism for establishing subject-area responsibilities among the players and ensuring a serious commitment is likely to be difficult and politically complicated.

Consortium Participation in the Information Revolution

Active involvements in the information revolution—partnering in the development of new tools and exploring new funding arrangements having economies of scale—compromise another broad agenda for bibliographers. With an aggregate collection development budget (representing members’ combined spending) in excess of $25 million a year, OL attracts great interest from vendors. In 1994 (following eighteen months of discussion and negotiation with Chadwyck-Healy), OhioLINK purchased both the British Poetry and the Verse Drama databases for all consortium members—both present and future. The extraordinary cost of these databases to a single library (the British Poetry database alone was then selling for more than $41,700 per site) precluded their purchase by all but the largest and most affluent libraries. But by using OhioLINK to, in effect, negotiate a statewide purchase, the volume pricing allowed Chadwyck-Healy to offer a major discount and still feel satisfied that it was making a reasonable profit while simultaneously allowing even the smallest Ohio community college access to a major tool.

OL does not simply represent a large market; the diversity of its member institutions (in terms of size, mission, patron type, etc.) allows commercial vendors to test a product in different (subconsortium) market ranges. The longest development project has been UMI’s PowerPages, which has full-text articles for about 600 journals. Providing this database as a stand-alone local system was fairly straightforward, although managing a jukebox farm of almost 1,500 discs required more technical attention than OL had anticipated. The real test, however, has been the multiple challenge of (1) integrating the database into OL’s scores of local environments, (2) distributing it to myrad local printers and fax machines, and (3) automating printing and billing processes so as not to overinvolve local staff. Although still partly under construction, this aspect of OL’s integration is already operational at most sites. (At the University of Cincinnati, for example, more than a thousand articles have been printed on busy days.) By this time, both UMI and Innovative Interfaces have had a rich experience to modify their products.

OL’s partnership with UMI has also enabled librarians to learn much about issues of infrastructure and policy in the delivery of electronic information. A salient issue has been what is reasonable behavior when printing is “free.” Although there is natural concern over an inconsistent policy of monographic materials being freely available while electronic materials have a print charge, it has remained important to discourage abuse in the latter medium. OL has found that when UMI articles are provided free of charge with pickup at the local circulation desk, about 15 percent of them are never retrieved. Further, a small fraction of patrons print as many as a hundred articles at one time from “free” databases. With some mechanism needed to institutionalize thoughtful choices, OL decided to charge ten cents a page for printing UMI articles but also to allow local institutions to subsidize their patrons. Thus, for example, a given library could allow patrons a hundred pages of articles free per semester but charge additional article pages each at the ten cent rate—thereby continuing, to some extent, the tradition of cost-free library resources while encouraging reasonable use of those resources.

The Transformed Role of the Bibliographer

It is perhaps a paradox, though a deeply satisfying one, that with all the broad concerns for large-scale organizational development, a key player continues to be the local bibliographer.

Although the advent of OL has begun to substantially transform their role in the collection development process, individual bibliographers remain no less fundamental or important and, perhaps, have become even more crucial.

Their new role is a dual one within OL. Bibliographers have a major responsibility not only to fundamentally revise how they go about collection development but also to help construct the new organization within which they will need to work. A number of new assignments and changes of vision are required.

First, bibliographers are finding it necessary to fundamentally revise their understanding of their job. Collection mapping is becoming more important than simply collection building. In the true virtual library, collecting the materials all in one place is less important than knowing where all the needed materials are. It is very similar to the way we have traditionally talked about reference librarians. They do not need to know everything, they just need to know where to find everything. Similarly with the new bibliographers, they do not have to own everything just to know where to find everything. To construct this virtual collection, the bibliographer/selector starts not with the holes in the local collection or the amount of money available for purchasing materials but, rather with the needs of the faculty and students. The bibliographer then specifically determines how each needed element will be supplied—ILL, regional consortia, commercial vendor, local purchase, etc. Local purchase continues to be important, but it is no longer the exclusive or even central element in providing access to the materials needed by faculty and students for research and instruction. Purchase for the local collection becomes just one strategy among many for providing access to materials. This is a very different starting place and a very different task than we are used to for bibliographers/selectors.

Second, what is purchased locally follows a very different strategy than that of traditional arrangements. Rather than the need to cover all areas needed for local research and instruction, even if such attempts at wide coverage are limited and spotty, it makes more sense for the bibliographer (as mentioned earlier) to focus on maintaining a core collection with narrowly defined speciality areas collected at the research or comprehensive level. The problem with many of our traditional collections is that limited funds had to be spread over too broad an area with the result that in-depth research/comprehensive collecting was giving way to broad-based, rather mediocre collections. The key to success in returning to serious research collecting in narrowly defined areas, however, is that someone else must be collecting at a research/comprehensive level in complementary areas so that the full subject is covered in-depth. Third, bibliographers can no longer consider resources outside their immediate domain as being somehow peripheral. It is not enough to say to patrons that materials are “out there” and so they need not be collected locally. A critical new task of bibliographers is, rather than just to map the consortium collection, to make certain that what is “out there” is, indeed, accessible. This task involves keeping up with coordinated collection development groups, serial cancellation projects, commercial information services, and resource-sharing agreements. In that regard, OL has found that a new oversight group, called Cooperative Information Resources Management, has been a useful layer of organizational development.

A fourth point in the transformed role of bibliographers, so far largely unaddressed in the literature, is a tremendous need to provide ongoing education and training in technical areas. Apart from print-age subject expertise, electronic information requires increasing sophistication about both current limitations and prospective opportunities for networked applications throughout the academic institution. Traditionally, a bibliographer could purchase a book with the calm assurance that sunlight or electric light (the infrastructure of the print-on-paper world) would be available to the patron. Bibliographers must now consider not only content and visibility but also how electronic resources integrate with other resources and whether they all suit multiple platforms and delivery mechanisms. The staff of a consortium can lead the way in training bibliographers in this rapidly changing area.

Fifth, another largely unaddressed area has been the role of the bibliographer in explaining the virtual library to faculty and students. Although some features of OL, such as patron-initiated ILL requests, have generated much goodwill, there has been little follow-up discussion of their implications for resource sharing. The process of revising collection development statements (with a shift from collection building to collection mapping) will give bibliographers concrete opportunities to raise such problems and prospects with local stakeholder groups. We are just beginning along this new path, where much remains to be discovered.


Over the past decade, OhioLINK has been a pioneering effort to resolve local academic library problems though statewide approaches. Development of its unified infrastructure and radical reinterpretation of interlibrary cooperation have been dual strategies to move beyond the outmoded notion of an all-encompassing local university library. Although efficient sharing of traditional materials is a necessary first step to establish credibility of the virtual library concept, the main power and significance of the virtual library will be unrealized without concomitant and fundamental changes in collection development. Overall, OL provides a truly new opportunity to successfully tackle challenges that had been intractable within traditional organizational structures associated with print-age norms of collection management.


  1. OL makes available to fifty-four libraries a combined book collection of approximately twenty million volumes. A traditional strategy for autonomous local collections would have required purchase of 1.06 billion additional volumes (54 times 20 million minus the original 20 million). The hypothetical cost of acquiring such collections, let alone processing and storing them, would have been in the range of more than 106 billion dollars ($100 per volume times 1.06 billion volumes). In contrast, OL has made such a collection available to each of these institutions from a cumulative central budget of less than $30 million. Because nearly $20 million of this central OL money is devoted to capital purchases for local purposes (computers and software for individual campuses), the final amount of OL money is under $10 million.
  2. Patron-initiated circulation within OL warrants further comment. Although still library-to-library borrowing, it is much easier and more transparent for patrons to use than a traditional ILL system. In ILL, requested materials have not necessarily been bibliographically identified, nor are their locations necessarily known. Furthermore, in ILL the participating libraries are autonomous—they might not have lending agreements, or they might impose charges. These considerations have made ILL a problematic endeavor. Patron-initiated circulation, on the other hand, deals with known bibliographic items in a unified infrastructure with interlibrary agreements already in place. Thus, any authorized patron has access to the materials with no more need of mediation than a work-study student to handle checkouts.