Introduction: What’s the Big Deal?

Big Deals, where libraries subscribe to a large number of journals from a publisher for a discounted price as compared to individual journal subscription costs, are often evaluated for cancellations because they are such a large share of the academic library budget. When librarians reduce instant full-text access, they assume users will turn to interlibrary loan (ILL) and other document-delivery services to fulfill their information needs. Nabe and Fowler (2015) investigated the effects of their library canceling a Big Deal subscription and found that the ILL requests were 10 percent of what the instant full text requests had been, and 75 percent of canceled journals had no demand at all. They accounted for these findings by suggesting that the ease of instant full text access artificially inflates demand, because users can accidentally access an article or, after accessing the article, decide it does not meet their information need after all—which is an information need.

Knowlton et al. (2015) disagreed with this explanation and speculated that “rather than ease of access artificially inflating demand, the inconvenience of using ILL artificially depresses demand” (p. 5) and that “patrons are deterred from placing an ILL request by the additional steps required to complete the transaction” (p. 8). Knowlton et al. speculated that cancellations result in reduced access for users. In their library, they found that users who identified documents of interest and were directed to request the item through ILL failed to do so more than two-thirds of the time.

Library budgets are shrinking, while subscription costs are rising. When looking for ways to reduce costs, we often look at cutting what saves us the most money and results in the least loss of services, and unsubscribing from a Big Deal is a popular choice. However, we often overlook the consideration of how budget decisions affect user access to services or information.

You Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

My recent experience of starting a new job in the Continuing Medical Education field—which I knew little about going in—made me think about the knowledge gap between librarians who are making decisions and users who are affected by them. Before earning our library degrees, terms like OPAC, metadata, serials, ILS, or ILL were not a part of our everyday conversations. As librarians, we know exactly how ILL works, that it’s fast, and that we can often get what we want in fewer than twenty-four hours. But we’re not putting ourselves in the shoes of our users. We don’t remember what it feels like to be lost trying to navigate library resources, and then discover that your library doesn’t have an article, and you have to order it through this service that you’ve never heard of. Libraries certainly don’t intend to frustrate their users, but preserving good user experience while balancing the budget through canceling a Big Deal requires proactively educating users, so that their access to information is not diminished.

But I Need It Now!

Imagine this scenario: you are a college senior working on a project due in a week, and you really need a good grade. Your professor says you need ten sources from peer-reviewed journals, so you ask your friendly librarian for help. They point you to the appropriate databases, teach you how to search, then leave you to peruse the literature. You find what looks like the perfect article, read the abstract, then try to access full text. Now you see your library does not have access to this article. You’re a broke college student who is certainly not going to pay for an article. You see a button that might say “find full text” or “click here to request full text” or “request through interlibrary loan” or “request through ILLiad” or even “please get this for me.” You have no idea what that means, but you really want the article, so you click on the link. Then you get routed to a new page on the library’s website, where you may have to create an account for a service you know nothing about, then fill out a request form you’ve never seen before with all these fields that are meaningless to you. By this point, you are probably feeling confused and frustrated, you have no idea if you’re going to get this article before your project is due, and you just want to give up on getting your perfect article.

Mental Models

Most library users have no mental framework for what ILL is and how it works, or if they do, they think of mailing books between libraries, or of someone scanning a book to make a physical copy. My mother once requested a book through ILL in the early 2000s, and it arrived more than a year later—and after she graduated. ILL did not meet her information needs in that case, and this is just one example of the experiences that may inform users’ mental models about ILL, if they have any experiences at all. A mental model that many users are familiar with is what it means when their Amazon item is out of stock: if it is backordered, they know it could be next week or even next year before that item is delivered to their door. Almost everyone has had an unpleasant experience with backordered items, which is the default mental model for a user who sees they have to order their article through ILL. They assume it will take a while, do not know if or when they will get it, and, meanwhile, their project is due in a week.

It’s Just Too Much Trouble

Removing instant full-text access means that users must complete extra steps to request their article through ILL. The Principle of Least Effort and Mooers’s law offer some predictions about how this will affect user behavior. The Principle of Least Effort (Zipf, 1949) states that people will minimize the average rate of their work by assessing the elements of the problem and possible outcomes, then choosing the path that requires the least effort. This principle has been applied in the Library and Information Science field to study information-seeking behavior and indicates that users will choose the most convenient method of searching and stop when they have the minimum information they think they need (Austin, 2001; Schwieder, 2016).

Mooers’s law is a related theory which states, “An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for customers to have information than for them not to have it” (Moore, 1996). Therefore, the ease of use of an information system affects the likelihood that it will be used both initially and in the future. These theories suggest that users will expend the least effort possible, and if extra steps are added to a process, many users will just give up instead of following through to get the desired information.

How Do We Make It Not a Big Deal?

The reality of rising subscription costs and the appeal of balancing library budgets by canceling Big Deals are not going away. As librarians, we assume that we can balance the budget through canceling a Big Deal, and the loss of instant full-text access will not be a problem, because we can easily fill the gap through ILL. After all, we just fill out a form and the system delivers it to our inbox, often within twenty-four hours. However, if librarians make the decision to cancel a Big Deal, I think a better approach for our users is to proactively prepare them for this change in services by creating educational materials and programs about what ILL is and how it works. We need to tell the story of ILL and provide a new mental model, so users understand they can still get what they need, when they need it. By following these suggestions, libraries can help ensure that canceling a Big Deal is not such a big deal for user experience.


Austin, B. (2001). Mooers’ law: In and out of context. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 52(8), 607–609.

Knowlton, S. A., Kristanciuk, I., & Jabaily, M. J. (2015). Spilling out of the funnel: How reliance upon interlibrary loan affects access to information. Library Resources & Technical Services, 59(1), 4–12.

Moore, C. N. (1996). Mooers’ Law or Why Some Retrieval Systems Are Used and Others Are Not. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 23(1), 22–23.

Nabe, J. & Fowler, D. C. (2015). Leaving the “Big Deal”…five years later. The Serials Librarian, 69(1), 20–28.

Schwieder, D. (2016). Low-effort information searching: The heuristic information-seeking toolkit. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 35(4), 171–187.

Zipf, G. (1949). Human behavior and the principle of least effort: An introduction to human ecology. Addison-Wesley.