Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Beyond the Kent Study

For those of us interested in print collection use, the Kent Study has long served as a touchstone. The book's actual title is Use of Library Materials: The University of Pittsburgh Study, by Allen Kent [WorldCat record]. Published in 1979 by Marcel Dekker, it focuses on the 36,892 books acquired by the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library in 1969. Of particular interest is Chapter II, "Circulation and In-House Use of Books", which follows those 36,892 books through 6 years of circulation and non-circulation. In a finding that has resonated for more than 30 years, the authors determined that nearly 40% of these books did not circulate within the first six years on the shelves, and predicted that the chances of them circulating after that were a mere 1 in 50.

Automation in the Kent Study era
The high rate of non-use occurred at a time when print was dominant, when ILL and even awareness of other library holdings was in its infancy; in short, during a best-case period for print use. Those are not today's conditions. While the Kent findings remain interesting, they are based on 40-year old data and 40-year old circumstances. Tectonic shifts in electronic availability, resource sharing, and user behavior have long cried out for a newer, broader circulation study. 

This month's release of the OhioLINK-OCLC Collection and Circulation Analysis Project 2011 [news release and links] provides that new study, along with the ability to interact with the massive data set on which it is based.

Authored by Ed O'Neill (OCLC), Julia Gammon (Univ of Akron), and the OhioLINK Collection Building Task Force, this is a major contribution to emerging conversations around shared print retention and cooperative collection development. Unlike Kent, which focused on a single library, this work encompasses 89 libraries and tracks collection overlap and circulation activity across 30 million items--nearly 100 times the scope of the earlier work. The circulation activity is drawn from the Spring of 2007 and 2008, and so reflects current user behavior. In short, this is a much more robust foundation on which to base decisions about the number of print copies needed, for older and newer titles alike.

The big headline is this one:
"The most fascinating result of the study was a test of the “80/20” rule. Librarians have long espoused the belief that 80% of a library’s circulation is driven by approximately 20% of the collection. The analysis of a year’s statewide circulation statistics would indicate that 80% of the circulation is driven by just 6% of the collection."
This is a pretty shocking number, even to someone who has been looking closely at circulation data for several years now. It suggests that there may be very few titles for which the community needs many copies. We'll drill deeper into the report and underlying data in subsequent posts.

In some respects, this OhioLINK-OCLC work can and should be seen as a companion piece to Constance Malpas's excellent Cloud-Sourcing Research Collections: Managing Print in the Mass-Digitized Library Environment.[pdf]  Her study, also conducted through the OCLC Office of Research, focuses on collections at NYU, Columbia, Princeton, and the ReCAP storage facility, and quantifies the degree of overlap and redundancy among print books that also reside in secure digital form in HathiTrust. That degree of overlap, when considered in conjunction with the usage data from this new report, speaks volumes (heh-heh) about the potential for carefully managed drawdown of print monographs. There is an enormous opportunity here to dramatically reduce overhead costs related to print collections--and to release space for other uses.

An under-reported finding from Malpas's work suggests the scale:
"...we estimate that the median space savings that could be achieved at an ARL library if a robust shared print offer were in place today to be approximately 36,000 linear feet or the equivalent of more than 45,000 ASF [assignable square feet]...
"In economic terms, the total annual cost avoidance -- assuming all of these books are currently managed on-site -- exceeds $2 million per library."
Certainly caveats and fine print exist. But even if we reduced these estimates by 50%, the case for deselection, shared print, and action is strong. Even as we librarians struggle to come to terms with this, our Provosts, academic Vice Presidents, and CFO's will not be blind to these possibilities. As a community, it behooves us to face--even embrace-- this situation, control the drawdown, and reap the benefits for our libraries and parent institutions. We have new data, robust data. Let's use it.

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