Library Associations and Consortia

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Library associations and library consortia in the field of library and information science are two related, but very different, membership organizations. It may be possible for an association to be a member of a consortium, but that is not common. It is much more likely that a consortium may become a member of one or more professional library associations. The distinction between associations and consortia is often found in their missions and membership criteria.

Associations usually have much broader missions, such as the promotion of the welfare of librarians and the institutions in which they work. Associations usually accept membership from individuals as well as organizations, with individual membership making up the bulk of their membership support. Consortia, on the other hand, often have narrower missions, usually very specific in scope, such as the sharing of books, journals, and other materials (resource sharing). Consortia nearly always restrict membership and participation to institutions and organizations. Given the interrelationship of library associations and consortia, and the potential for confusion between the two, it is worth spending some time looking at detailed definitions.

Definition and Typology of Associations

A common dictionary definition of an association is "an organization of persons having a common interest." Most dictionaries link the term "association" to the term "society," which is sometimes defined as "an organized group working together or periodically meeting because of common interests, beliefs, or profession." For library associations, the definition of a society fits well. Most library associations can be characterized as organized groups (often under charters approved by state or national governments) consisting of individuals and institutions that share interests in libraries and librarianship. Usually, library associations are concerned with principles and standards for services and sometimes for certification of professional personnel or accreditation of programs that provide education for library professionals. They are also concerned with support of professional principles and ethics that are related to access to information and intellectual freedom, especially in countries where there is a tradition of open access to information. In some cases, the organization may function more as an extension of government policy, especially in the countries that are formally associated with the former Soviet Union. However, as time goes on, library associations even in those countries are focusing more on professional principles and less on being an extension of government agencies.

In the United States, there are national library associations that represent the interests of medical, law, music, and art libraries, to name a few. There are also local, state, or regional chapters of these national associations. These chapters meet separately from the national association meetings, and they have as their mission the provision of services and communications at the local or regional level. Thus, the law, special, and medical library associations, for example, may have regional or state chapters that serve the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago or the Midwest region. In the United States, states have their own state library associations that represent libraries of all types. In some states, there are separate associations for elementary and secondary school librarians, often indicated by having "school library media specialist" or similar terminology in the name of such associations to contrast their mission and membership from the more general state library associations that include academic, public, and special librarians within their membership.

Definition and Typology of Consortia

The dictionary definition of a consortium often includes references to an association or society, noting that the word comes from Latin for "fellowship or company." However, in library and information science, the term "consortium" refers more specifically to a group of institutions, rather than persons, that join together for the mutual benefit of all the members of the group. Often, there is a formal legal compact among the institutions that agree to join the consortium. Thus, in the professional terminology of librarianship, consortia are usually groups of institutions joined together, while associations are more likely to represent individuals and institutions or just individuals who form a society based on mutual interest. There are exceptions to this generalized definition, of course. One of the most notable is the Association of Research Libraries, a group that has membership open only to institutions (libraries) that meet the specified criteria for membership. Even here, however, the Association of Research Libraries exists to assist the member institutions in communicating and sharing research reports and so on, as opposed to the generally more specific compacts of consortia, which focus on sharing resources, joint acquisitions, or coordinated cooperative projects.

Consortia follow categories similar to those of associations. There are international and national consortia, as well as regional, state, and local consortia. The term "network" is often used as a synonym for "consortium." Some people have noted that academic, special, and research libraries seem to favor the more Latin-based word "consortium," while public, school, and library groups that consist of many different types of libraries tend to favor the word "network." When the term "consortia" is used, the group often has a more focused or single-purpose mission, such as sharing periodical resources or seeking joint bids on expensive digital databases, while groups of libraries using the term "network" to describe themselves are more likely to have a mission that includes broader, more encompassing, multiple cooperative activities and to include public as well as academic, research, and special libraries.

Library Associations in the United States

The largest and the oldest of the library associations in the United States is the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA includes Divisions, Sections, and Roundtables that cover all types of libraries, including public, academic, research, school, and institutional libraries. Nearly every function and type of material that libraries are involved with are also covered, ranging from information services to technical and computer services and from multimedia to government information sources. The ALA, which was founded in 1876 byMelvil Dewey (the developer of the Dewey Decimal Classification) and others, has grown to have more than fifty-five thousand members in the United States and nearly two thousand international members. Both individuals and institutions may be members of the ALA. In 1999, there were nearly four thousand organizations and institutions that held memberships in ALA. Many of the units within the ALA hold separate conferences at sequenced intervals to supplement the ALA's annual summer and midwinter meetings.

There are a number of specialized associations that do not focus on the institution of librarianship exclusively. One is the American Society for Information Science (ASIS), which is the national society for those people who are involved in information science. It grew out of the American Documentation Institute, which was established in 1937 to promote interest in scientific and technical information transfer. In 1999, ASIS had more than three thousand personal members and more than two hundred institutional members.

The Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) is an organization directed at educators in graduate schools of library and information science in North America. As such, it might be considered to be an example of a specialized educational association because of its focus on specific issues that are related to the education of librarians and information scientists.

Most states have state associations that represent libraries of all types within the state. While these individual associations are separate from the ALA, they generally maintain a liaison by having representatives within the ALA governing structure.

There are a number of national umbrella associations that encompass diverse interests in subjects and in types of libraries. The Special Libraries Association includes a wide variety of interests in specialized libraries, ranging from libraries that serve science and technology research organizations to those that serve business and commercial organizations.

Library Associations Outside of the United States

Numerous associations exist at the multinational, national, regional, state, and local levels worldwide. While the ALA was the first national library association to be established, library associations were established in other countries in the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century. The Library Association, which is the British association of librarians and is comparable to the ALA, was established a year in 1877. In the period between 1892 and 1922, Japan and most of the major European countries established national library associations with missions that were similar to those of the American and British associations. While Canada did not establish a separate library association until 1946, Canadian librarians were and continue to be active participants in the ALA from its inception.

International Library Associations

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) is the umbrella association that provides a venue for librarians to meet and communicate internationally. As its name implies, IFLA is an organization of library associations (international, national, and multinational), but it also accepts membership applications from libraries, library schools, research organizations, and other institutions. There is also a personal membership category for individuals. In 2000, there were 17 international association members, 137 national association members, and more than 1,000 institutional members worldwide. Personal affiliates accounted for 300 memberships. Thus, IFLA serves as both an umbrella organization for national and international library associations throughout the world and a place for institutions and individuals to come together over shared interests in international issues that are related to librarianship.

There are many international associations that are related to special library interests. The International Association of School Librarianship (IASL), the International Association of Law Libraries (IALL), the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists (IAALD), and the International Association of Technological University Libraries (IATUL) are four such examples. These, and similar groups, are international association members of IFLA.

Library Consortia in the United States

Consortia are usually formed when two or more institutions realize that they can more effectively solve a problem or meet a need by working together with other institutions but still maintaining their own autonomy and most of their independence. While there may be informal cooperative efforts among libraries and related information institutions, they are unlikely to take the name "consortium" without some sort of formal charter or agreement in writing. The formal groups are the focus of this discussion.

Examples of library consortia in the United States range from regional consortia in one state, such as the Triangle Research Libraries Network in North Carolina, to regional consortia covering several states, such as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (which represents the states of the Big Ten University System) and the Big 12 Plus Libraries Consortium (which covers university libraries in the Midwest and in southwestern states).

The Triangle Research Libraries Network in North Carolina was created in 1933 by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Duke University. North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University have since joined the cooperative program of coordinated collection development and resource sharing. The Chicago Public Library, the Newberry Library, and John Crerar Library also formed a consortium in the 1930s in Chicago to cooperate on acquisitions and purchasing materials.

Many consortia in the 1930s and 1940s were established to develop regional union catalogs of holdings. The Bibliographic Center for Research (established in Denver in 1934) and the Pacific Northwest Bibliographic Center (established in Seattle in 1948) are two such examples. Both have since been integrated into or replaced by the national electronic databases that list the catalog holdings of individual libraries in one database, but resource-sharing consortia still are built on the concepts of these early union catalogs. One such database is the VEL (Virtual Electronic Library), established in the 1990s by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which maintains a library consortium within the "Big Ten" university libraries plus the University of Chicago. The VEL catalog, which can be accessed through the World Wide Web, lists the holdings of all of the university libraries that participate in the consortium and permits borrowing by the faculty and students of those institutions.

International Consortia

Most consortia are regional or national in scope. Some are multinational and include membership in a number of organizations. However, there are comparatively few consortia that are truly international in scope and membership.

For example, the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) was formed in 1997 from an informal group known as the Consortium of Consortia (COC). ICOLC had become an international group by 1998, with seventy-nine North American library consortia joining consortia from around the world. The mission of the coalition is to inform participants "about new electronic information resources, pricing practices of electronic providers and vendors, and other issues of importance to directors and governing boards of consortia." A review of the membership of this coalition reveals a wide variety of cooperative organizations that range from state or university agencies to state and national libraries. The most common function of these international consortia involves electronic content licensing. Resource sharing is a close second.

As noted above, the major benefits of a consortia agreement is that resources may be shared through interlibrary loan or digital transmission and that more cost-effective contracts for acquisition of print and digital resources can be negotiated as a result of the bargaining power of a critical mass of libraries joining together in negotiation. This latter advantage seems to be contributing to the interest in consortia worldwide. In addition, consortia often provide both training for the staffs of member organizations and discounts on continuing education opportunities. As the trend of concentrating the business of distribution of information resources into fewer and fewer separate publishers and distributors continues, consortia are developing as a viable option for libraries to counter the increases in costs of information. They provide libraries with a mechanism for negotiating with an ever-increasing concentration of information providers. Therefore, as long as the trend toward consolidation of publishing and distribution sources continues, the formation of consortia by libraries in order to gain better negotiation positions will continue as well.

Nearly all library associations and consortia are actively involved in planning for the future. Some have special committees and projects that have been established specifically to project future trends and events and to determine the appropriate responses for the members of the associations and consortia. Both library associations and library consortia must be oriented toward the future as libraries respond to the changing technological and social environment of the twenty-first century.

See also:Dewey, Melvil; Librarians; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, Functions and Types of; Libraries, History of; Libraries, National.


International Federation of Library Associations.(2000). IFLA Directory, 2000-2001. The Hague: The Netherlands

R. R. Bowker. (2000). American Library Directory, 2000-2001. New Providence, NJ: R. R. Bowker.

Terry L. Weech