Guide to Outsourcing in Libraries

Library Technology Reports, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Guide to Outsourcing in Libraries


"Outsourcing" is the contracting of activities to an outside individual or organization rather than using in-house staff. The term is relatively new, especially when applied to library activities. Library Literature, a major periodical index which focuses on the professional literature of library and information science, did not begin to use a cross reference from "outsourcing" to its heading "contracts for library services" until 1993.

Despite the fact that the term "outsourcing" is relatively new, the practice is well established. The following may be something of a stretch but in the nineteenth century, individual libraries were autonomous institutions that did pretty much anything that had to be done, in-house. For example, the indexing of articles from a library's periodical collection, when done at all, was done by someone on that library's staff. In 1847, as a young man at Yale University, William F. Poole, who later became one of the giants of American librarianship, prepared a consolidated index to the periodicals in the library collection of one of the student societies and arranged for its publication in 1848 by G. P. Putnam. The cumbersome title of the index was An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals to Which No Indexes Have Been Published. The publication sold quickly because only a few libraries had the resources to create their own periodical indexes; the majority relied on indexes supplied by the publishers of each individual periodical title. Furthermore, only a minority of publishers actually did such indexing on a regular basis. A second edition of the index was published five years later under the title "`Poole's Index to Periodical Literature. The third did not come out until 1882, but it covered the years 1800 through 1881. There were five supplements issued over the next 25 years.

Beginning in 1896, the Cleveland Public Library also commercially distributed its publication entitled Cumulative Index of Periodicals of the Cleveland Public Library. Its principal advantage over Poole's index was that it came out monthly, however, financial constraints caused it to be changed to a quarterly in 1899. The publication was taken over by the H. W. Wilson Company in 1903 and became the nucleus of The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. H.W. Wilson had previously begun publishing bibliographies as a complement to its bookselling.

Centralized cataloging was discussed by librarians as early as 1876. In 1896, the Joint Committee on the Library, a standing committee of Congress since 1843, recommended that the Library of Congress assume responsibility for centralized cataloging. Herbert Putnam implemented the idea in 1901 when, as Librarian of Congress, he announced the availability of catalog cards for books acquired and cataloged by LC.

Libraries have also sent out books for binding for many years. In 1905 the American Library Association formed a Bookbinding Committee. The group prepared suggestions for library binding which the Association published that year under the title Binding for Librarians." It included tips for contracting with binders not employed by the library. By 1935 the commercial library binding industry was so well established that the Library Binding Institute was organized as a trade association of commercial library binders. That same year the American Library Association published its Minimum Specifications for Class A Library Binding.

Among the more recent areas of outsourcing used by the majority of libraries is retrospective conversion. There are a dozen organizations which provide more than $1 million per year each of retrospective conversion services.

Clearly, libraries have been turning to contractors outside their organizations for services for 150 years.


It is common to point to business and industry as a model when discussing outsourcing because these sectors have been using outsourcing for centuries.

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Guide to Outsourcing in Libraries


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