Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Non-Convertible Space

The original title for this post was "When Space Will Not Funge." Sadly, although space can apparently be fungible (interchangeable), I could find no immediate support for what I imagined to be the active form of the verb. A pity. If something that is changeable can change, one expects that something that is fungible can funge.

Fungibility is most often used in relation to fiscal matters, such as when money saved in one area can be readily redirected to another. But library space can also be considered fungible, as suggested in an earlier post on "Space: The Final Frontier" in which we noted that 20,000 non-circulating volumes could yield 4,000 square feet of space for other uses. It is always tempting to think of users steadily claiming space from low-use print collections.

Recently, however, during a visit to the Catholic University of America's Mullen Library, it became painfully apparent that all shelf space is not equal--and that library space is not always easily interchangeable. CUA has worked assiduously over the past year to move approximately 25,000 volumes from the Mullen stacks to a remote storage facility. They looked particularly closely at the Education (L-LT) portion of their collection, and made significant reductions in the onsite collection, as the impressive gaps on these shelves indicate.

The no-circulation items have been boxed up and sent away. Several thousand linear feet had been cleared. With some consolidation of the remaining collection, and removal of a stack row or two, some noticeable, re-purposeable space had been created. Or had it?

Steve Connaghan, CUA's Library Director, quickly set us straight. Like many library buildings constructed during the"book-centered" paradigm, the Mullen Library's central stacks core was designed not only to hold books, but to support the building. This shelving cannot be removed without dire consequences.  Doubtless there are many buildings designed in this manner--a factor that had never occurred to me. Travel is so broadening.

To realize the benefit of its transfer and withdrawal decisions--and all the related record-maintenance work--CUA must now invest still more time and effort, shifting collections currently shelved in newer parts of the library into central stacks. Only then will additional space be available for users.This introduces yet another cost factor into the management of print collections--and to capitalizing on the responsible removal of unused items.

Even after shifting has consolidated the requisite space gains, it is sometimes difficult to reconfigure space that has formerly been used for stacks. The proportions of the rooms can be awkward. Creative redesign and professional assistance may be needed to render the space attractive and useful for other purpose. Furniture and equipment may need to be purchased.

Many of these factors can be anticipated and handled well with good planning. But the more time we spend thinking about the coming great migration of print volumes to storage and to digital archives, the more issues become apparent. There is so much to learn about lifecycle management of print collections...and so much to do. There are many benefits to be had, but substantial effort and investment will be required to produce them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Canyons of Reference

For most of us of a certain age, print reference books and libraries are strongly associated. The indexes, encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases and other unwieldy but useful volumes were often the first stops in our information seeking in our, uh, formative years.

To see these tomes now in an active library evokes both memory and mystification. A print index to the New York Times? Really? Current to 2009? A bit surprising, especially when the primary access to the Times itself is via the online version. And yet I took these photos within the past two weeks.

At an extraordinarily busy time in this particular library, I was able to snap aisle after aisle, filled with books but empty of students (except for one, who used the privacy to make a call on his cell phone.) There is nothing especially unique about this library; I've had the same experience repeatedly in the 20-30 libraries I visit each year.

And what filled these interior canyons? Many useful books, well recalled from my own Introduction to Reference class in the early 90's at Simmons with Professor Allen Smith. But also with useful books that are clearly not used, and of a type which lends itself well to online access.

Meanwhile, at precisely the same time, around the corner from the last row of deserted stacks, was the scene below: note the gold-lettered sign on the top of the back wall.