Monday, November 22, 2010

The Dumpster Dilemma

At some point, after careful preparation and informed decisions, every withdrawal project comes down to the final act: taking volumes off the shelves. If they are simply being moved to offsite storage, this poses little problem. But if they are actually being withdrawn and discarded, the process becomes a magnet for attention. As described in a previous post, 100,000 volumes must be removed to free 20,000 square feet. This is not a task that can or should be undertaken inconspicuously. Anticipating and managing the attention such a large-scale operation attracts should be done early, fully, and persistently. 

The most visible element of a sizable library de-selection project is likely to be a Dumpster, like the one dropped outside the Tutt Library at Colorado College this past July. The project at hand was removal of print backfiles of JSTOR titles. The Library had access to full-text digital versions of all this content, as well as access to print versions in several other libraries within Colorado. JSTOR content is of course securely archived via Portico. In short, these JSTOR backfiles met all of the criteria outlined in the Ithaka "What To Withdraw" framework.

In addition, the Library had informed teaching faculty that these withdrawals were about to occur, emphasizing that access to this content had actually increased. Everything had been planned as well as any library could plan it. During the first day of our visit, we periodically saw a student worker rolling carts of these volumes from the library's back door to the Dumpster. When we left at the end of that day, the container was about half full of old volumes.

Upon arrival at the library the next morning, we noticed that some summer-school students had spent an industrious night. The journal volumes had been hauled one-by-one from the container, and skillfully arranged into a sort of igloo. There was no way to know whether the mysterious builders intended to lodge a genial protest, or, more likely, found a trove of raw materials on which to unleash their considerable creativity.

Library Director Carol Dickerson and her staff handled the situation with humor and aplomb. A post, with photos, was added to the Library's blog, along with a message assuring the community about access to this material. The entire staff gathered in late morning to return the volumes to the Dumpster.

Because solid groundwork had been done by Tutt Library staff with the larger Colorado College community, this situation was not blown out of proportion by well-intentioned but uninformed passerby. Even so, there was one flaming comment on the Library blog, showing the level of emotion that removing library materials can generate. And, even for many of us who believe that this is a necessary course for many libraries to take, there are very mixed feelings at seeing these carefully-acquired, well cared-for (but unused) volumes on their way to the recycler.

Colorado College's process was managed intelligently and very openly. Even so, it had its moments of difficulty. While it may be tempting to tuck the Dumpster discreetly away, and to avoid the controversy that weeding may generate, it's important to make the process, the rationale, and the benefits completely transparent. Reducing print collections is not an easy decision, and it is especially hard to tolerate for those of us who have spent careers building them. But resources are not unlimited, and nearly half of print volumes have never been used in most libraries. We have to act, and we have to explain why.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. It will be helpful to me as a librarian.