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 shirtaday.com
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.

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