I was recently recalling a fantastic study by Ralph Wagner on The History of the Farmington Plan. It reviewed some of the most important efforts at collaboration among the US research libraries, especially in the post-war period, and analyzed their successes and eventual demise. I thought of this book as I was wondering if anyone has done a serious examination of collaboration in research university libraries.

Cultures of collaboration, and their reflection in organizational design and governance, were on my mind when I was writing the talk that Bernie Reilly of CRL asked me to give in closing the recent Preserving America’s Print Resources summit. In my talk, on Sharing Responsibility for Print Preservation, I considered some of the characteristics that might be associated with a sustainable model for preserving print materials after the print format is superseded as a result of digitization.

The problem is fairly straightforward. For the preservation of a superseded format, among many other matters, it is often preferable to have more collaborators involved, when the marginal costs of including additional collaborators is low and each can contribute additional funding to the effort. In such a case, greater scale ultimately making the whole enterprise more sustainable.

At the same time, scale yields an enormous tension. On the one hand, greater scale yields these efficiencies. But on the other hand, the library community feels discomfort when scale yields what is perceived to be corporate or bureaucratic practices. We express derision for the disappointment our collaborative initiatives have caused, lump them into the same category as other vendors, and force them to compete.

When our collaboration vehicles are forced to compete for market share, it poses very different incentives than if we can treat them as shared resources. For example, if the library community had been able to rely on OCLC as the exclusive collaboration for a variety of discovery services,  I suspect that libraries’ position with respect to discovery could have been stronger than it is today. This type of backwards-looking reflection is probably of little use in itself, but perhaps can serve to guide us forward in other matters.

At least among American academic libraries, there appears to be a tendency to scale up successful collaborations only to tear them down as being too remote and corporate. On the other hand, largely distributed models such as the Farmington Plan have their own limits, especially when boom turns to bust.

The recently announced HathiTrust shared print initiative suggests another model that merits careful consideration, if HathiTrust membership can continue to grow without it becoming distant from the community.

Whether our topic is print preservation, discovery and digital infrastructure, or license negotiations, the organizational structure and governance of our collaborations is vital to their long-term success. This has implications for consortia, university systems, and a variety of other types of collaborations. If such a study exists, I would love to learn about it. Otherwise, I believe there is a great topic here for a study or PhD dissertation.