Case: ProQuest Historical Newspapers

During a routine evaluation it was found that the usage within a historical newspaper database was very concentrated. Only a few titles were well used, and it was costly to pay for the rest. We could cut the titles and use the savings to purchase a much-needed title, but there was some pushback from colleagues and faculty. This case study explains how we navigated this process to reach a solution that worked for all.

Key themes
  • Engaging faculty and students
  • Collections evaluation
  • Working collaboratively
  • Emerging trends
  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Resourcefulness
Access the project
  • Public webpage announcing the evaluation
  • Other documents available upon request
  • What happened

    In 2020 one of my colleagues brought up the fact that the University of Windsor did not have digital access to the Windsor Star, the newspaper of our home city. Earlier in that year I had done a cursory review of the ProQuest Historical Newspaper platform, a database of digitized newspaper microfilm. That early review showed that the bulk of the usage was attributable to only two titles. Like most libraries, the best way to fund new e-resource acquisitions is to swap titles, so a more thorough analysis was conducted. Working with a small team of librarian colleagues, we set out to evaluate the resource and the potential to swap.

    The proportion of the usage of ProQuest Historical Newspaper titles.

    We had access to 10 U.S. newspapers through two packages through CRKN, and directly subscribed to 2 titles with the vendor. The library owned the perpetual access rights to these titles and was only paying for hosting fees on the platform. The hosting fees for the 10 titles were very expensive, and could cover the one-time purchase cost of the long-needed title. Since this was a resource negotiated through CRKN, I reached out to learn more about the agreement and the history of the resource. It turned out that there was no way to separate the hosting fees from the subscriptions for some of the other titles. For access on the vendor’s platform, we must pay both fees – an expensive option. We had negotiated the rights to locally load the content (host it ourselves), but after consulting with a colleague and examining sample data provided by the vendor, we decided this was too expensive to accomplish.

    With a closer look at the usage data, I found that 92% of the usage came from just the 2 newspaper titles we subscribed to outside of the consortial packages. It was clear that there was a potential option here: cancel the subscription to one or two of the packages and use the savings to fund the purchase of the Windsor Star. I requested a trial of the resource and explored its features. We found the imaging to be good, and it provided unique content not found elsewhere. I put together a proposal for library administration and for the librarians, and presented this during a meeting to all. During this meeting some librarians expressed their concerns over losing access to historical newspaper content, but there was no knowledge on which titles were most important.

    Our plan was to consult widely with faculty and graduate students at the university, and understand how this resource was used, by whom and which titles were most essential. I launched a webpage that explained our rationale, process and the evaluation openly. Notices were placed on the database records and librarians were provided a form email to send to their departments. We received around 20 responses, with most identifying the same 3 titles as essential: The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Fewer respondents indicated usage for the rest of the titles, a package of regional U.S. newspapers. With this information in hand, we decided to retain the 3 newspapers and take a closer look at the rest.

    While keeping their liaison librarian in the loop, I contacted the handful of respondents who indicated a need for the other newspapers. In their initial emails, some of the respondents had expressed grave concerns over the potential loss of these titles, going as far to ask the Dean to advocate on their behalf. I scheduled video calls to discuss the matter, and understand their needs while providing more data and information on the usage. The faculty members appreciated being briefed on the matter and that we had already incorporated their feedback to retain the 3 titles. During these conversations I discovered that some faculty members were using the niche titles for their research, and that cancelling would cause them to lose access to a valuable dataset. I noted all of the titles that were necessary and explored if there were other options available. While ProQuest holds a monopoly for these titles in the academic market, I discovered that for these niche titles backfile access was available to individuals through at a cost of $100 per year.

    I communicated the availability of these titles elsewhere to the faculty members, and provided them with a trial to the platform. These faculty members were enthusiastic in finding an alternative source for these titles, through a personal subscription that provided them with access to tens of thousands of other titles at a low cost. In the end, our more vocal critics became enthusiastic supporters.

    I compiled a list of titles to aim to retain during re-negotiation with ProQuest, based on the email responses. I noted that one of the titles, the Chicago Defender, was our only subscription of a Black community newspaper in the collection – an important primary source reference. I prepared a negotiation strategy that followed best practices in coordination with administration, outlining our goal and the possible scenarios, including our option to walkway if a negotiated agreement was not possible. Because of the in-depth evaluation with our users, we were comfortable in knowing that if negotiations were not successful, we could walk away with a minimum number of titles and access would be preserved. In the negotiation we expressed our needs and principles behind the decision to de-bundle the packages. We communicated that the perpetual access model did not work with us, and that we didn’t need most of the titles. We wanted to arrive at a deal with a smaller set of titles. Ultimately, the vendor could not provide us with an offer that met our needs so we cancelled one of the two packages, and walked away from the other – retaining subscriptions to the Chicago Defender, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wallstreet Journal.

    So what?

    Overall, this process was successful in many ways. Our users have benefited by gaining digital access to the Windsor Star, a long-needed title. We were able to accomplish this without receiving any new funding by identifying expensive, lower-use resources that could be cancelled without affecting research and teaching programs. Once the one-time purchase is paid for, these savings can help to maintain a balanced collections budget.

    There was controversy both within the library and with faculty members when we first announced the evaluation. By being completely transparent with the process, the data, and the rationale, we were able to ease concerns and better understand how the resource was being used. I followed up with each person individually, and explored their concerns seriously and identified alternative ways for them to access their content post-cancellation. This approach helped to ease the change and our most vocal critics became the most enthusiastic supporters, generating good will with the faculty members.

    The library’s collection serves an important purpose to our users, and is directly used as datasets for research purposes, instructional aids in classrooms and to support students in completing assignments. The type of resource will also affect how easily it can be substituted by other materials or through services like interlibrary loan. This project demonstrated the importance of investigating how our e-resources are used and understanding the consequences of cancellations and modifications. Librarians can hypothesize what could happen, but I learned that it is best to consult directly with our users to understand this. I also believe it is the responsibility of librarians to investigate alternative options post-cancellation, so that we can consider this in our decision making and guide our users through changes. These practices have been formalized in new workflows and procedures that I developed, in conjunction with colleagues, to guide future work at Windsor.

    By exploring the license agreement in more detail, I got a better understanding of the perpetual access model. The only way to retain access post-cancellation is to locally load the content, which comes with the expenses of transferring the content, purchasing server space and having the expertise to devise an interface for its access. This simply is not realistic, and in my research no Canadian university has accomplished this successfully. I shared this information with consortial members, and received good feedback on this, including from one institution that decided to forgo this perpetual access model because of our findings.

    By prioritizing the retention of the Chicago Defender in the negotiation strategy, which was a lower-use title, we were able to maintain access to one of the few Black primary source items in the collection. In the face of tough circumstances, it is imperative that we keep in mind the greater context of diversity in the library’s collection and the possibility for future use. We should strive to prevent the loss of access to the few such titles we have in our collections, and can use the creative approach here to find funding for the acquisition of new titles in order to improve the diversity of the library’s collection.

    Even though negotiations ultimately did not achieve our primary goal, we were able to express our dissatisfaction with the license agreement terms, in particular the perpetual access model. It is important for libraries to challenge their status quo with vendors and to take principled stance during negotiations. The negotiations were respectful and there is still a very positive relationship with the vendor, and the end result is that we are good stewards of the funds allocated to us, spending money on only the resources we truly need.

    Next steps

    The perpetual access model really stood out during this process. Libraries are paying tens of thousands of dollars per year to vendors for access to content they already own. In many cases, the agreements allow for the local loading of this content but this is difficult for many to do. There are high infrastructure costs and expertise with networking is required. In Ontario, we benefit from the shared local loading service provided by Scholars Portal for journals and books, but no such service exists for primary source content like newspapers or documents.

    I have started to explore the feasibility of local loading such content here at Windsor. We currently pay for many hosting fees for primary source content from Gale, for resources we own already. Working with a colleague, we are developing a pilot project to determine if it would be possible to locally load this material moving forward. With new network technology and open source software, this looks to be possible. If successful, this could save the library thousands of dollars in hosting fees that can otherwise be used to acquire new e-resources for our growing needs.

    In addition, I am working with our consortial partners to better express our needs for perpetual access models for primary source collections. Library consortia are responsible for negotiating many agreements on behalf of members, such as journal packages. Local loading is feasible for those agreements due to existing shared infrastructure, but it is not the same with primary source material. It is the responsibility of members in the consortia to communicate these shortcomings in agreements so that we can collaboratively develop priorities for license terms. I will work with CRKN to better negotiate terms pertaining to perpetual access during the next renewal period.