Sally Field, 1985
Approval Plans have been an acquisitions/collection development tool in academic libraries for decades. I first learned about approval plans in library school and a few months later found myself working with a long established plan at a small undergraduate school. A few years later I was working with a more complex plan at a larger University, but when I migrated to law libraries (even in the academic environment) approval plans, as I knew them, were not as common.
The term "approval plan" can mean different things, to different librarians and different vendors. I define an approval plan as: a documented profile, created by a library and a jobber, that dictates which books will be delivered to a library immediately upon publication; once received, the library then decides if they want to purchase the book or return it to the vendor.
Like almost all acquisitions tools I've used, I can list benefits and disadvantages to using approval plans. On the positive side, consider the following:
Of course, there are also disadvantages:
The idea of instituting an approval plan at the academic law library I now work at has been ricocheting around my head ever since I arrived, more than ten years ago. Being a research facility, we have always purchased a fair amount of monographs from university and commercial scholarly presses, both foreign and domestic. While our collection development librarians strived to keep abreast of what was being published, we often found that we were learning about needed materials months, or even years after they were published. Typically, we were asked by a faculty member, "why don't you have Title X? - it is quickly becoming a classic and I need it immediately." Having worked with approval plans in the past, I knew that a well designed plan could not only reduce this type of request, but could also insure that our collection was developing in a consistent and economical manner.
Once we made the decision to start investigating approval plans it took us quite a while to decide if we then were ready to activate the plan. This was partly due to our tendency to proceed with any new project slowly, but mostly by the need to carefully develop the initial plan. Once in place an approval plan can be tweaked and modified in a matter of moments, via online profiles, but establishing the initial plan must be done extremely cautiously with input from a variety of sources. We had a representative from our major monographic jobber come to the library to help us develop the profile. Our collection development people provided the rep with an outline of the types of books we wanted to acquire via the plan. Without going into great detail, we basically designed a profile that selected books based on subject parameters (from a vendor thesaurus), specific publishers, audience level, and price. For materials falling outside our profile, but that we still might be interested in purchasing, we arranged to receive forms that contain basic bibliographic data about a particular title.
Once a basic profile had been developed, we asked the vendor to run the profile against their data from the previous year to show us how many books would have arrived if we had used the plan last year. This was done primarily to quell my concerns that we not create a plan that would result in our library receiving more titles than we could afford to purchase. Once the comparison was made, we did indeed find we needed to place some more limitations on the profile, in order to reduce the number/cost of the materials that would arrive. Obviously, there is no way to predict exactly the quantity of books that will arrive, but a solid estimate based on recent publishing trends is essential in the development of an initial plan. Once we were satisfied with the numbers, we activated the plan.
Despite the fact that the books arrive in boxes marked "approvals," with a corresponding invoice also marked "approvals," we found we needed to institute new internal procedures to insure that the books don't automatically get added. Upon arrival, we place the books on shelves in the Technical Services Department where selectors may view them. The invoices are placed in a folder for processing once a decision has been made. So far we have been receiving approximately 5-7 titles a week. We keep each title for 2-3 weeks while we decide if we want to keep them; so far we have been keeping approximately 80%. Books we decide we do not want, we return to the vendor and adjust the invoice appropriately. Although the plan has been operational for less than two months, we feel positive about it. If we have any complaints, it is that we may be receiving too many titles published outside of the U.S., but we will wait a few more weeks to see if this continues. If it does, an adjustment in the profile can be made online.
No library should view an approval plan as an automated collection development system; rather it is one more tool to be used in the acquisitions/collection development process. And, while approval plans have traditionally been used by large academic institutions, I know of no reasons why they can=t be used by smaller, more specialized libraries. Now that most approval vendors offer online profiles, it has become increasingly easy for libraries to experiment and limit their approval acquisitions to very specific criteria. If your library is considering an approval plan, or has one already in operation, let me know the results.