Editor’s note: This is the third (and, I believe, final) post in a series by Kevin Hawkins. The first contained advice for institutions thinking about starting a publishing program, and the second shared strategies for creating an accessible archive of journal back issues. This post, in addition to providing clarity in the area of fees, raises some interesting questions around what it means to be an “essential” service of the library. Many thanks to Kevin for his contributions this summer!  

When you first hear that libraries offer publishing services, you might think of this as outside the scope of what libraries traditionally do. However, libraries do all sorts of things today that are outside their traditional scope—for example, teaching people to use software to visualize and analyze data or offering makerspaces. A publishing service offered to users isn’t really all that different: the library is providing expertise and access to resources.

In an earlier post I mentioned some of the costs of publishing: staff time, technology costs, and outsourced services. As I wrote then, if the library is not willing to fully subsidize these expenses for a library publishing program, you will need to come up with a way to recover such costs. But before getting into business models, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the reasons that a library might choose (or be convinced!) to subsidize its library publishing program. It’s not simply a question of mission for the publishing service; we should also consider how other services of the library are funded.

Libraries are cost centers for the host institution, providing services without the expectation of recovering revenue. Their services are often offered for free for the benefit of affiliated users and possibly also the public. It’s in the interest of the institution for users to be able to use the resources without incurring any costs.

However, libraries do sometimes charge fees for their services.  These fall into a couple of categories:

  1. Fees for unaffiliated users: A library is funded to offer services to a particular community. A public library might offer certain privileges for users who live outside the library district, or an academic library might offer certain privileges for those not affiliated with the institution, but only for a fee.
  2. Convenience fees: While users can come to the library and retrieve print materials on their own, the library might charge for delivery to the user’s office on campus. Or the library might offer a for-fee research service through which a user can pay for a library employee to do in-depth research beyond what the library would typically provide to its users for free.
  3. Fees for measurable, expendable resources: If a user visits the reading room, their work usually doesn’t deprive others of electricity, wifi bandwidth, or other common, basically immeasurable resources provided by the library.  However, if the user makes photocopies, this consumes paper that others can’t use. Therefore, the library might charge for the paper.  Well, it’s actually more likely to charge more than the cost of the paper—including some “overhead” to recover the cost of buying and maintaining the photocopier. But that overhead is not as likely to cover a portion of the salary of a staff member who occasionally loads the paper tray or helps people use the machine because it’s not worth measuring this small amount of time.

A library publishing service might involve any of these types of fees, but it is likely to involve some resources—especially staff member time and access to an online publishing system—that are not easily measured or not worth accounting for by project. For example, if a staff member spends a small portion of their time explaining the publishing service and helping people use it, and if the service “rides on” an institutional repository or digital library with other uses at the library, it’s probably not practical to charge users for any of this, especially if they are affiliated with the home institution and the system doesn’t allow for self service. However, if the service involves larger time commitments—such as helping journal editors set up a new journal and helping each year’s new graduate assistant understand how to use the online journal platform—there’s a good case to be made for approximating staff time spent on such projects and charging setup and/or annual maintenance fees accordingly. This is akin to a for-fee research service.

Sometimes a library incurs costs that are exactly measurable—such as ILL fees charged by another library—but chooses not to pass them on to users because the service is seen as essential or because the library doesn’t want to create a disincentive for users not to use it. If the library publishing service is seen as essential to the users, then certainly there’s a good case for the library covering the costs entirely, at least for affiliated users. But if not, and if it involves measurable, expendable resources, there will need to be a way to recover the costs of these resources, such as through user fees, such as setup or annual maintenance fees, or revenue from sales of or access to the user’s content.

How do you think about costs and subsidies?