Cooperative Collection Building for South Asian Resources: Diversifying the Collective Collection

Karan Vir, “Shiva: Legends of the Immortal” series. Vol. 2. Courtesy of the International and Area Studies Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This is a report on discussions and outcomes from a series of cooperative collection development workshops conducted between 2010–14 by participants of the Library of Congress Cooperative Acquisitions Programs for India and Pakistan. Participants sought to reduce duplication of resources and facilitate access to diverse collections on South Asia across participating institutions.


Those collecting in academic libraries to support South Asian studies face challenges similar to other international and area studies groups, but also encounter distinct issues not present in other world regions. As the discipline of modern South Asian studies gained steam in the late 1940’s, libraries such as the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Yale, Chicago, and University of California, Berkeley (to name but a few) sought to develop strong collections to meet growing scholarly interest. However, the lack of robust international acquisitions strategies and a dearth of language expertise in U.S. libraries at the time posed significant impediments to effective collection building.

Academic libraries collecting for South Asian studies greatly benefited from the PL 480 program (“American Libraries Book Procurement Program”), in which local currencies derived from the sale of U.S. agricultural surpluses abroad were directed towards the acquisition of cultural and scholarly publications. Under the program, in 1958 the Library of Congress was authorized to use those proceeds to purchase books, periodicals, and other material for U.S. libraries and research centers specializing in the regions of assistance, with India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) selected as the initial countries for implementation.1

Since 1962, the Library of Congress has maintained field offices abroad to assist in the program, by acquiring, cataloging, microfilming, and distributing library and research materials. Though federal subsidies for material acquisition had ended by the mid-1990s, the program continued, on a cost-recovery basis, operated through the Library of Congress Cooperative Acquisitions Programs (LC-CAP). Through its offices in New Delhi and Islamabad, LC acquires publications from various sources including a network of book dealers; sub-offices and bibliographic representatives stationed in various embassies; exchange and gift arrangements; and acquisitions trips to obtain publications. There are presently approximately 35 major academic institutions that collect materials through the South Asia Cooperative Acquisitions Program (SACAP) based in New Delhi, India, and Islamabad, Pakistan.

Current collection challenges

Despite the formidable accomplishments of the SACAP program, libraries continue to face challenges to supporting robust collecting initiatives. Chief among the pressures are a) the burgeoning of print publication in the region, paired with b) static library acquisition budgets. This has resulted in flat or diminishing collecting levels by academic libraries even as the scope of available publications continues to grow.

Chart 1 shows the trend of overall South Asian materials acquisition among the aggregate participants in SACAP since 2002, compared to the level of collecting maintained by the Library of Congress over the same period. While monographic collecting has remained relatively stable over time (suffering a decline during the recent recession, but gradually recovering some of the losses by 2014), serials acquisitions have been declining steadily since 2002 by an average of 5% per year.

Chart 1
Source: Library of Congress statistics provided by field offices, 2014.

Ongoing constrictions in collections budgets, paired with reductions in specialist staffing to support South Asia collecting have resulted in two significant outcomes that impact the shape of the “national collective collection” of South Asian resources:

  1. Many U.S. academic libraries have pared back acquisition profiles from comprehensive levels to more selective profiles that primarily support current research or instruction on campus. Selection profiles of libraries served by LC’s New Delhi office in 2010 showed an increased concentration in English-language material compared to 2006, with the highest concentrations of participants in “selective” acquisitions categories (rather than “comprehensive”). Vernacular language materials were far less commonly acquired, with reference works, selective literature, and religion being the most typical areas of interest. Hindi, Tibetan, and Sanskrit remain the most frequently subscribed languages, along with lesser concentrations for Urdu, Bengali, and Nepali and other vernaculars.

    The trend towards increasing homogenization of profiles by participants, combined with the use of a common vendor (LC) to supply libraries with contents, poses a threat to the diversity of collections that North American scholars can access for their work.
  2. At the same time, as libraries scale back on the number of titles collected, the appropriate redundancy of collections—especially in vernacular materials— may be at increasing risk. An analysis of monographs from India published between 2000 and 2009 reveals that titles acquired through SACAP have become increasingly rarely held.

    Chart 2 indicates that while the number of total publications collected per year held relatively steady (6,692 books in 2000, 6,798 in 2009), 48% of books published in 2000 are held by fewer than 10 libraries. By 2009 this percentage of low holdings had increased to 62%. Further analysis reveals that nearly 80% of the infrequently held titles are in languages other than English and Hindi (the two dominant languages collected from India). Similar percentages are tracked for the other countries of South Asia.
Chart 2
Source: OCLC WorldCat statistical data, accessed 2015

Workshops to explore diversifying the “collective collection”

Recognizing the trends noted above, and responding to an imperative to collaborate from library administrators, a group of South Asian librarians, led by Bronwen Bledsoe (Cornell University) and Mary Rader (then at the University of Wisconsin, now at University of Texas at Austin), along with James Simon (CRL) began organizing annual cooperative collection development workshops to collectively identify and explore opportunities for cooperation and to put the resultant ideas into action.

2010 Workshop—Monographs

In October 2010, representatives from 20 institutions came together to collaboratively explore collection strategies that would ultimately strengthen and deepen U.S. library resources on South Asia. Working with the Library of Congress’ SACAP monographic profiles from New Delhi—and informed by six months of preparation— workshop participants gathered to “exchange” profile commitments with their colleagues, considering well-covered subjects where reduction might be undertaken, and looking at lesser-covered subjects where library commitments might be bolstered. The resulting cooperative commitments were intended to be cost neutral, presuming reallocation of resources to achieve diversity.

The initial workshop demonstrated that participants were well prepared, and came ready to form tangible agreements to enhance collections. Institutional representatives were encouraged to consider existing cooperative arrangements and historical regional alliances when proposing changes. At the end of the workshop, 52 profile categories were decreased or given up entirely, thereby freeing up funds to commit to 186 new ones. Through the workshops, over $18,000 worth of annual monographic acquisitions funding was redirected, and nearly $81,000 in new commitments was added. The additions reflected an increasing awareness and appreciation for the national collection. The majority of increases covered new areas for committing libraries, and were in subjects historically less well-covered nationwide. For example:

  • University of Iowa and Michigan picked up all subjects in lesser collected languages (Kannada and Oriya respectively);
  • University of California, Berkeley decreased profiles in areas well covered elsewhere (Bengali and Telugu, for example), in order to pick up additional materials in Gujarati, Malayalam, and Panjabi;
  • Other institutions expanded profiles in new areas including legal studies, gender issues and the physical sciences (subjects of increasing interest to contemporary area studies scholars).

Workshop documentation and results were posted online to promote the outcomes:

2011 Workshop—Serials

The initial workshop was so successful that conveners and participants agreed to an ongoing set of workshops to further diversify and distinguish collections. In 2011, 19 participants met again, this time to focus on broadening the base of serial publications subscribed by North American research libraries. As with the monographic profiles, workshop organizers prepared data supplied by LC for serial subscriptions from New Delhi and Pakistan, examining titles both heavily subscribed as well as underrepresented in collections. The cross-tabulation of the results from LC, which yielded a common data set, was a critical component for the success of the workshops.

The amount of duplication among the North American serials collection as a whole is not high. Of the 4,700+ titles offered through SACAP, fewer than 10% were found to be held by 10 or more institutions. In fact, nearly 70% of all titles offered are subscribed by five or fewer institutions (including the Library of Congress). Despite this fact, participants acknowledged that adjustments could be made to improve coverage of under-represented publications, in part by reducing overlap in highly-subscribed areas.

The assessment findings were posted as spreadsheets that could be sorted by title, number of subscribers, country, language, or by each participant’s profile. Each institution was asked to exercise a 10% reduction of titles in their serials subscription, with a 5% take-up of new titles. By suggesting a percentage change, rather than a predetermined number of titles or a specific dollar amount, institutions with varying program and budget sizes would all make a “small but meaningful” shift of allocations to contribute to better balancing of the aggregated subscription base.

Again, the results of the workshop proved fruitful as participants reported back on titles dropped and added. Through the redistribution (reported May 2012), 182 subscriptions to highly-subscribed titles (10+ subscribers) and 143 titles with average level of subscription (4 to 9 subscribers) were dropped. At the same time, 248 new titles were picked up, including 144 titles with low subscription (1 to 3 subscribers), and 81 with average level of subscription.

2012 Workshop—Local Specialization

Having freed up resources by re-allocating subscriptions, participating institutions were able to pursue additional projects based on institutional strengths and librarians’ subject knowledge. In 2012, librarians from 18 institutions met to focus cooperative efforts on local specialization of collections. Rather than a programmatic or systematic division of collection initiatives, or one predetermined by fixed financial commitments, the 2012 workshop urged elective efforts to enrich the “national collection.”

During the workshop, participants declared a striking variety of niche specializations which they would pursue. Some commitments contributed to further enrichment of already established interests at the holding library, while some were new. For example,

  • Michigan, Iowa, and Cornell opted to concentrate on four less commonly taught languages (Oriya, Kannada, Nepali and Newari).
  • Berkeley and UCLA carried forward an established California interest in Diaspora materials, pursuing newspapers of the Diaspora and materials of South Asian religious minorities.
  • The University of Chicago declared its interest in all forms of South Asian music and ethnomusicology.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chose to respond to visual and popular culture needs by acquiring South Asian comic books and graphic novels.

These are just a few examples of the range of niche collecting projects initiated to provide materials for current research and for projects yet to be imagined, both within South Asian studies as well as in thematic studies of global scope.

2013 and 2014 Workshops: Communication and Assessment

After several rounds of shifts in North American collecting activities, participants took a step back to review the progress of previous efforts and to discuss ways to communicate the successes, value, and impact of the group’s collective work, both within the own cooperative structure as well as externally to faculty, administrators, and the library community. At the 2013 workshop, participants provided reports on the impact of the previous workshops activities, in particular the niche collecting initiatives. These in-depth presentations demonstrated the complexities in creating new collections, including funding, acquisition efforts, cooperation with technical services departments, and outreach and publicity.


Chart 3: Participant Profile Comparison FY 11/ FY 13: Hindi Monographic Takeup.

The 2014 workshop turned its attention to effective assessment of previous rounds, and means of promoting the outcomes. Participants reviewed the changes in the collective profiles of the members, again informed by profile spreadsheets featuring overlap calculations, and by reports from the Library of Congress field offices.

Chart 3 shows an example of the type of realignment achieved through the cooperative workshops, in this particular case for offerings of monographs in the Hindi language. As the chart demonstrates, there are small but meaningful shifts in certain profiles between 2011 and 2013, such as a decrease in overall participation in categories like South Asian history and linguistics, and an increase in lesser represented categories such as physical and agricultural sciences.

Similar results can be seen in Chart 4 for collecting in the lesser-represented Kannada language, which shows an overall gain of participants collecting material.

Chart 4: Participant Profile Comparison FY 11/ FY 13: Kannada Monographic Takeup.

Seen from the outside, the changes made through the ongoing South Asian cooperative collection development workshops initiative might not rank as “transformative”. However, the workshops were successful in affecting “small but meaningful” shifts in the overall North American collection. These changes have relied on grassroots initiatives to inform and shape the diversity of both individual institutional collections as well as the collective collection, thereby enhancing the range of resources available to scholars worldwide.


Over the course of the past six years of South Asian cooperative collection development workshops (participants again convened in October 2015 to review collective profiles and commitments in the LC-Islamabad program), participants have made purposeful and at times unconventional adjustments to local monographic approval plans and serial subscriptions, striving to reduce the redundancy across collections and thereby increase the diversity in the collective national collection.

Recognizing clear pressures to maintain efficiencies in selection, acquisition and description workflows, workshop participants sought to harness their collective buying power and align it with the functional leverage of the LC acquisitions program. The workshops helped participants rethink established practices and focus attention on the larger collection of which each library’s holdings are merely a part. In 2014, workshop participants articulated a vision statement to help guide activities moving forward. The statement reads:

  • Through the South Asia Cooperative Collection Development Workshops, the community of South Asian library specialists in North America shares a collective vision of a seamless global collection of South Asian research resources to support and enhance scholarship.
  • Through concerted action (and informed by local and institutional strengths, priorities, and expertise), we seek to broaden both the scope and depth of coverage of South Asian resources, spanning all subjects and formats.
  • By building distributed distinctive collections, reinforced by preservation and appropriate mechanisms for discovery and access, we seek to affect the future of academic research, teaching, and learning on this critical world region.

  1. For a detailed history of the early years of the South Asia program, see: Maureen L. P. Patterson. 1969. “The South Asian P.L. 480 Library Program, 1962–1968”. The Journal of Asian Studies 28 (4). Association for Asian Studies: 743–54. doi:10.2307/2942409.