Monday, February 28, 2011

Title Protection Rules

From C-Pirate Flickr Stream
No one likes to discard books, no matter how much sense it makes. Psychology and emotion loom larger in deselection decisions than do data and reason. Prompted by my partner Ruth Fischer, we've recently begun experimenting with a different way of thinking about this, one that shifts the focus from rejection to protection. The question "what must we save?" is proving far more productive and positive than the question "what do we have to remove?"

The change in orientation is partly rhetorical, but also has a basis in reality. The change requires that overall responsibility for deselection be assigned at the institutional level. In some cases, that may mean the library as a whole, rather than collection managers; in others, it may mean the College or University which is pressing for additional space or reduced costs, rather than the library.

The institution needs more space for users. Large portions of the print collection are not being used. An obvious solution is to store or discard those many low/no-circulation items. The institution decrees that deselection must be pursued. Titles that have not circulated in many years automatically become candidates for deselection. The institution as a whole bears responsibility for this decision, and affirms the general direction and parameters.

This general candidate list, however, is only the starting point. Some categories of titles may need to be protected, regardless of how little they are used. This is where the subject librarian's work begins, and where a new psychology can be adopted. Instead of active deselection, the process becomes a form of triage: protecting those items that most need protecting. It is a given that not all can be saved; the institution has said so. The subject librarian, then, must determine which categories of material are most important to retain.

In the SCS parlance, these decisions are expressed as "title protection rules." Title protection rules allow for some titles to be exempted from deselection, but also force prioritization. As importantly, it shifts the energy of selectors toward preservation rather than elimination, but in the context of a institutionally-mandated deselection project. Progress can be made, but the most critical exceptions can also be honored.

Certain title protection rules come up with regularity in our discussions with libraries. As described in a previous post, appearance on authoritative lists might inspire retention. Award-winners (Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book Awards, etc.) and "classic" or "seminal" works in a subject are other general categories that may warrant protection. But other, more localized exceptions are also common:
  • Titles written by faculty members
  • Books or collections donated by important alumni or benefactors
  • Books that were part of the library's founding collection
  • Titles in areas where the collection is known to be weak
  • Titles important to emerging disciplines on campus
  • Areas where retrospective collection building has recently occurred.
  • Titles with high levels of image-intensity (e.g., arts)
  • Titles from publishers well-regarded in a discipline
  • Titles in series important to a discipline

From C-Pirate Flickr Stream
These are just examples, of course. Every library (and potentially every discipline represented in the library's collection) is likely to require its own title protection rules. But even from this modest list, the potential variety is clear. Perhaps less obvious is the difficulty of shaping these criteria into effective rules, and avoiding the need for title-by-title decisions. And even if a rule can be defined, the necessary data may not be readily available.

For instance, in order to identify and protect works by faculty authors, a list of faculty authors is needed. Where can this be generated? Should staff as well as faculty authors be included? Do we limit the list to current faculty, or attempt to capture historical contributions as well? To match the author list against the library's catalog, some authority control work may be necessary. Identifying titles donated by well-known alumni or purchased from endowed funds can create similar logistical problems, especially when the only indicators are a physical bookplate or the use of a specific fund.

Some of these are solvable problems, and the degree of effort involved in finding a solution may provide one more measure of the ultimate value of these titles to the library. Articulating title protection rules is an important step in that process.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Core Titles and Circular Logic

Here at Sustainable Collections Services, we are working with several libraries to identify low/no-circulation titles in their collections. We then gather additional information about those titles, to help inform deselection decisions. It has been interesting to learn what sorts of supplementary information are most important. Some data needs are obvious, such as the number of holdings in WorldCat, or whether a title already resides in a shared regional storage facility.

But other information is often wanted. For instance, there is a great fear of discarding a title of recognized value, and many librarians wish to know whether a title appears on some form of "authoritative list." Examples of such sources are Resources for College Libraries CHOICE's Outstanding Academic Titles, and Doody's Core Titles in the Health Sciences.

These lists have been developed to help libraries identify the most important titles --the core titles--for specific types of collections. Criteria for inclusion vary depending on audience level and discipline, but CHOICE's list illustrates one well-defined set:

A title's presence on such lists often--and in many cases appropriately--affects the decision to deselect. To accommodate this,SCS introduced the concept of "title protection" rules, which describe categories of books that are exempt from withdrawal--regardless of their circulation history. There are many other types of title protection rules (e.g., faculty authors, donations from prominent alumni), which I will describe in a subsequent post. But title protection rules based on authoritative lists present an interesting conundrum.

Core titles, are, by definition, books that every library should have. Not surprisingly, they tend to be widely held. They have been deemed valuable by an external, expert reviewing authority. This judgment is subsequently reinforced by collective agreement, expressed through widespread acquisition. These titles are well-regarded and so are widely bought. They remain well-regarded because they are widely held. But this cycle of logic does not address the question of use.

Authoritative lists are excellent collection development tools, assuring that the most important titles in a discipline are represented in the collection. But what sort of deselection tools are they? Core titles are not only the most widely held, but are typically the most easily re-acquired, and the most likely to be available in digital form. But are they also the most widely used? If a "core" title has not circulated in 15 years, how do we weigh that fact against its designation as a core title? So far, most libraries seem inclined to protect these titles from deselection, regardless of use patterns.

This may be exactly the right decision, but there is also an oddly circular logic at work. This title was deemed important, so many libraries bought it. Its designation as a core title inspires librarians to protect it from deselection. Core lists are one element in evaluating collections. We want out collection to measure up. Other libraries are keeping core titles. We will keep core titles.

image from
Absent consideration of use, this logic will lead us  (as a community) to retain hundreds or thousands of copies of the same titles--simply because they appear on the same lists that inspired us to acquire them in the first place. If they are indeed well used, this is a good thing. But if they are little-used, we will miss an opportunity release thousands of feet of shelf space with virtually no risk.

We at SCS are curious whether "core" titles experience higher circulation rates than other titles, and hope to quantify that in some fashion in the near future. They certainly should, given their acknowledged quality. It remains important to know which titles appear on these and other authoritative lists (such as those used for accreditation), but as one of our focus group participants put it back in January: "I'm starting to think that use trumps everything." In our view, it doesn't necessarily trump everything, but it should always be part of the data that drives deselection decisions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Misspent Funds or Strategic Reserve?

My colleague Andy Breeding recently forwarded a Cornell University report from its Task Force on Print Collection Usage. The report, released in November 2010, resulted from the Task Force's charge "to conduct a wide-ranging study on the use of the circulating print collections." It is one of the most thorough studies of its kind. The findings, though perhaps not surprising, were nonetheless stark. Among them (with emphasis added):
Approximately 55% of the books published since 1990 and held in Cornell's collections have never circulated.

For books published in 2001, 64.5% had not circulated by the end of 2009.

Of books in circulation on April 19, 2010, only 10.7% were charged out to undergraduates.
        Cornell, as a research library with a mission to collect for both current and future scholars in its community, is careful to state that the import of these numbers is far from clear. The report demonstrates how much use varies by discipline (with Math circulating a higher percentage of its holdings than any other discipline), and the Task Force argues forcefully that no "one size fits all" solution exists. They emphasize the need for greater understanding of the data before action. In their words:  
        • High or low circulation rates should not be attributed to a single straightforward cause, particularly in light of wide variation in the role of print monographs in different disciplines.
        • The Library should not adopt specific across-the-board targets for the circulation rate of print monographs acquired for the collection.
        • The Library should not halt or diminish acquisitions in particular non-English languages absent a detailed understanding of language distribution among the disciplines and across the broad patron base on campus.
        This is good stewardship.But the competing priorities faced by Cornell--and by other research libraries--are evident in their own questions:
        "If half of CUL's monograph purchases of the last twenty years have circulated, is that a lot or a little? Precious resources are being spent to purchase, house, and preserve these books, but to what extent should this be regarded as misspent funds and to what extent as investment in a strategic reserve?"
        At the heart of this distinction between misspent funds or investment in a strategic reserve lie a number of thorny issues. How should we value use? How do we balance the budgetary pressures of the present against responsibility to the future? And perhaps most importantly, who should bear the cost of a strategic reserve?

        The US Strategic Petroleum Reserve
        It's instructive to consider the language used around other strategic reserves, such as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Phrases  such as "guarding against an interruption in supply", "emergency stockpile", "maintain readiness for emergency use", "to cope with unexpected events", are common. At bottom, however, they can be reduced to a single concept: "just in case." This is the very phrase most often used to describe the philosophy of academic library collections, at least until recent years. It is an important role, and it is an expensive role.

        A strategic reserve of both print and digital scholarship seems an obvious choice. But like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, this should be coordinated at the national or regional level, and the costs should be borne by the entire community which depends upon that reserve. As a community, we have begun to move in this direction, through participation in trusted print repositories and trusted digital repositories such as Hathi Trust.. Investment in these programs, through both dollars and contributed collections, will gradually assure that "misspent funds" are converted to something more lasting and cost-effective.

        Friday, February 4, 2011

        The 75% Solution

        According to an excellent white paper entitled Library Stacks and Shelving, [written by Earl Siems and Linda Demmers and provided through the Libris Design Project [], supported by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act]:

        "Optimum capacity for a working collection requires shelves that are only 70-75% full. This extra space is not considered future growth space, but is the space required for collection management, efficient reshelving, interfiling of new acquisitions, and multi-volume sets."
        Using this benchmark, a standard 36" wide, 90" high, dual-facing section of metal shelving should optimally contain:

          • 336 fiction titles (at 8 per linear foot)
          • 252 scientific/technical titles (at 6 per linear foot)
          • 420 non-fiction titles (at 10 per linear foot)

        This means that, on average, there should be 9" of free space on each 36" shelf, to assure efficient management of the print collection--i.e., to allow reshelving to proceed quickly, and to avoid constant shifting of crowded sections of the stacks. Take a walk through your own collection with this in mind.

        This also suggests a target for deselection projects and perhaps one kind of metric for a sustainable collection. A sustainable collection is one that keeps stacks at 70-75% of their nominal capacity. Something that looks like this:

        rather than like this:

        In addition to reducing labor for shelving and shifting, the 75% rule also provides a better browsing experience (to the degree that users are still browsing!), and reduces the risk of damage to items in the collection.