To Charge, or not to Charge…..

…that is the question and it’s a hugely contentious question when it comes to charging for supplying articles to our staff.


Libraries that charge do so for a number of reasons

  • Customers are more selective about the items they order.
  • Controls the costs of ILLs and provides some income generation
  • Easier to manage workload as the flow of requests are generally more manageable.
  • Less wastage – customers are more likely to collect items they have paid for

But then there are some major disadvantages

  • It may discourage customers from ordering items
  • Creates extra administration for the library (and possibly for other departments if re-charging is involved)
  • Handling cash creates additional problems for libraries – till issues, audit, cashing-up etc
  • Charging in advance sometimes creates a delay if the customer does not have the money on them
  • Pay on collection may mean they do not collect, so the library has incurred a cost but is not able to recoup any of this cost
  • Payment on collection may delay them receiving the item as they have to make a trip to the library to pick-up

Not charging

Libraries that don’t charge have equally good reasons for doing so….

  • Fewer barriers for the customer so it is much more convenient for the customer (and the library)
  • Reduces “monetary conflict” with the customer (no chasing for payment)
  • Reduced delays for payment etc

Again there is a downside

  • Sometimes customers do not give careful consideration to what they order
  • libraries may be presented with reading lists or search lists and asked to get everything they can
  • More items ordered – creates additional workload for the library
  • Little control over costs for the library

Charging after a bit.

Some libraries give a free allocation of articles requested then charge once the limit is reached… One could argue that this gives the benefits of both systems (but maybe also the disadvantages) and there is the extra admin required to keep track of everyone’s tally for the year.

Talk to any library manager and they will argue that their way is the right way to do it. It may not be perfect, their approach may have its disadvantages but it will be appropriate for the circumstances in which their library must operate……

…….but what about the customer

What if we had no charging, no limits and a simple web based form. The customer completes the online form with their NHS email address and a few days later an article (provided by a NHS library) appears in their inbox. Sounds great – the customer has got the article with minimal delay, at no cost to them and without bothering their local NHS library.

This creates a problem for libraries. The local NHS libraries that drive this system are hidden from view. As far as the customer is concerned they don’t need their local library for document supply as the national web based system can meet most of their requirements.   To increase the NHS Library’s visibility in this process you could send the article via their local NHS library but is it worth creating an extra step/delay for the customer just to make a point?

Somehow a national document supply system/scheme will have to take this “sea of troubles” into account…..

K4H’s guiding principles and values (p.17) challenges us to think differently- to work together to deliver a coordinated, streamlined national library service to our users. How will we do this?

We want to understand your views so that we can take them into consideration as we move towards our recommendations for streamlining document supply.

Please send your comments to


13 thoughts on “To Charge, or not to Charge…..

  1. Thank you to the task group for this important piece of work, it is a hugely complex area!

    With regards to charging it seems like there are 2 issues really, one is agreeing on a principle and the other is about the practicalities.

    My personal standpoint is that clinical staff should not have to pay to access the information they need to do their jobs and that this should be in line with our other services which are free, at least for all articles provided through our subscriptions and interlending schemes. I also agree that the lines between patient care/research/CPD are blurred.

    Is there any scope for us to help influence things at national level so that for example the NIHR include a section for library resources as part of research grant applications?

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      In relation to the point you raise about research grant applications, the NIHR guidance for funding applications (available here) briefly mentions library service/resources costs, albeit as indirect costs, as well as article processing costs for open access publishing. However, your helpful response to this blog post has prompted the HEE library leads to re-visit this issue with NIHR and other research funding bodies, to see if it is possible to further influence the situation.

      Do library services have any examples of informing and successfully influencing Trust R&D Teams at the local level?

  2. I see that this is quite an old post, but a recent email on the issue of charging highlighted it for me so felt the urge to comment!
    With regard to charging, my personal feeling is that if I needed to find information in order to do my job I would be horrified to have to pay for it myself! The NHS pays clinical staff to do the best for patients and it pays librarians to make sure the clinical staff have the information they need in order to do that. Internal markets are just a distraction and an unnecessary complication. Even if staff are writing a book or something, so long as it is connected with their field of work it will bring kudos to the Trust where they work so I think they should still be supported for free.
    The centralisation of library services is a different issue. I think there would be great benefits to a central catalogue for the whole country so that all NHS library services could easily cooperate on interlibrary loans and article supply. However, I agree with some of the other comments on this subject that it would not help to have an online central form for users’ requests unless this is backed up in some way by the full search and retrieval service which is currently available via local NHS libraries.
    The variety of ways in which services are provided across the country might be smoothed out a bit by having a set of national service level guidelines which can be adjusted locally where necessary. There is probably no harm in having local variations so long as there is a reason for them and it is clear why, in any particular case, national standards are not being adhered to.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Since the original post was written there have been a number of developments in the areas you mention.

      In relation to charging, this continues to be a thorny issue. Experience shows that everyone sees this through the lens in which they operate, those that do not charge think that we shouldn’t and those that do think that we should. It would be ideal if no-one was charged for ILLs but for some services this is an important revenue stream.

      In terms of centralisation there have been some moves towards this since the original post was written. In the North the formerly separate NW and NE & YH regions have combined to form a pan-northern document delivery scheme (PANDDA). In the rest of the country the SEEDS scheme has been expanded to include the West Midlands (SWEEDS) and there are moves to join these two new schemes together at some point in the future. This will mean that virtually the whole country will be in one collaborative scheme with all the benefits of scale that this brings (If you would like further information there is a brief look at these benefits in this presentation by Sue Robertson and myself).

      Many LKS are adding online request forms as part of their service and some of these link to searchable databases. It is also now possible to create a searchable database from the information kept by the new link resolver provider which presents the possibility of creating a central database of holdings in the future. However, the importance of local services remains clear.

      Finally, the Streamlining Task & Finish group produced some national guidelines for ILLs and these will be posted to the NHS copyright page in due course.

  3. I think part of the discussion must be around what the article is for. If it is related to improving patient care then it should be free. If the library service is being used to source articles for piece of work that the author is in some way going to get paid for such as writing a book then it should be paid for. Library staff must enegage with users who are trying to order everything on a reading list to explain that this is not usually necessary.

    1. Thanks for raising this point.

      For me, it raises more questions than answers.

      How would you go about finding this out? How would you differentiate between something that is for patient care now but is subsequently used when published?

      Would we apply the same criteria to the other services that we offer? You can only borrow this book if it is for patient care?

      There is clearly some feeling within the library community that libraries should not be supplying articles from a reading list – why is this? Why do we think it is not necessary?

      Or is the argument that we need to use our “enquiry desk skills” to find out precisely what is wanted? For example, I need to create this presentation for my next grand round and I think I need all these articles to do this. In fact what I am really asking, is for key articles that I can read so that I can prepare for my presentation.

      Let me know!

  4. Great that this is being looked at.

    My inclination is to argue for not charging based on my current Trust. However I am aware from working in acute Trust services that this might not be sustainable in some services because not charging would place a huge additional burden on the library budget and trigger potentially large increases in demand. I like Sarah’s suggestion of a certain number being allowed free followed by a nominal fee for additional papers – particularly if services could opt in to fund these for “their” customers if they had previously offered foc. (This assumes customers of the document supply service will still be viewed as belonging to a specific library service and tagged as such for any tracking purposes)

    Another thing to consider regarding charging is the cases where libraries recharge departments for document supply. Would be good to implement new system while still allowing things like this to occur so as not to discourage usage.

    My view is that visibility for local library services should not trump convenience for our customers – could there be a line in the message accompanying the documents stating something like “Provided by your NHS Library Service” and a HLISD link for people to find out who/where that is if they don’t already know. Or if the system used is clever enough to recognise the Trust the people receiving the document belong to – could it list the details of that service automatically in order to maintain the link?

    Has quality of service been considered. Will a proposed centralised service just look at the local/regional/national NHS holdings and stop there if not available. Will it not go on to search additional sources such as BMA, RCP, BL, BLCFP copies, BL COPAC, and even services like Reprints to exhaust any possibility before giving up. Current individual LKS services will do a range of this and so there will be worries if a centralised service “dumbs down” the quality of the service by only attempting the basics and failing to deliver current levels of success . This is not directly a “charging issue” but it does affect the whole question as obviously some of the above will cost far more than a simple request to an NHS library “down the road”. Would individual services have to “supplement” a basic national system by looking at any additional (and more costly) sources to maintain current levels of service?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I will make 1 more comment about charging as I have covered this in my previous reply. “Has the NHS purchased the journal article” – if it has, then why is there an additional charge being levied on a department for that article?
      We are looking at different systems that are available to us coupled with our requirements in terms of functionality, user registration, admin etc so that we can measure this against our options moving forwards ( see previous blog posting).
      We would not want to reduce the quality of the service that we provide – we would like every library service to provide the gold standard service that many of our libraries do already.
      Currently there are library services that check multiple sources (usually not in the same order) and library services that check a couple of sources and go straight to the BL. Some libraries charge for an article obtained from the BL but other articles are provided free of charge and some libraries don’t charge for BL articles. Some libraries charge for any article that they have obtained for a customer.
      In response to this question, 1 of the options that we are exploring is whether we can create a journals list/catalogue that all library staff can access to speed up the article supply process. We also need to think about copyright fee paid articles and how they can be made available. Do get back to me with any further comments or questions that you have – our group wants to know what you think so that you can shape our work as we move forwards.

  5. We already have an online form that our users can fill in and they frequently get their papers back within an hour or so (often the same day even if we have to apply to another library).
    If a national document supply system can only supply papers within ‘a few days’ how is this not providing a worse service for our users?
    What about the customer indeed – what about the personal service that we currently provide?

    1. One of the issues for a national system is that current NHS reciprocal schemes vary quite significantly. Some may have online forms, some don’t. One of the big pluses of the reciprocal scheme in our area is that libraries often do supply articles within the same day however if it is something we need to obtain from elsewhere eg British Library then it can take several days. One option that has been suggested is that customers go directly to the BL for articles as this would free up library staff to work on more “value-added” services. My personal view is that the responsiveness of NHS reciprocal schemes is highly valued by customers and that document supply is still regarded as a very important service by our customers.

    2. Thanks for your comments. We have uncovered a varied picture across the country regarding process and supply of articles with differing timescale averages for supply. We would not want to recommend a system that provides a worse system for our customers but we also need to recognise that some library services would need to make significant changes in the way that their services currently operate to achieve article supply delivery targets within hours. As Hugh mentions below the BL option can also take longer.
      As part of our work moving forwards, we are looking at streamlining from a staff perspective and a user perspective so do continue to feed your views and thoughts to us.

  6. I think my ideal world would be a set number (set locally by each library) for how many free documents could be supplied, and then after that users would pay upfront, with an online account that would be managed by a national system, like an Athens account with spending attached! So you would order your articles and pay up front as you would on Amazon. That system could also be used to order and record your previous orders, that would be funded by your institution.

    1. Thanks for your comments – I do want to understand and engage with everyone in NHS libraries in England to hear their views.
      Regarding charging our customer – some people feel that charging makes staff value the service and encourages our users to self-restrict what they want to be provided. Some people charge because of local circumstances especially if they are near a University that charges for document supply. Some feel that we don’t charge for staff to do a literature search so why charge for document supply and then there is the knotty problem that a document is supplied for free by 1 library service to another library service who then charges the customer for the article.

      There are systems that can incorporate charging – we are currently looking at these options.

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