A leap into the unknown

Case study


Module 3: Sustaining your Library Association


Topic 3: Financial Sustainability


The financial viability of a library association is critical to its future sustainability. As socio-demographic changes result in fewer young people becoming members of professional associations, new approaches to association management can be important. The case study outlines the radical steps taken by the European Association for Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL) to develop an innovative plan to face the challenges, to introduce a radically new business model and to ultimately grow the association.

Key Ideas

As you read the case study, think about the following issues:

  1. The relationship between membership and financial security
  2. Different ways that memberships can generate income
  3. The importance of reviewing strategic plans regularly to inform decisions
  4. How associations can change in structure and outreach
  5. How changing social demographics and technology can impact on the operations of an association


The European Association for Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL) was founded in 1987. The model for the association was a traditional one that was originally based on the Medical Library Association in the United States. In 2010 there are over 1,100 members from 30 different countries. The overarching aim of the association is to unite and motivate health library and information professionals in Europe, offering members a program of conferences and continuing professional development activities, as well as opportunities for cooperation and career development. It publishes the Journal of the European Association of Health Information and Libraries (JEAHIL), which replaced the quarterly published newsletter to European Health Librarians. The association is governed by an Executive Board and has a Council with Board members and elected representatives from the different European countries. The membership categories include individuals, institutions, and collectives (national or regional associations), with the primary focus being on individual memberships. There is also a group of affiliated members, representing companies whose business interests align with the goals of the association.


Many library associations around the world are facing challenges to their future prosperity and have had to re-examine their priorities and the fundamental financial structures that support them. Beyond the global financial downturns, changing social demographics are having a significant impact on the role and status of professionals and on the sustainability of professional associations. Attracting new members, especially younger members, is becoming increasingly difficult, and for some areas of the profession, there may be more than one single association – national, regional or sectoral – that is relevant to individual library and information professionals.

When it was founded in 1987, EAHIL’s main focus was to serve the needs of Western European health and medical libraries which arguably formed a relatively homogeneous group with established norms and standards for professional practice and were reasonably well resourced. At that time, the Iron Curtain was a significant feature in the political landscape and was a barrier to any potential communication or collaboration. The fall of the Iron Curtain, however, had a fundamental influence on EAHIL. The medical libraries in eastern and central Europe faced with many difficulties, and needed help and support as their economies changed to competitive market finance models. EAHIL played a key role in encouraging unification and sharing of experiences to enable the integration of Eastern bloc libraries into the European medical library community.

However, around 2000, the executive of EAHIL became increasingly aware of the financial challenges facing the association, primarily as a result of the declining numbers of members. The very nature of the international membership base presented its own clear problems: not only were there distinct economic differences between the different countries, but also the need to manage membership fees in a multi-currency environment meant that almost all the membership income was spent on collecting and administering the subscriptions themselves. Despite a more open banking system across Europe today, the problems have not been resolved. There was considerable discussion and analysis about future financial pathways, with consensus achieved for what was generally regarded as a ‘radical, apparently wild solution’.

The strategy was referred to as the ‘open access’ solution, using the analogy of the principles of open access to information to refer to the concept of ‘open membership’ of the association. From 1 January 2006 EAHIL was to be converted to a virtual organisation, with all administrative processes web-based. The annual membership subscription fee was to be completely abolished for all members working in health and medical libraries in Europe, with fees payable only by members outside of the core European region. New members were to be peer-reviewed before acceptance, with the peer review role undertaken by the elected Council members within their own jurisdictions. The shift away from membership as the main revenue stream led to other strategies: JEAHIL, as the association’s main professional publication, would move online, with costs paid for through advertising and sponsorship. A stronger emphasis has been placed on an annual cycle of conferences and workshops, with a proportion of the registration fees for these events directed to the association to cover its running costs.

The ‘open access’ proposal received the unanimous support of the Board, with the EAHIL General Assembly approving the changes that would see the association move to become a totally virtual, web-based organisation. Technical support and expertise was generously provided by volunteers, particularly in the areas of web hosting, database development, and journal publishing activities.

This ‘radical, wild solution’ to the association’s problems has seen very positive consequences. Membership has grown significantly – around three fold – with interest from all areas including both the traditionally more affluent nations and the countries transitioning into new economies. With the increase in membership, journal circulation has also grown, resulting in a significant rise in advertising revenue and the direct support of scholarly publishers. The use of volunteers to get things moving to the web environment resulted in increased member engagement, extending to the employing institutions through the provision of staff time, systems support and data storage. Engagement is further enhanced through members being directly involved in the planning and organising of conferences and workshops in different locations across Europe.


As a result of the changes, EAHIL has become a larger and more vibrant organisation. The professional community of health and medical libraries is a cohesive one, possibly because the specialised nature of the work needs a greater spirit of collaboration; this context ensured a common sense of belief in the association’s vision for the future. The early diagnosis of future fiscal problems enabled the organisation to develop an innovative change management plan before it reached a financial crisis. The strategic approach therefore focused on real sustainability, rather than on mere survival. A pragmatic, but crucial element of EAHIL’s strategy was the reliance on volunteers to implement the changes so that the new service model could be developed at little or no cost. The establishment of an Open Access association shows that radical change can be effective, at least on a modest scale for an organisation of around 1000 members, and that direct and indirect benefits can be achieved. The Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Medizinisches Bibliothekswesen e.V. (the German Association of Medical Librarians) has adopted the model. The leap taken by EAHIL has secured the association’s financial security for the immediate future and offers a model that may have answers for other library associations.


  1. What do you consider to be the main factors that contributed to the success of EAHIL’s ‘open membership’ strategy? Why are these factors important?
  2. Do you believe that there are other less obvious reasons for the association’s growth? If so, explain what these reasons might be and why they have had a positive impact.
  3. Is it significant that this association is concerned with a cohesive body of professionals?
  4. What other strategies could your association consider to both generate income and attract members?

Case Notes

Resource: Case study
Country: n/a
Region: Europe
Agency: European Association for Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL)
Topic: Sources of income
Keywords: membership, membership fees, sustainability, financial planning, strategic planning, volunteers, service models


McSean, T. & Jakobsson, A. (2009). The Open Access Association? EAHIL’s new model for sustainability. Health Information and Libraries Journal 26(4), 316-21.

McSean, T. & Jakobsson, A. (2007). The Open Access Association? EAHIL’s new model for sustainability. IFLA World Library and Information Congress, 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa. Available as an online resource at http://archive.ifla.org/IV/ifla73/papers/129-Jakobsson_McSean-en.pdf

See also:
Arbeitsgemeinschaft fuer Medizinisches Bibliothekswesen e.V. (AGMB) http://www.agmb.de/

AGMB Flyer: http://www.agmb.de/papoopro/dokumente/upload/593bc_AGMB-Flyer.pdf

Associations, Building Strong Library Associations

Last update: 21 October 2012