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.

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