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.

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