How are libraries charged for patron database use?
December 9, 2020 7:59 AM   Subscribe

When I use my library's databases (NewsBank,, Ebsco), is the library charged for each search I do, or for each item I retrieve? Is there a way to find out which services cost the library less?

I have asked my library directly, and the reply I got was sort of "oh please don't worry about that, just use the services you want."

It's my understanding that libraries are often prevented from disclosing details of fee agreements.

So, if you know anything about the details of database pricing for libraries, I would love to know how the specifics of how I use a database affect how much my use is costing the library.

Does my library get charged more if I do more searches? If I download more results? If I set up search alerts? If I download the same results to myself by exporting them AND emailing them?

Similarly, my library often has overlapping services - many of the databases have some overlap, and for ebooks, the library uses Axis 360, Overdrive, and Hoopla, and many books are available through more than one vendor. Is there any way to know which vendor costs the library less?

Bonus question: is there any good way I can push for political changes to require that libraries disclose information like this?

posted by kristi to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Typically libraries are charged based on an estimated number of users. Universities are charged based on FTE (Full-time equivalent) students. Public libraries are charged in a similar way, so the total number of library patrons factor into the amount a library pays.

Other databases charge libraries a flat fee for a set number of concurrent users. So if you've got a site license for 10 users, only ten patrons can use the service at any given moment.

Ebook pricing is based on a combination of the number of "books" you have access to and the predicted number of patrons that will be using them.

The disclosure of this information isn't really a factor, the problem is the archaic copyright and licensing structure that gives publishers the bulk of leverage and strength in the negotiation of price and permissions.
posted by teleri025 at 8:06 AM on December 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

What teleri025 said above! I've only worked in academic libraries, but assume database vendors (aka greedyass mofos in technical librarian jargon) set the price for public library systems on number of patrons.

Use it to your heart's content. When your library is looking for ways to cut spending it may look at database usage.
posted by mareli at 8:31 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

It does vary somewhat.

Kanopy, for example, as of 2019 was charging per stream, which led NYPL to drop the service, because it had become too expensive for them.
posted by Jahaza at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

I completely agree with what the librarians told you: this is not something you should worry about. In terms of sharing the details of the contracts: this is something, in general, librarians would like to be able to do, but vendors do not and often write that into the contract. This isn't about libraries not wanting to share the information, but for-profit vendors not wanting libraries to know when other libraries are paying. In general, academic libraries are charged based on FTE, as mentioned above. They also buy or license ebooks, sometimes with unlimited views and sometimes with a limited number. The funding models are sometimes different for public libraries.

But, there's one you might have heard some fuss about. Sometimes there "demand driven" or pay per view databases, where the libraries pay based on what users actually access/use. The big one you might have heard librarians talk about is Kanopy, a streaming film database, because they got up to some semi-shady tactics when New York Public Library cancelled when it got too expensive (Kanopy forces public library users to create individual accounts, and then they emailed NYPL users directly when NYPL cancelled). Kanopy is also incredibly aggressive at marketing to users, so library costs have gone up very fast for this one database (partly because it's got such a great interface and with rich content but mostly because they are a start-up with aggressive PR, in my opinion).

But the kinds of things you are talking about--emailing and saving database results, etc--are not things where the library pays any more or less based on use. In fact, libraries want you to use the database as much as you need, because then cost-per-use goes way down. For example, if a library pays $100,000 for a database, and it gets used 100,000 times (in whatever way that's counted; the stats aren't always consistent), then the library pays $1/use. If it gets used 50,000 times, the library pays $2/per use. Libraries often look at cost-per-use when making decisions about what to add (when there's money) or cancel (when budget reductions are needed or database prices go up), and it's a lot harder to justify continuing to pay for a database that costs (for example) $20/use.

So in general, search away. You aren't costing the library more, and you are, in fact, helping the library justify a continued subscription.

By the way, a library worker at the reference desk might not know how much the library is paying various content. If you are truly curious, I'd suggest looking at your friends of the library organization or the library board and getting involved there. The librarians are wanting to reassure you that it's okay to use the resources they make available, but they also might not know the answer right away anyway.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:11 AM on December 9, 2020 [13 favorites]

"oh please don't worry about that, just use the services you want."

This is truly the answer though.

In public libraries, for the most part, database services tend to be based on the number of patrons a library has or possibly the number of simultaneous users. As Jahaza says above, this is NOT true for streaming services like Kanopy or Hoopla where usually the library purchases a certain number of "tokens" that are good for one play and the library can determine how many tokens each user gets per month etc. And totally agreeing with bluedaisy, Kanopy is aggressive about trying to get libraries to sign up for their services (usually by mainstream media articles telling people to hassle their libraries for it) and the only thing I'd say in that regard is if your library has it, make sure you actually WATCH what you watch to make whatever the cost is worth it to you. Similar to interlibrary loan, it's a service with an associated cost, but it's absolutely something libraries want you to use.

Similarly with ebooks, usually a library that purchases (licenses, really) an ebook title gets that title for a certain length of time or a certain number of checkouts. This can vary immensely though (bigger libraries may buy ebook titles directly, smaller ones often participate in some sort of bulk purchasing).

In the past, when I was in library school, some specialized databases really would charge you by the search or charge extra for downloading/printing but to the best of my knowledge anything you're likely to find in a public library at this point does not do that (I do not know about academic libraries).

It's also worth understanding that sometimes access to databases is spread over many many libraries. That is, the databases that my library has are purchased at the state level, based on our state population, and spread over the number of libraries who choose to pay a small amount to the state to have access to these (we have many libraries that are too tiny to justify this expense, but most do). Depending on your state and the size of your library, the cost of many of these databases may be spread among a consortium, a county system, a regional system or the entire state. This is one of the reasons why it's really difficult to determine the actual cost of these things. Though, to be honest, since this is a contract our state agency has with this vendor, I think if I wanted to I could access how much the state pays for it because it's a public thing.

is there any good way I can push for political changes to require that libraries disclose information like this?

Not without it becoming a crusade. Unlike the cost of print books which only cost a few amounts (wholesale, retail, discounted bulk wholesale, second hand) database costs are all over the map and really have no fixed price. So you could maybe figure out how much a thing has cost historically, but not a fixed price for a thing. There are librarians whose entire job is just managing the purchasing, tracking and contracts for this sort of thing which is called ERM when it's done as a real job.

In short: libraries, especially public libraries, are using public money, to give the public things that will help them solve problems, entertain them, and enrich their lives. We exist because people use us.
posted by jessamyn at 9:23 AM on December 9, 2020 [7 favorites]

Think about it this way: if you don’t use it, you increase the likelihood of it going away entirely for someone who desperately needs it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:35 AM on December 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

Echoing a bit of what bluedaisy said above—I know my library definitely looks at the cost per use calculation when making decisions on whether or not to continue with individual online databases that charge a flat fee upfront. We WANT you to use these services, as often as you wish—and if it’s a database you find especially useful and/or enjoyable, you use can have an impact on whether or not that database continues to be available.
posted by bookmammal at 9:42 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another librarian here encouraging you to use the resources you want.

It's hard to have a single rule of thumb for how much a particular digital item/stream costs your library. Each vendor and each contract between the library/system/consortium are a bit different. Also, speaking as someone who has done ebook purchasing, the choices on that end can vary as well - do we 'buy' and ebook outright? Have a copy that deletes in a year? One that deletes after 12 circulations?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:04 AM on December 9, 2020

This isn't about libraries not wanting to share the information, but for-profit vendors not wanting libraries to know when other libraries are paying.

A comment just to fix my error:
This isn't about libraries not wanting to share the information, but for-profit vendors not wanting libraries to know what other libraries are paying. (Not when they pay, but how much they pay.)
posted by bluedaisy at 10:47 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, if the public library can share the information about contracts, then you could request that information through a public records request (I'm realizing I'm assuming you are in the US). But if the contract precludes sharing, then a records request won't get you that pricing information.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2020

Hi hi hello, librarian and library educator here, scholarly communication a specialty.

YES, USE THE SERVICES YOU WANT, absolutely, but I strongly disagree that you should not care how they're charged for and funded. I love that you care! Please care! Please consider how to operationalize that care! Because too many vendors are taking libraries for a RIDE and at their worst, cynically using patrons to do it.

The NYPL/Kanopy situation is an instructive example: Kanopy got the email addresses of NYPL patrons by encouraging/forcing (not sure which) them to sign up directly with Kanopy. Kanopy then used those addresses to stir up patrons against NYPL when NYPL canceled Kanopy. WAY NOT COOL. If the extent of your political action as a patron is encouraging patrons to direct their blame at vendors instead of libraries -- dayenu, that would be enough.

Analogous situations happen around academic libraries all the time -- vendors routinely go behind the library's back to faculty. It's a giant hassle for academic librarians and I've seen it cause malinvestment of library resources -- faculty stirred up by a vendor whinge until the library buys something faculty then don't even use. If your political action as a patron is talking down fellow patrons about this -- dayenu, that would be enough. If your political action as a patron is telling vendors to step off, dayenu!

Non-disclosure agreements are a HUGE part of the rent-seeking, from vendors to both public and academic libraries. There's pushback inside librarianship against NDAs, but it's not widespread yet. It's taken actual sunshine-law requests to pry cost information loose. This is bad for libraries and their patrons! It prevents price comparison, distorting the market! If your political action as a patron is filing sunshine-law requests for collections budgets -- DAYENU, THAT WOULD ACTUALLY BE AMAZING. (Be kind, though. E-resource management is a slog.)

tl;dr: yes, concerned patrons absolutely have a place in helping libraries reclaim pricing power (and other power, e.g. around privacy) over vendors. Thank you for caring!
posted by humbug at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2020 [7 favorites]

Thank you all so much for these terrific and immensely helpful answers!

To clarify a bit: I knew (or guessed) it was the database vendors, not the libraries, who are against sharing cost info. (I hadn't thought about it being a way to keep libraries from knowing what kind of deals other libraries are getting, though, so that was useful to learn.)

And in general, I wasn't really planning to avoid using a particular database completely ... but I did wonder whether playing around and experimenting (do I get full text if I email the results to myself? what if I export the results? does one database do date-based search better than another?) was resulting in lots of extra charges to the library when they weren't strictly necessary to my actual research.

It is a HUGE relief to me to know that the library is probably just being charged for me as a user generally, and using a particular database a LOT isn't adding a lot to the library's costs.

jessamyn, the fact that sometimes database costs are spread across a local consortium was very interesting and not something I'd heard about - thank you!

bluedaisy, I am indeed a member of my Friends of the Library, but I hadn't thought about how I could use that membership to advocate for better transparency and better pricing, so thank you especially for that.

And humbug, thank you SO much for that great response. I am a HUGE fan of my library system, and I want to be a responsible user, and reduce costs to them when it makes sense to do so. (That's one reason I usually prefer to check out a DVD rather than viewing a stream.) Thank you for the encouragement!

You all have reassured me and given me so much to think about. Thank you so much!
posted by kristi at 12:53 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

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