Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The $4.26 Problem

The June 2010 CLIR report "The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship" includes a fascinating chapter "On the Cost of Keeping A Book", by Paul Courant and Buzzy Nielsen.

The authors conclude that a library bears an annual cost of $4.26 for each volume held in open stacks, and $1.99 per volume if that book spends part of its life in a high-density storage facility.

The implications are impressive. Consider:

  • In a modest-sized academic library (say, 200,000 volumes), it's possible, even likely, that 50% of the collection--100,000 books-- have not circulated within the past ten years.

  • If those 100,000 untouched books had spent those ten years in open stacks, the library has borne a cost of $426,000 per year--or a total of $4.26 million dollars to house and maintain them. In open stacks, 100,000 books require 20,000 square feet of floor space.

  • Even if those 100,000 books had spent ten years in stacks and the remainder in high-density storage, the tally for the library would be $199,000 a year for ten years, or a total of $1.99 million.

  • All of this without direct benefit to a single user.

These are shocking numbers by any standard. As a community, academic libraries need to focus on this well-intentioned but misguided use of resources. While the money itself may not be fungible, the space certainly is, and there are many higher-value uses to which it could be put.

Or, to use Courant & Neilsen's own understated interpretation (emphasis added):

"Academic libraries will face many choices in the coming years as
they continue to struggle with preserving and providing access
to the cultural and scholarly records in an environment where the
number and types of materials that they are expected to collect grow rapidly.

As librarians grapple with these changes, it is important to
recognize that the costs associated with a print-based world, often assumed to be small, are actually large."

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