Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Disturbing Dust and Data

There must be something in the Australian autumn air.

On March 8, 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the University of New South Wales Library "is throwing away thousands of books and scholarly journals as part of a policy that critics say is turning its library into a Starbucks." The initiative, which aimed to remove 50,000 volumes per year from the stacks, outraged faculty, students, and librarians.  

On one side: "They're getting rid of books to make space for students to sit around, have lunch, and plug their laptops in."  

On the other: "The library has an ongoing program to remove print journals where online archival access is provided. Our academic community prefers to use the online versions and they use them very heavily."

For the record, UNSW's deselection policy prohibits discard of the last Australian copy of any book.

At about the same time, the University of Sydney announced plans to remove 500,000 low-use books and journals as part of a major renovation of its Fisher Library. University Librarian John Shipp noted that "volumes not borrowed in the past five years will be removed [to remote storage]." He referred to a "dust test" that indicated that books not borrowed are also not read. No books will be discarded; they will be moved to one of two offsite locations.
Picture by Melvyn Knipe
In response, University of Sydney students organized a protest on Facebook. They planned a "mass-borrowing" action to save the books and "disturb the dust", with each of the expected 50 protestors checking out the maximum allowable number of books. In the event, more than 500 students turned up. It is unclear how many books were checked out as part of the protest. An average of 10 per borrower seems like a reasonable estimate, although one woman reportedly arrived with a book trolley and the intent to save an entire section. Central News Magazine described the protest as follows:
Students and staff who oppose the move said Wednesday’s action was an attempt to prevent their removal.
“Our strategy is to borrow as many ‘old’ books as possible at lunchtime on Wednesday, to highlight the ridiculous notion that books have ... an expiry date,” the [protest] Facebook page states.
It is certainly laudable that undergraduates in particular were roused to defend their print collection. This speaks to the value that the idea of an academic library holds in users' imaginations. But between idea and reality falls...the dust. No matter how much anyone wants it to be otherwise, the fact remains that these 500,000 books have not been used for at least five years--and in many cases much longer. According to Paul Courant's estimate, it costs $4.26 per volume per year to retain these low-use titles in central stacks. Removal to a high-density storage facility reduces that cost to $.86 per volume per year. These books will remain available to users, and no content is being lost or even put at risk.

There are also opportunity costs that argue against the status quo. Clearly, like most academic libraries, the Fisher Library needs more space for students to study and collaborate. On upper floors, the stacks are reportedly too close together to allow adequate access for disabled users. Wider aisles require fewer shelves. The library is legally bound to comply with this mandate. And, of course, many of those students "having lunch and plugging in their laptops" are in fact accessing the library's electronic resources. All in all, University Librarian John Shipp has made a good case for a sensible proposal--one that balances responsiveness to users and collection integrity.

The students' response, led by history majors, appears both heartfelt and media-savvy. The organizers have clearly recognized that use (or rather, lack of use) determines how many books and which books will move offsite. Checking out thousands of older titles is an inspired strategy. It beefs up the circulation statistics, and may exempt thousands of titles from being moved to storage. It makes for compelling photographs and good news stories. Young people are rising up to protect our cultural and scholarly record!

Picture by Melvyn Knipe
But while the protest makes a good point with good theater, it also seems disingenuous. The "use" generated by this mass borrowing action is entirely artificial. It's hard to imagine that the "protest books" will be read, consulted, or cited in the same manner as those that actually relate to an assignment or research project. They are being used in a different way, to make a rhetorical point. (Of course, one might argue that this is the highest use of a book!) They are being used as a symbol or a category; the actual titles don't matter, so long as the volumes are dusty. In the end, this is not an argument about content at all. It's an argument about the idea of a library versus the reality of a library.

This is an important debate to have within our communities. But the discussion, however spirited, needs to occur honestly. One consequence (unintended?) of the mass borrowing: distorted circulation data. Thousands of titles now appear to have circulated that, if we are honest about it, would not otherwise have done. We now have a somewhat false -- and essentially romantic -- picture of collection use. The picture has been shaded toward what University of Sydney students and faculty would like it to be. The ballot box has been stuffed, a thumb placed on the scale. And while the effect in this case is not statistically significant (perhaps 1%-2% of the proposed withdrawal candidates have been affected), we need to be aware that the data, along with the dust, has been disturbed.
One checkout..ah-ah-ah...
As we grapple with the future of print collections, it is vital to retain the distinction between what we wish were happening and what is actually happening. Circulation and in-house use data, coupled with data on lifecycle costs, offer the most reliable picture of what is actually happening. That's the best place to start, whatever we ultimately decide to do...at least according to our recently-hired Director of Statistics, pictured at right.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for news of another dustup! Reminds me of the older work in trying to measure in-house use of collections (suing beads and threads in addition to dust to detect movement). Will be digging back into that old collection management lit to see what we might find.....