In Brief: Fast acquisitions processes are beneficial because they get materials into patrons’ hands quicker. This article describes one library’s experience implementing a fast acquisitions process that dramatically cut turnaround times—from the point of ordering to the shelf—to under five days, all without increasing costs. This was accomplished by focusing on three areas: small-batch ordering, fast shipping and quick processing. Considerations are discussed, including the decision to rely on Amazon for the vast majority of orders.
I’m impatient. This is especially true when it comes to getting library materials for our patrons. I’m aware of the work required to get a book into someone’s hands: it has to be discovered or suggested; ordered; shipped; received; paid for; cataloged and processed—only then is it made available on a shelf. Skip or skimp on any one of these and the item never shows up or may never be found again once it leaves the technical services area. But performing these steps well mustn’t lead to months of delay. Patrons want—and deserve—today’s top sellers today, not next season. Students and faculty are knee-deep in research this week; next month is too late and who knows when that inter-library loan will actually arrive. It’s a cliché, but our society is fast-paced and instant gratification is king. I’m not the only one who is impatient.
In 2011, I took advantage of an opportunity to put into place a fast acquisitions workflow that I’d been formulating. This effort followed in the footsteps of a wide variety of libraries that have prioritized the importance of getting materials into patrons’ hands as quickly as possible (Speas, 2012). At the time I was the newly hired Director of Library Services at Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC), in The Dalles and Hood River, Oregon. CGCC is a small community college east of Portland that encourages innovation. The timing was right to try the new acquisitions workflow: the library staff—especially fellow librarian Katie Wallis—was receptive and ready for a challenge; the business office was supportive; I was new to the college and my boss believed in my ideas. The goal was to make the entire process, from the ordering decision until the item was in a patron’s hands, as fast as possible without sacrificing quality or spending more money. Specifically, we wanted the process to take less than a week from start to finish. That is, from the point when a decision was made to acquire an item we wanted it to be on the shelf within five business days. This would be a substantial improvement over CGCC’s existing practice and faster than any acquisitions process I had experienced. Other libraries, including large ones such as the Columbus Metropolitan Library, have managed an impressive 48 hours to process materials after they were received, but I am unaware of a library attempting such a short turnaround time from the point of ordering (Hatcher, 2006). Achieving such an ambitious goal would require rethinking all aspects of the process.
In other libraries I’ve worked at, acquisitions processes generally took from several weeks to a few months from start to finish. To be sure, occasional high priority rush orders were acquired and processed quickly, but they were the exception. Acquisitions typically took a long time and I’d realized that a few points in the process were especially prone to delay. The first delay often occurs during the selection process when lists of desired items are created. Lists I created regularly sat untouched for weeks or even months. This happened either because the list was waiting for someone else to do the actual ordering or because I had become distracted and hadn’t finalized it for some reason. This seemed like an area where a lot of time could be saved. Not only that, but the very practice of ordering big batches of items contributed to slowdowns later in the process, as we’ll see.
The second slow point was more clear-cut: shipping times. In order to get our entire process down to less than a week we clearly needed reliably quick shipping. Perhaps not surprisingly, faster shipping is probably the easiest way to speed up an acquisitions process as it doesn’t involve changing workflows or priorities. However, fast shipping is often expensive. Identifying fast shipping that didn’t increase our costs would likely determine how successful our overall effort would be.
The third slow point was the bottleneck that occurred in technical services when a big order arrived that, understandably, took a long time to catalog and process. Backlogs have been prevalent in libraries for decades and I’ve worked in several where it was not uncommon for items to spend more than a month being cataloged and processed (Howarth, Moor & Sze, 2010). To be sure, prioritizing fast, efficient cataloging is essential to getting acquisition turnaround times down, but dozens of items can only be processed so quickly, especially at a small library. At larger libraries the quantities are bigger but the concept is the same: there are only so many items existing staff can reasonably process in a given day. That being the case, this bottleneck provided two areas for improvement: improving the actual technical services workflow as well as re-thinking how orders are placed so as not be to overwhelmed when they arrive.
By focusing on these three areas—immediate, small-batch ordering; fast shipping; and quick processing—we identified solutions that led to a dramatic decrease in the overall turnaround times for our acquisitions process. The three areas and our methods of addressing them are similar to those often identified in the “buy instead of borrow” philosophy of collection development. With this method libraries monitor interlibrary loan requests and purchase those items that meet set criteria, a concept subsequently expanded to ebooks and often referred to as patron-driven acquisitions (Allen, Ward, Wray & Debus-López, 2003; Nixon, Freeman & Ward, 2010). Our process at CGCC differs from these efforts in that we applied the practices to all acquisitions rather than just interlibrary loan or ebooks.
Implementing Responsive Acquisitions
The most prominent change we implemented at CGCC was to move virtually all of our ordering to Amazon. At some institutions this might require completing a sole-source justification, but that wasn’t the case at CGCC. In any event, given the benefits outlined here I suspect it would have been straightforward to justify. Prior to Amazon, we used several vendors and while they each had their strengths, they were simply too slow. In contrast, Amazon is fast and offers competitive pricing. Additionally, we paid for an Amazon Prime membership (currently $99 annually) that made Amazon really fast because it includes free two-day shipping on most items.1
Relying almost exclusively on Amazon meant that we needed to have a credit account (essentially a credit card) with Amazon that allowed us to pay our bill monthly instead of with each order. Our business office worked with us to set up open purchase orders (POs) for different types of materials as well as a process for tracking the orders and paying the monthly bills. While seemingly simple, my experience is that not all business offices can or will allow such an arrangement.
Since we were ordering from Amazon it made sense to do some of our other collection development work, such as selection, on Amazon as well. It’s worth emphasizing the distinction between the selection process—deciding which items to purchase—and actually acquiring an item. This article focuses on the latter. While our selection process certainly evolved and no doubt sped up, we continued to take our time identifying the best materials to support the college’s curriculum. The changes came once we decided to order an item, whether it took weeks or only seconds to reach that decision. Once decided, we ordered the item immediately or typically within 24 hours. Ordering was facilitated through the use of Amazon’s wish lists to organize and prioritize acquisitions. We maintained three main lists, for books, movies, and music. We used additional lists for special projects.
Amazon’s wish lists have several valuable features that assisted selection and acquisitions: they help minimize unintentional duplicate purchases by notifying you if an item was previously purchased or is already on a wish list (helpfully, if you add an item a second time it moves to the top of the list); they have built-in priority and commenting capability; they can be shared, which means anyone can create a list and share the link so that all orders can be placed from the same account (lists can also be kept private); and overall, wish lists are as easy to use as Amazon itself. While other vendors have analogous collection development tools of varying complexity, my experience is that they are less intuitive to use than Amazon’s wish lists. For example, Ingram’s ipage doesn’t automatically warn users when they’ve added a duplicate title or if that title was previously purchased. It is possible to run a duplicate ISBN search in ipage selection lists, but it’s not automatic and previously purchased items are only included if they’re still on a selection list.
A significant benefit of using Amazon with a Prime membership is that it allowed us to intentionally move away from big orders and instead make frequent, small orders; sometimes even ordering a single item at a time. Small orders are easier to process than larger orders. We generally received new items in batches of one to ten. In comparison to dozens of items in a batch, even ten items seems manageable to process quickly—certainly within a day—and it was our practice to catalog items within 24 hours. Placing small orders is mentally-freeing as well, since you don’t have to put a lot of thought into compiling a complete list of titles. Ordering small batches through Amazon is relatively efficient; it’s a simple process to place orders once you’ve logged in and selected an item, as anyone who has ordered through Amazon has experienced. The only difference as an institution is that when completing the purchase we added the appropriate purchase order number for bookkeeping purposes.
Once an item arrived a librarian handled the cataloging, which for the most part was basic copy cataloging. Once cataloged, a library assistant or a student assistant did the remainder of the processing, again within 24 hours and often the same day. At that point the item was ready to go and either added to our new book/media display or placed on the hold shelf. To recap: from the time an order was placed items typically took two days to arrive, one day to catalog and another day to finish processing; four days total. But our emphasis on completing the process quickly—coupled with small-batch ordering—meant that we regularly bested even these times. For example, cataloging and processing was often completed in a day or even a single afternoon.
In practice, if someone requested an item that we decided to purchase we would order it immediately, sometimes while the patron was still standing there. This got the process started and drove home the notion that we were listening to their needs. With an Amazon Prime membership, shipping cost is the same regardless of the size of the order. More frequently, however, if an item was identified for purchase we gave it a “highest” priority in a wish list and then one person was responsible for regularly checking the wishlists and placing an order that included all of the highest priority items. This generally happened daily. The two methods helped give us the best of both worlds: a simple way to frequently order a handful of high priority items as well as the ability to order a single item immediately.
Two-day shipping is fast and comes standard with an Amazon Prime membership, but we regularly had items delivered even faster, as in the following day. Shipping from our previous vendors took longer, and faster shipping led to the easiest time savings of all the changes we implemented. Depending on proximity to your library and order volume other vendors may be able to compete with Amazon’s two-day shipping, but overall I suspect Amazon has the most competitive shipping options for a majority of libraries, which is an important advantage. Whichever vendor you go with, you should need—and want—the fastest shipping you can afford.
For nearly all of our orders (90%+) the entire process took five business days or less and a majority of items were available for patrons two to three business days after the order was placed. On a number of occasions someone asked for an item and it was hand delivered to them the following afternoon. Research has shown quick turnaround times to be a driver of patron satisfaction and, indeed, at CGCC reaction to such quick turnaround times was positive (Hussong-Christian and Goergen-Doll, 2010). People were amazed that it was even possible for their item to be available so quickly because the fast shipping meant that in many cases we were faster than if they’d purchased the item from Amazon themselves. While most positive feedback CGCC received on this point was anecdotal, patron surveys from this period capture an increase in satisfaction with library services. This suggests that, overall, our efforts to improve services—including more responsive acquisitions—were working. Being responsive to our patrons’ needs and fulfilling their requests quickly helped to cement the library in their consciousness as a viable option for obtaining materials.
Things to Think About
While CGCC’s experience was a resounding success, there are a number of constraints and drawbacks to keep in mind. One prominent constraint is size. CGCC is a small academic library that spends approximately $14,000 annually on physical books and media. We seldom ordered multiple copies nor did we automate any of our acquisitions through the use of standing orders. Instead, we relied primarily on two related ways to track expenditures and ensure allocated funds would last the entire year. The first way stemmed from the fact that we knew a $14,000 budget meant we could spend a little over $1,100 per month. When we placed an order we would note basic information—date, amount, number of titles and PO number—in a simple spreadsheet that made our expenses to date easy to see. At the same time, we established multiple open purchase orders for a given category of materials (e.g. books or media), each for a portion of our total budgeted amount. For example, we might start the fiscal year with a $2,500 PO for books and a $1,000 PO for media, understanding that those amounts were expected to cover purchases for about three months. We established new POs quarterly before the existing POs were exhausted. In short, once our allocation for the year was established we determined roughly how much could be spent per month and stuck to it. If we went a little over one month we compensated for it the following month.
Other considerations range from the philosophical to the practical. On the philosophical side is the reality that some libraries may avoid supporting Amazon because of the role they’ve played in altering the bookselling landscape or concerns about supporting industry consolidation and the long term consequences of that trend. Indeed, Amazon was able to fulfill the vast majority of our orders (>95%), with most of the rest being textbooks we bought from our campus bookstore or independent films purchased directly from their distributor. While this consolidation is arguably good from the perspective of being able to efficiently fill orders from a single source, the long-term effects are hard to predict. To mention just one minor example, Amazon could change its policies governing how Prime works for institutional or high volume customers, perhaps by substantially increasing its cost or otherwise devaluing its benefits. Such negative changes should perhaps be expected if competition decreases. On the other hand, many libraries already purchase at least some materials from Amazon. A 2008 Association of American University Presses survey of academic librarians found that 31% of respondents used Amazon as their primary book distributor, a number that seems likely to have increased in the intervening years.
When implementing these changes at CGCC we initially tried to avoid using Amazon because of concerns about supporting industry consolidation as well as a desire to support more local alternatives. We looked into ordering through Powell’s Books, Portland’s well-known independent bookseller. Powell’s offers a generous discount to Oregon libraries that helps make their prices highly competitive. However, the library discount could not be combined with free shipping, meaning shipping charges must be factored in when doing a price comparison. Amazon’s combination of overall price and shipping speed—especially with an Amazon Prime membership—led us to decide it was the best value available to us and to a large extent forced our hand; as stewards of public funds we felt obligated to use the vendor that met our needs at the lowest cost. In the end, our desire and responsibility to quickly obtain competitively priced materials trumped our philosophical concerns about supporting Amazon’s industry-consolidating practices.
Cataloging practices are another consideration as proper cataloging is sometimes put forward as a necessarily slow and deliberate process. While high quality cataloging records should be valued and expected, libraries need to be careful not to sacrifice the good (i.e. fast processing) for perfect catalog records. This is not to say that error-ridden catalog records are acceptable; they aren’t. Like many things, however, there are diminishing returns when striving for perfection and immaculate records may not be worth the effort. Mary Bolin’s summation of the situation and her call for quantity as well as quality in cataloging remains as relevant today as when it was published more than 20 years ago. In short, she states how “high quality and high quantity in cataloging are not incompatible” (1991, p. 358). Moreover, Bolin opens her piece by referring to Andrew Osborn’s similar argument made a full fifty years earlier (1941). Given the prevalence of copy cataloging and the reasonably high quality records available through OCLC and some library consortiums, a skilled cataloger should be able to quickly obtain high quality records for most commonly held items, tweak them as needed and move on. If the process seems slow then the library needs to decide whether the improvements obtained from a more deliberate process are worth the delay. Libraries that rely more heavily on original cataloging will necessarily require more time per item, but they, too, should foster a culture that values quick cataloging.
Some libraries reduce the need for in-house cataloging and technical services through the purchase of pre-processed materials. Amazon launched its own processing program for libraries in 2006 (Amazon, 2006), but apparently it never took off and an Amazon representative I spoke with said it was discontinued in 2007, a mere year after it started. At CGCC, the vast majority of items we acquired were broadly held and good quality catalog records were generally available from OCLC or our consortium. As noted above, a librarian imported the records and made changes as necessary. We strove to catalog items within 24 hours of their arrival with an additional 24 hours allotted for further processing, a target that we typically met or exceeded. While the evidence supporting this practice is anecdotal, CGCC experienced increasing circulation statistics that suggest, at a minimum, the overall benefits of the changes outweighed the costs, including costs from an emphasis on quick cataloging.
Another consideration is Amazon’s frustrating practice of not consistently including packing slips in packages (forget drone delivery—consistent packing slips would make me a happy bookkeeper). When this happened we needed to look up item prices so that we could add their value into our library management system as well as print our order confirmation for documentation purposes. Something else to be aware of is that invoices are calculated per shipment, not per order, which further complicates bookkeeping. For example, the order you place for $200 may be shipped in three separate packages, resulting in invoices for $90, $60 and $50 to reconcile. Neither of these—lack of packing slips and per shipment invoices—are hard to handle, but they are added wrinkles. All told, the bookkeeping was straightforward and it took less than an hour per month to organize the paperwork for the business office, which paid the bills.
Finally, while I like the simplicity of Amazon’s wish lists and competitive prices, I can envision how libraries with a more robust materials budget may find that Amazon’s wish lists aren’t up to the task of large volume ordering or that their existing vendor’s discounts are superior to Amazon’s prices.
The most prominent change we implemented at CGCC was to move practically all of our ordering to Amazon. This was a positive move because it helped us to quickly address two of our problem areas (slow shipping and processing big batches of items). With that said, I see Amazon as a tool that we used to help speed up our acquisitions process; other libraries may find different tools that work as well or better for their specific circumstances. The point to emphasize is that your library should want and expect fast shipping along with the ability to place orders in small batches at a low cost—the goal being to get items into your patrons’ hands as quickly as logistically and financially possible.
CGCC’s responsive acquisitions workflow was a positive change for patrons, the library and the college as a whole. Most importantly, patrons had their items weeks faster than they otherwise would have. For the library, the faster workflow meant improvements in everything from happier patrons to requiring less space in technical services to store items that were waiting to be processed. At the same time, these benefits occurred without a higher cost, either in terms of higher prices or staff time and resources.
Implement Fast Acquisitions in Three Steps
- Commit to making the process fast and efficient; get staff buy-in.
- Identify and use the fastest shipping you can afford, either from your existing vendor or alternatives with fast shipping and similar levels of service.
- Review cataloging processes with an eye towards efficiencies. Determine how many items can reasonably be processed in a day and order roughly that many (or fewer) items at a time.
I want to thank everyone who read this article and provided feedback and/or encouragement: my reviewers Rachel Howard at University of Louisville and Hugh Rundle with the City of Boroondara for their time and thoughtful comments; Erin Dorney and the other editors at Lead Pipe for their guidance and support; Ellen Dambrosio and Iris Carroll at Modesto Junior College for reading an early draft and encouraging me to seek a wider audience for it; and Katie Wallis at Columbia Gorge Community College for her help implementing a super fast acquisitions process that far exceeded my expectations. Thank you all.
Allen, Megan, Suzanne M. Ward, Tanner Wray and Karl E. Debus-López (n.d.). “Patron-Focused Services: Collaborative Interlibrary Loan, Collection Development and Acquisitions.” Digital Repository at the University of Maryland. Retrieved from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/
Amazon (2006). “Amazon.com Announces Library Processing for Public and Academic Libraries Across the United States.” Amazon Media Room. Retrieved from http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?p=irol-mediahome&c=176060
The American Association of University Presses (2008). “Marketing to Libraries: 2008 Survey of Academic Librarians.” AAUPNet. Retrieved from www.aaupnet.org
Bolin, Mary (1991). “Make a Quick Decision in (Almost) All Cases: Our Perennial Crisis in Cataloging.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 16(6): 357-361.
Hatcher, Marihelen (2006). “On the Shelf in 48 Hours.” Library Journal, 131(15): 30-31.
Howarth, Lynne. C., Les Moor and Elisa Sze (2010). “Mountains to Molehills: The Past, Present, and Future of Cataloging Backlogs.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 48(5): 423-444.
Hussong-Christian, Uta and Kerri Goergen-Doll (2010). “We’re Listening: Using Patron Feedback to Assess and Enhance Purchase on Demand.” Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserve, 20(5): 319-335.
Nixon, Judith M., Robert S. Freeman and Suzanne M. Ward (2010). “Patron-Driven Acquisitions: An Introduction and Literature Review.” Collection Management, 35(3-4): 119-124.
Osborn, Andrew D. (1941). “The Crisis in Cataloging.” Library Quarterly, 11(4): 393-411.
Speas, Linda (2012). “Getting New Items into the Hands of Patrons: A Public Library Efficiency Evaluation.” Public Libraries Online, 51(6).
- As a bonus, up to three other Amazon accounts that share the same address as the Prime member can also take advantage of the free two-day shipping, a benefit that was much appreciated by other departments on campus. [↩]