Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Solving One Problem

"You see this? [Holding up a bullet]. This is this. This ain't something else. This is this." -- Michael (The Deer Hunter)

Anyone who is paying even cursory attention to academic libraries knows the story. We have entered an era of consolidation: aggregation of content, metadata and user demand, with library services migrating to the network level. End-to-end solutions are the order of the day. Webscale management systems promise to take library data and transactions to the cloud. Vendors of every stripe are vying to build the one discovery or management system that answers all needs. Systemic change is underway, and there is real value to be created and reaped as this transition progresses. As a new vendor, Sustainable Collection Services plans to create and consume some of that value ourselves. 

But at times the scale and complexity of it all threaten to overload the circuits. It's hard to wrap one's mind around all the permutations. Every task or interaction seems to depend on some other task or operation. Simple conversations devolve into acronym-ridden gibberish. What's most frightening is that sometimes we actually seem to understand one another! In twelve years as a workflow and organizational design consultant, I've become accustomed to swimming in complexities and dependencies, striving to master the intricacies of process and technology and to align them with changing organizational priorities and fiscal realities. Confusion and conflict are constant companions, even when the results are good.
Well, where's the fun in that? It can be ridiculously hard. In response to both of these realities, my partners and I at Sustainable Collection Services have set a more modest goal: to solve a single problem to the best of our ability. One problem: This is this. This ain't something else. This is this! This is ours.

There are plenty of problems ripe for the picking. We choose this one: managing down print monograph collections. Many libraries suffer from stacks crowded with books that are little-used. Many copies of these same books are held elsewhere in the region or country. Space is needed for other purposes. Keeping unused print books on the shelf costs money. Many libraries could benefit significantly from reducing their onsite print collections. But this needs to be done carefully and responsibly, to assure that no content is lost to users. This is a situation we understand. This is a problem we can deal with well.

Deselection decisions involve many factors that are best considered simultaneously. How often has this book been used? Are there other copies in my region? How many copies are in the US collective collection? Have other libraries made a retention commitment for this title? Does it appear in Hathi Trust, and if so, is it public domain or in-copyright? Does it appear on authoritative title lists? Are commercial eBook versions available? Does it need to be added to my regional print archive? Was it written by a faculty member? 

Informed deselection decisions require assimilation and presentation of this diverse deselection metadata for each title. Efficient decision-making requires the ability to build rules based on this metadata, i.e., to move away from title-by-title scrutiny. Rational decision-making requires customization of deselection rules by discipline or location. Prudent decision-making requires the ability to iterate and refine rules and to view provisional results. Locally-aware decision-making requires the ability identify both withdrawal candidates and preservation candidates that suit a library's mission, priorities, and acceptance level.

We founded SCS solely to create and deploy a decision-support tool with these characteristics. For our first few customers, SCS has produced Collection Summary reports and Withdrawal Candidate Lists, often in several iterations. By doing this, we are learning which criteria and which data are useful to most libraries. We are eager to work with more libraries on this basis. But we have also begun to design a web-based application that enables libraries to interact with their own deselection metadata, and to predict the impact of various scenarios. On behalf of my partners Ruth Fischer, Andy Breeding, and Eric Redman, I invite you to take a closer look at our reports and services.

Wordle Tag Cloud of SCS Content

It is immensely satisfying to delve so deeply into this one issue, and to focus on solutions to a single problem. But it is also very effective. We are working daily to become experts in responsible monographs deselection. We can read everything on the topic. We can write about it in detail. We can confer with individual libraries. We can experiment. We can adapt. Best of all, the single-threaded approach gives SCS great clarity in our priorities and imposes a healthy discipline on our activities. We are not seeking to solve all the problems a library may face. We are not even seeking to solve all the problems related to deselection; journals and Government Documents are not on our agenda. SCS is all about monographs. This is this.

1 comment:

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