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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2017


Standards Collection Development and Management in an Academic Library: A Case Study at The University of Western Ontario Libraries

Linda K. Dunn
Research and Instructional Services Librarian, Reference Collections Librarian

Shiyi Xie
Research and Instructional Services Librarian - Physical Sciences and Engineering

Allyn & Betty Taylor Library
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario, Canada


How can academic libraries ensure their standards collections meet the teaching and research needs of science and engineering faculties? Nowadays, most academic libraries face financial constraints that greatly impact collection development. This article documents an academic library's experience with standards collections and the investigation and implementation of an on-demand purchasing model for a high-cost standards collection.


The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) (2017) states, "A standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose." The Conference Board of Canada (2015) specifies, "Standards cover a wide spectrum of documents, from definitions, classifications, manufacturing techniques, processes, delivery systems, and beyond. They set out requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be consistently applied to ensure that products, materials, processes, and services perform as intended in terms of their quality, safety, and efficiency." Other standards bodies have similar definitions. Standards are reviewed to ensure they meet the ever-changing needs in certain fields, such as electronics, engineering, information technology, safety, and the environment.

In this age of globalization, standards provide significant value to both national and international economies. The Standards Council of Canada (2016) states, "the use of standards have[has] been shown to be associated with an increase of nearly $3 billion in Canada's real gross domestic product by keeping our society running efficiently and safely, reducing costs to consumers and providing access to global products." National standards bodies also cooperate in the development of international standards. For example, ISO is composed of 163 members of the international community and has published over 21,000 international standards (International Organization for Standardization 2017).

Given the importance of standards to global and national economies, academic libraries supporting engineering, science, and medicine disciplines must provide access to these valuable documents. This article describes the experience of The University of Western Ontario with developing, maintaining, and managing standards collections, and the viability of an on-demand purchasing model for an essential standards collection.

Standards in Academia

Standards play an important role in a variety of areas, especially in industry, which requires engineering practitioners, educators, and students to master information retrieval skills in standards collections. Engineering students frequently experience what it is like to work as a professional engineer for the first time during a co-op. Jeffryes and Lafferty (2012) conducted a survey of the information needs of engineering co-op participants. Responses showed that industry standards (78%) were the most commonly consulted, followed by books (61%), technical reports (53%), and scholarly articles (33%). The authors suggested that successful graduates should develop their information-related skills in their undergraduate studies, in particular for those information types commonly used in their future careers.

Normally, post-secondary engineering programs are externally accredited. For example, ABET provides global accreditation for engineering programs in many countries, including the United States (ABET 2017). ABET accreditation requires an understanding and use of standards within both their student outcomes and curriculum criteria:

General Criterion 3. Student Outcomes: (c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.
General Criterion 5. Curriculum: Students must be prepared for engineering practice through a curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple realistic constraints. (ABET 2016)

The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB) accredits Canadian engineering programs (Engineers Canada 2017). The understanding and use of standards appear in accreditation requirements in sections related to curriculum, professionalism, and analyzing the impact of engineering on society and the environment:

3.1.4 Design: An ability to design solutions for complex, open-ended engineering problems and to design systems, components or processes that meet specified needs with appropriate attention to health and safety risks, applicable standards, and economic, environmental, cultural and societal considerations.
3.1.8 Professionalism: An understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the professional engineer in society, especially the primary role of protection of the public and the public interest.
3.1.9 Impact of engineering on society and the environment: An ability to analyze societal and environmental aspects of engineering activities. Such ability includes an understanding of the interactions that engineering has with the economic, health, safety, legal, and cultural aspects of society, the uncertainties in the prediction of such interactions; and the concepts of sustainable design and development and environmental stewardship. (Engineers Canada 2016).

The significance of standards collections and related information retrieval skills in university education is documented in the literature. Taylor (1999) described the importance of a properly developed and managed standards collection at academic libraries that meets the research and instruction needs of faculty and students. He also outlined several acquisition approaches currently implemented at his library and emphasized the need to quickly acquire requested standards. Davis, Beyerlein, and Davis (2006) discussed deriving profession-focused learning outcomes for capstone engineering design courses based on the profiles of engineering professional practitioners, and pointed out the importance of following accreditation requirements. Leachman and Pezeshki (2015) provided library instruction on finding and using standards in a capstone senior design course. They surveyed the industry sponsors of this course regarding the companies' use and organization of standards to inform the library's future work in standards collections and related instructional directions. Murphy, Strong, and Sewerin (2007) examined the teaching of, and access to, standards in Canadian academic libraries and introduced best practices at their own institutions, Queen's University and the University of Toronto. Besides striving to provide their users with easy access to standards, they also stressed the importance of holding a well-built standards collection that supports teaching and learning.

Building a robust standards collection requires solid collection management practices, which can be affected by many factors. For decades many academic libraries have been struggling with the transition to collecting and managing rapidly growing digital content, often while experiencing economic constraints (Branin, Groen, and Thorin 1999). Pellack (2005) describes users' growing expectations of accessing industry standards online which increase pressure on libraries to support such desires while balancing the much higher subscription cost of electronic standards than their print counterparts. In terms of collecting standards, Taylor (1999) recommends a combination of standing orders and individual selection thus avoiding collecting unneeded, costly standards. He notes using online catalogs as being convenient for individual selection of standards. He highlights the need for a relevant, accessible, and current standards collection, requiring careful monitoring by the library.

The University of Western Ontario Experience

The University of Western Ontario (Western), one of the top research-intensive universities in Canada, consists of 10 faculties and approximately 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students (The University of Western Ontario 2017). Western Libraries is a member of the Association of Research Libraries and has eight service locations, one being the Allyn and Betty Taylor Library (Taylor Library), which supports four faculties including the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering, the two major user groups of standards.

Standards Collection Development and Management

Taylor Library collects scholarly resources for a wide range of science and engineering disciplines and programs in support of their information needs in teaching, learning, and research. Standards, like other resources, need to be selected, acquired, and organized for access. Considering standards are expensive technical resources, the library cannot purchase every standard requested by our patrons. In particular, some standards are only needed by individual researchers and will not be used by other Western academics. Thus, the library has decided to collect only "must-have" standards based on the needs of our user community, and recommend our patrons consider spending their research funds on other needed standards.

Taylor Library has set up a variety of fund codes for collections acquisition, including subject monograph funds for individual departments, a Taylor Serials fund for serials, a Taylor General fund for large interdisciplinary purchases, and a Reference Collections fund for reference titles. In addition, there are collections centrally funded by Western Libraries, and these collections span disciplines supported by the various library locations. Standards collections have traditionally been funded using both the Taylor Serials and Reference Collections funds.

Taylor Library has a collections policy document for every subject area. These policies play an important role in guiding librarians' daily collections work that meets their users' needs, defining the scope of the library's collections, and communicating with the user community. In 2005, the Engineering Collections Librarian created a collections management policy specifically for engineering standards. Two acquisition models were used when collecting standards: standing orders and one-off purchases. Standards were acquired in print or electronic format, depending on the following considerations: format, cost, and user need. In 2010, a revised standards collections policy incorporated new changes, such as converting some subscriptions from print to online. In 2017, new revisions of the policy reflected changes associated with the case study described in this paper.

In 2013, a team of librarians (Reference Collections Librarian, Physical Sciences and Engineering Librarians) and library assistants formed the Taylor Library Standards Working Group (hereafter referred to as the Standards Working Group). The Group's mandate was to review the current practices of standards collection management and develop a cost-effective and sustainable strategy (e.g., purchase on demand) for standards collections development and management while continuing to meet the research and teaching needs of our academic community. Major considerations included the low Canadian dollar currency exchange rate resulting in a decreased purchasing potential for the library and a concurrent space reorganization culminating in relocating the Reference collection, which contained the standards, to a new, more consolidated space. The provision of access to highly used standards was mandated.

Highlighted recommendations from the Standards Working Group included:

User Needs

To investigate Western users' needs for standards in their teaching and research, the Standards Working Group surveyed faculty, staff, and graduate students in the Faculties of Science and Engineering and received 45 responses (See Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Departmental Affiliation of Survey Respondents

Figure 2. Academic Status of Survey Respondents

The survey results (see Appendix 1) helped to identify the most used standards within the science and engineering departments. The top five heavily used standards (see Figure 3) are ASTM, CSA, NRC, ISO, and ACI. CSA and NRC are Canadian standards we expect to have high use by our faculty, staff, and graduate students, while the high interest in ASTM, ISO, and ACI indicates our users also require international standards for their academic work. This is expected, as standards play a significant role in the global economy, as mentioned by the Standards Council of Canada (2016).

Figure 3. Standards Collections Used by Survey Respondents

Survey respondents identified several ways that standards support their teaching and research efforts. They identified standards as important to the teaching of design courses, laboratory sessions, and written assignments. Respondents also mentioned heavily relying on standards in the development and teaching of capstone design projects. This is in accordance with the guidelines produced by CEAB (Engineers Canada 2016). A respondent clearly pointed this out, "knowledge of standards and codes is a CEAB requirement." Thus, standards are part of necessary scholarly collections used by post-secondary institutions to meet accreditation requirements. In terms of research, standards were identified as being crucial to performing laboratory testing, conducting academic research involving the creation and modification of standards, and using for reference information. One researcher stated, "standards form the backbone of my research. They are the first place I look for information, and a constant reference." ASTM was considered by many researchers as an important standards collection for laboratory testing. One researcher explained the importance of standards to his work on developing and modifying both national and international standards, such as the Canadian Military Bridge Evaluation and Design Standards and the NATO Military Load Classification System. Such work is an example of international cooperation and collaboration, similar to ISO's practices (International Organization for Standardization 2017)

Respondents described four major ways of accessing standards: online through the library web site, print copies in the library, online through individual PDF purchase, and access through corporate partners. Other ways include purchasing print copies using grant funding and borrowing copies from colleagues. Most responses mentioned "online" as being their mode of access. For many years, we also have had a library guide specifically for standards, which is our preferred path for users to find standards. However, there was only one indication of its use in the survey responses. Lack of awareness of this tool could be remediated by regular maintenance and promotion. We also think the question design has a weakness that we did not include "library guide" in the example answers. Therefore, interpreting what "through library web site" responses exactly mean is difficult, as it could include the library guide. One disturbing finding is that users may obtain needed standards through illegal methods. Providing users with information literacy instruction regarding copyright and giving clear guidance on accessing standards may help. This also applies to other post-secondary institutions who need to be aware of such illegal access to standards and must take precautionary actions.

Case Study: CSA Standards Pilot Project

According to the survey, ASTM standards ranked first and CSA standards second as the most important and heavily used standards collections at Western Libraries. Western Libraries has long-standing subscriptions to both of these standards collections. We chose CSA standards for our pilot project due to cost considerations, use patterns and CSA's changing publishing model. The library held a complete CSA Standards print collection for many years. Between March 2011 and March 2013, the library purchased an online subscription to CSA Standards in support of Western Libraries' digital library initiative for easy access anywhere, anytime. As we had the online subscription as a trial for the first year, we still kept the standing order for print standards until March 2012. Before renewal in 2013, the reference collections librarian and two engineering librarians evaluated the usage of these online standards. Twenty-five standards received five or more uses and mainly the codes, such as the Canadian Electrical and the Canadian Highway Bridge Design Codes, received the bulk of the use. Although anecdotally our users preferred online access to the CSA standards, the high price (including an imminent renewal price increase of 25%) and low usage resulted in non-renewal of the online CSA Standards and subsequently reverting to a print subscription.

Another important consideration was that CSA had modified its publishing model. We noticed that in the couple of years prior to the pilot, we had received only a few print standards from our standing order for CSA. We contacted CSA and learned that they released the majority of standards in PDF and only carried 100-160 titles in print format.

As part of the recommendations, the Standards Working Group considered an alternative subscription or purchase model for CSA standards. We had the following questions during our deliberations: Should we hold the entire CSA standards collection or have at least the standards required for our users' teaching, learning, and research needs? Will we be able to provide a collection that will support program accreditation requirements? Will we have enough funds to support a complete print standards collection? Can we convert the standards collection to a circulating one to facilitate access and allow collecting usage statistics? Due to the very small number of CSA standards that were actually used by our patrons, we considered moving to a purchase-on-demand model.

To investigate purchase-on-demand options, a general search of university web sites for engineering programs was conducted. Western Michigan University had a purchase-on-demand model for standards currently in place. The Engineering Librarian at Western Michigan University was contacted regarding the purchasing model's sustainability and ease of use for faculty. The Western Michigan model allowed direct purchase of standards by faculty with payment for such by the university. The Engineering Librarian commented that the purchasing model worked smoothly for his university. Although our library's acquisition and funding of collections will not allow direct purchase by faculty, the streamlined purchasing model in use at Western Michigan University encouraged the Standards Working Group to explore a revised purchase-on-demand model for Western.

The Standards Working Group investigated the availability and viability of purchasing standards directly from CSA, as well as comparing and evaluating standards aggregators, including TechStreet and IHS. All companies allowed academic institutions to process print standards for circulation to their users. However, as mentioned previously, most CSA standards are published only in electronic format. Thus, the major consideration is the availability of multi-user licensing for electronic standards set up by the vendors for academic libraries. TechStreet and IHS did not allow the sharing or duplication of an electronic (PDF) standard purchased from their sites. CSA's licensing agreement for online CSA standards allowed academic institutions to directly purchase a PDF copy and subsequently produce a print copy for library circulation. The electronic PDF was then to be destroyed. This agreement in essence continues our CSA as a circulating print collection. As a result, CSA was the chosen provider.

We then established funding and procedures for a pilot project. A $5,000 special fund was set aside for the project. We developed a flowchart (see Appendix 2) to document a standard's purchase from the receipt of a request by a faculty member or graduate student to final processing, deposit for circulation in our reference collection and notification of availability to the requestor. Two purchases (one print and one electronic) were made to test the purchasing procedures documented in the flowchart. Problems identified during the test purchases improved communication among units, resulting in a more streamlined acquisition process. The new purchase model required extensive collaboration and communication between the librarians and library staff of the Taylor Library and Western Libraries' Information Resources Management (LIRM) unit. Duplicate purchases were avoided by the Taylor reference staff verification procedures.

As part of our Group's recommendation to ensure easy access and identification of Western Libraries' print standards, a massive project was conducted to update the existing CSA standards catalogue record with individual item records. This resulted in the creation of 3,735 individual item records, which allows for the easy identification and circulation of individual standards. Similar to other items in our reference collection, the catalogued CSA standards can be loaned for one-day use; however, users may request extended loan periods. This extension recognizes our users' teaching and research needs. Faculty may also designate standards and codes for course reserve use.

Pilot Project Analysis and Results

The pilot project proved to be invaluable in determining an appropriate acquisition model for standards at Western Libraries. Five CSA standards costing a total of $1,048 CDN were successfully purchased for our faculty and graduate students over the course of the two-year pilot project. This number reflects our users' needs for newly released standards while the existing print collection in the library continued to be accessed. The print standards collection had 451 circulations. This data does not capture the circulations of several heavily used codes put on course reserve for undergraduate design courses, such as the Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code and Canadian Electrical Code, since the circulation data of course reserves was lost during a system upgrade. The circulation data also does not capture the significant use we observed of standards inside the library, including students photocopying and capturing needed sections with their cell phones.

Comparison of costs between subscribing to the online CSA for a two-year period (approximately $28,000 CDN) and the adopted CSA on-demand purchasing model ($1,048 CDN) with the complementary existing print collection resulted in a savings of almost $27,000 CDN for these two years. This cost savings is tremendous, especially when considering the impact of the aforementioned low currency exchange rate on our library budget. All purchase requests for CSA standards resulted in orders being generated or users being directed to the existing print collection. The turnaround time from ordering to receipt of the standard proved to be quick. Generally, the print copy derived from the PDF version is available to users within two weeks, while hard copies take longer to arrive due to shipment time. In comparison, under our previous standing order for print CSA standards, standards were not sent individually upon publication but were bundled and shipped to the library two to three times a year. As the pilot project progressed, the efficiencies in both communication and collaboration among staff increased. The library did not receive any complaints or negative feedback from our users regarding the pilot project. The collections policy has been updated to capture the implementation of the new purchase-on-demand model (see Appendix 3).


Standards are expensive for academic libraries to acquire and maintain but are essential to support the teaching, learning and research needs of faculty and students within the science and engineering disciplines. The impact of currency exchange and high renewal pricing of serials exacerbates an unsustainable cost for Canadian academic libraries (Western Libraries 2015). Evidence-based practices allow for good decision-making in collection management and development, especially for specialized and expensive collections. The user needs survey provided evidence of how the collections are used in our academic community. Our patrons' open-ended comments from the survey results gave insight into their academic activities associated with the standards collections. The purchase-on-demand model for acquiring CSA standards has proved to be successful at The University of Western Ontario. Our case study demonstrates that running a pilot can be a valuable mechanism to discover potential efficiencies in the building and management of library collections. Due to the success of the pilot, we are encouraged to apply the model in the future to other standards collections that we support and will continue monitoring standards identified by our users for future sustainable, on-demand purchase considerations.


With special thanks to our former colleagues, Qinqin Zhang and Debbie Holme, who provided extensive support to the CSA Standards Pilot Project.


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Appendix 1: Survey Results

Survey results (PDF)

Appendix 2: Flowchart for Purchasing Standards

Standards purchasing flowchart (PDF)

Appendix 3: Collection Management Policy

Collection management policy for standards (PDF)

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