Academic libraries typically serve individual higher education institutions, yet their objectives require that they achieve greater negotiating power, more efficient distribution of collections, and stronger systems and services than even the largest academic library can provide itself. As a result, academic libraries have sought for more than a century to generate cross-institutional scale. In this paper, I examine efforts to generate that scale, including consortia and other membership organizations, which collectively I term “collaborative vehicles.” Yet collaboration is not good in itself, but rather only insofar as it supports libraries’ objectives as they develop and change over time. One of the great challenges facing academic library leaders is their understandable desire that their collaborative vehicles stay in sync with changes in their own objectives and the broader context in which they operate.
Library collaborative vehicles are at a crossroads. Many were initially organized to serve needs in a primarily print environment, often to facilitate resource sharing. Today, many academic libraries participate in what seems to be an over-abundance of collaborative vehicles, many of them membership organizations, including library consortia. And so these collaborative vehicles are facing a variety of pressures to show their value and differentiate themselves from peers. The consortia that were organized for print-related purposes especially need to grapple with how to adapt, if they are not doing so already. Adaptation in this case often includes a fairly fundamental rethinking of mission, membership, funding, and governance.