College joins library consortium

The College was officially accepted into the Boston Library Consortium (BLC) by the organization’s board of directors on Feb. 28. The vote marked the culmination of over a year’s effort on the part of Williams library administrators. Since then, library staff have been working to make the Consortium’s assets available to students, faculty and community members. Still, David Pilachowski, College librarian, sees “a lot of prep work, on our part, ahead.”

Founded in 1970, the Boston Library Consortium is composed of sixteen academic and research libraries. The organization focuses its efforts on four areas, providing a strong information portal, staff training, contract negotiation and resource sharing. Admission into the organization is very selective. Before Williams, Brown University was the last college to join, and since its entrance in the early 1990s, several other libraries have been denied admittance.

According to Pilachowski, the selection committee was seeking three assets in a prospective member. First and foremost, the college had to demonstrate an institutional commitment, both academic and financial. With this in mind, library administrators presented the proposal to both the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) and Catharine Hill, provost of the College. Both the CEP and Hill warmly received the proposition.

“There was pretty much complete support for it,” Hill said.

In addition, the College needed to establish itself as a dedicated academic institution that would be an active partner in the organization. In addition to scholastic standards, the strength of the College’s collection and library staff were evaluated. Currently, the College is a net lender – it borrows roughly 10,000 volumes a year from other institutions and lends a slightly higher amount. This, along with a staff described as “energetic” by visiting admissions officers, put the College in good stead.

The college librarians initially became interested in joining a consortium as a result of the “2010” strategic planning begun under former College President Harry C. Payne. During this process, the library made affiliating itself with other libraries one of its primary goals. Even now, Pilachowski is clear that, “we feel we have to be even more active in forming partnerships.” Of the options explored, the BLC was identified as the strongest candidate.

The Virtual Catalog, a program realized only a year and a half ago, was what first caught the attention of Williams’ library administrators. An online resource, the Virtual Catalog interfaces with the catalog of each member institution, allowing users to search all the collections at once. Furthermore, the program displays the availability of each book and lets users request loans directly from the search window. This is a major improvement over the current inter-library system, which doesn’t give real-time status updates and requires that a staff member submit the request.

Still, a good search apparatus is of little use by itself. “If you’re going to have a system like this, you’re going to have to give the real product,” Pilachowski said, “not just a fast computer or a faster online catalog.” With this in mind, the BLC uses a distributed loaning scheme to share loaning operations and improve efficiency. In addition, all books are shipped via next day UPS. Turnaround for students at the College is expected to average between two and three days.

In addition to the increase in readily available volumes from roughly 900,000 to 25,000,000 via the Virtual Catalog, membership in the BLC gives on-site access as well. Anyone interested in checking out books directly from the libraries of other member institutions can obtain a “consortium card” from the Williams library. If desired, the library will also return any borrowed material to its home institution, free of charge.

Another significant benefit of consortium membership comes through collective bargaining. With a combined annual budget of approximately $50,000,000, the BLC has a significant amount of clout when negotiating with vendors.

“There are some things that were way too expensive alone, but now that we’re part of the consortium, they’ve become financially feasible,” said Hill.

One area that is expected to see significant increase is database subscriptions, from around 80 to nearly 800. It has yet to be determined how much Williams will save through purchases via the consortium, but such savings will serve to offset the consortium’s annual membership dues of $23,000.

While some programs, like on-site borrowing, are currently implemented, most of the benefits lie ahead. College librarians expect to have the Virtual Catalog available next fall, along with the necessary procedures for loaning and receiving. “We’ve positioned ourselves very well for providing resources to our community, and that’s where we want to be,” said Pilachowski.