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.
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|
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.