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Austrian university libraries on their way toward e-only for scholarly journals

By Bruno Bauer, Medical University of Vienna | Mar 01, 2011

In 2005, the Cooperation E-Media Austria was founded by an initiative of 21 libraries of federal state universities. The cooperation was set up as a buying syndicate for electronic resources. Consortia licenses for e-journals were at that time based on print subscriptions held at the participating libraries. Subsequently, most institutions paid for print and online subscriptions.

Dual subscriptions and the strong adherence to the hard copy have hung on for several reasons. In the beginning, the e-journal was seen as a digital bonus of the print version. This perception was supported by the publisher's pricing, which was firmly based on the print subscription. The ongoing problem of archiving e-journals is another issue that still hinders the transition from print to digital. And last but not least, in Austria, VAT on e-only subscriptions is 20 percent, whereas on printed journals and books it is reduced to 10 percent.

“Is there a financial bonus involved with the change to e-only?”

Despite all the above-mentioned concerns of librarians, the patrons’ usage of journals has dramatically shifted from reading hard copies to downloading PDFs. This fact, and the steady price increase of bundled print and electronic journal subscriptions, weakened the library's conservative stakeholders who insisted on archival print issues. Nowadays, restricted budgets demand the efficient assignment of personnel. It became important to get librarians out of formats of diminishing importance such as print journals, into those of increasing importance such as electronic resource management.

Another strong motivation to go e-only came with the rise of innovative digital journal concepts that transformed the e-journal from a mere print reproduction into a multimedia container. Enriched with additional features and tools, the electronic version left the era of print and PDF behind. The published papers and, consequently, the readers benefit from this array of innovations.

Thus libraries are confronted with a twofold challenge. On the one hand libraries have to keep pace with rapid and externally controlled developments in electronic publishing. On the other hand they face internal missions like the management of new emerging formats and efficient resource allocation. In response to these challenges, a committee of the Austrian Library Directors Working Group started an initiative in autumn 2010 to facilitate the abandonment of print in favor of e-only subscriptions. The committee consists of 20 directors from Austrian university libraries and the National Library. The ambitious goal is to convert most of the consortia contracts with larger publishers to e-only as the current three-year terms end in 2012.

Elsevier is one of these larger publishers and a good test case to get change management experience in the complex transition process to e-only. Within the next two years, a special task force will clarify the manifold emerging questions: Is there a financial bonus involved with the change to e-only? How do we as a consortium ensure permanent access to subscribed electronic content for the participating libraries? Is it necessary to build or hold a common dark print archive for Austria containing the most important journals to meet potential worst case scenarios?

The directors of Austrian university libraries, involved librarians and the Cooperation E-Media Austria are working together in this joint effort to ensure a smooth transition into an e-only era. University management, scientists and students should perceive this change as an important and advantageous step in which Austrian university libraries meet the challenge of the 21st century to establish a strong position as powerful digital libraries.

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