or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Buying Databases Like Used Cars

   June 22nd, 2010

Image: discounts everywhere, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from cjc4454 photostreamLast week at a meeting of area reference librarians, the topic of research databases came up - which ones we like, which we wish patrons would use more, etc.

One librarian remarked that her favorite database is one of the most expensive, but doesn't get used much so she's considering cutting it. She happened to mention the price they're paying, which got everyone's attention.

That particular database vendor bases their pricing on population. For her town of 32,000, they're paying over $7,000 for that database. My town is exactly the same size, but we pay only $4,400 - and another town, of 25,000, pays over $5,000. What?

Then we started relating other database pricing anecdotes:

  • A sales rep told one librarian a database cost $4,000. When the librarian said she couldn't even come close to that, the sales rep asked, "well, what can you afford?" - she said $1,500, and the rep made the deal for that price
  • One vendor said they don't like losing customers, so when I called to cancel a database, they gave it to me for free provided I kept access to the others I had from them
  • Another vendor gives volume discounts, so when I called to cancel two of the three databases we got from them, he said buying just the one database (without the volume discount) would be more expensive than getting all three

I hate this. Don't get me wrong - I like the database sales reps I work with - I just don't understand the business model behind databases. And the difference between charging a library $4,000 for something instead of $1,500 seems like price gouging.

It's great that reps are able to work with small-budget libraries, but it would be so much easier to have fixed, posted prices, rather than everyone paying different rates (isn't that one of the things that got the health care industry in trouble?).

All the librarians at the meeting agreed to compare notes and prices, so we can try to save money the next time we renew our contracts. I hate to haggle and negotiate for prices, but now I feel like it would be fiscally irresponsible of me not to - and never accept the first quote. Since what we pay is public record anyway, maybe libraries should post their database contracts in a central place, so we can all get better deals.

(And just as a funny aside: while I was looking for a photo to accompany this post, this clever one cracked me up. Ah, sales - it's why I left the business world for librarianship.)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Buying Databases Like Used Cars”

  1. Kathryn Geoffrion Scannell Says:

    Read your contract carefully before sharing the details! Many of mine don’t allow disclosure.

  2. Scott Says:

    We do it as a region and have a designated person from each library to represent the various interests and concerns. The person who is responsible for it (she works in our regional library) does a great job! She has also expressed many of the same issues you did in your posting. And the prices of databases are INSANE! For example, many of our librarian love one called ReferenceUSA – it has the phone number(s) and address(es) for a companies. We get a lot of calls asking for that type of thing, esp. from this one woman. Anyway, we as a region can’t afford it – $25,000 (non remote) and $35,000 (remote). Plus, one librarian who is part of our regional group did a comparison with that database – she looked up 10 businesses in her area and 9 were wrong! That begs the question: why should we pay that amount of money for something that is wrong 90% of the time. Ridiculous!

    We also get some of our databases from our state (Maryland). This is good and bad. The good: they pay for them – the bad: we sort of have to go with what they select. But what can you do? And in all fairness, they do take our comments into consideration and also try and get the best deal for the money they have to spend.

  3. lesbrarian Says:

    I am sick of paying for databases, period. With the exception of the genealogy databases, which contain information that you just cannot get elsewhere, most of the databases seem to be selling information that you can get for free elsewhere.

    I’m sure I would have a different perspective if I worked in an academic library, but in my public library, the reference questions are mostly coming from school kids, and honestly I can usually find the answers they need on the open web. Now those answers don’t have the scholarly authority that the databases provide, but on every other measure, they fail. The databases are invariably more expensive and more difficult to operate than google, and far less accessible, and you know what? The database answers aren’t always as good.

    Try this fun experiment! Open up your favorite EBSCO and/or Gale and/or Proquest general reference or periodical database in different tabs, and then open wikipedia in the fourth. Now type in some search terms, and see which resource gives you the best answers. “Cloud computing” is my favorite search term for this example, but that’s just me.

    So, right, we’re supposed to haggle for prices, all while maintaining this cloak of secrecy about the money we’re paying, and then on top of that we have to bend over backwards to make the public aware of these resources– which, by the way, all have to be searched separately because no one is anywhere near to developing a federated search engine that works for a public library.

  4. Rich Says:


    In case people were not aware of the University of California vs. Nature Publishing Group fight:


    The Chronicle of Higher Education article:


    Also Christina Pikas on her Christina LIS Rant blog
    has a good followup posting on the matter:



    Meredith Farkas and Sarah Houghton-Jan had postings about EBSCO and other vendors this past April:


  5. Zoe Says:

    Back when I worked for HugeDutchSciencePublisher, Inc, I would conduct customer training on several scholarly science and medical databases. My work was done mostly in academic, government and corporate settings. Most of the time, my students were librarians and doctors from institutions that had already bought the license for the database. Sometimes, though, I went because free training was offered as part of a free trial to help sweeten the deal for a potentially large and lucrative new customer institution. Those were the trips I dreaded – because invariably someone would ask, “But how much does it cost, dear?” And I would waffle on: “Wellll… it’s an algorithm – it depends on whether you’re academic, corporate, government or public, the total size of your institution, how many sites you have in total, how many simultaneous users you anticipate, yadda yadda yadda…” (I always felt like adding, “And whether your eyes are blue or brown, the day of the week you call us, whether the month ends in R, whether your sales rep has PMS or not …”) And my final answer was always, “Gee, I’m just Customer Service; you’ll need to ask your rep!” (I was always happy to throw them under the bus.)

    The bottom line was, the publisher had a (pretty low) break-even price point, so *anything* they could get above that was pure profit, and prices were always set much higher than that point – which gave the reps the wide latitude for wheeling/dealing that you all have experienced.

    This is why, when I had the opportunity to re-enter public librarianship, I jumped back in with both feet and have never looked back!

  6. Tim Lentz Says:

    Woah, your Weird Wally photo is from right here in Lincoln, NE — and weirder still, our systems librarian’s husband took that picture… Some kind of strange library mind meld, i tell you… Great post, by the way!

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Today my coworker got a price quote from a database rep for a genealogy-related database. Quote included three branches plus remote access. $6,000/year. Way too much for us! We asked about just having it at our main branch – no can do, says the rep. There’s only one price.

    Coworker got on their web site and found out that a subscription for an individual is $80/year. Eighty dollars. Same content.

    We have crossed the database off our list, IF we have any money to spend next year.