Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Withdrawals and Deposits

By Stephanie Judge, UW-Madison

.One practical (and sometimes emotional) concern with removing unused books from library shelves is what will happen to them. As individual libraries begin to withdraw tens of thousands of volumes—and assuming that sufficient copies are retained to protect and serve the needs of researchers—what is to be done with them? As discussed in an earlier post on ‘Disposition Options’, there are several alternatives worth considering, including donation or sale. Today let’s focus on the costs and benefits of selling withdrawn items. 

It is with some misgiving that I raise this option, as the value of this material is already questionable. Library users have weighed in by not using these titles, despite as much as a decade of opportunity. Book sales are labor-intensive. In her excellent 2005 article ‘Library Book Sales: A Cost-Benefit Analysis’, Audrey Fenner concludes that none of the prevailing sale methods (annual, ongoing, or online) is cost-effective. Storing uncirculated inventory for sale also requires space, a resource that is likely in short supply in any library engaged in significant weeding. Staff time, another scarce resource, is required to manage both physical items and transactions with buyers.

Given these inauspicious conditions, it seems obvious that selling withdrawn items will not always (or even often) make sense. If books are to be sold by the library, maximum efficiency must be the byword. This involves working in batches, relying on third-party support, and minimal fussing over individual items. If the withdrawal criteria have been set carefully, candidate titles will be those with the least demonstrated value to users. The question is whether these withdrawal candidates may have value elsewhere—and whether that value is sufficient to warrant the effort of offering them to others.

During ALA in New Orleans, SCS consulted with Shelly Stuard, Director of Library Services at Alibris, a major seller of used and out-of-print books. We wondered if Alibris could help us estimate the potential market value of a list of library withdrawal candidates.  It turned out that the company already had a method for doing so, basically matching library-supplied ISBNs against an internal ‘saleability’ database. This database uses historical information to identify ‘keeps’ (where additional copies are needed) and ‘culls’ (where sufficient copies already exist in the Alibris network). The match also captures the range of historical sale prices for each title.

There are strong caveats to be borne in mind. Any such data is inherently dynamic. As with mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Suggested prices and ‘keep/cull’ status can change at any time. As more copies withdrawn from libraries enter the market, overall prices are likely to decline. But as an overall indicator of value on the used book market, this provides a useful window, and may be as good as any data available.Here are the results from two lists, one in Business, the other in Education.

Business Titles

% of Total

SCS Withdrawal Candidates
Unmatchable: No ISBN
SCS Withdrawal Candidates w/ ISBNs
‘Culls’: no copies wanted
Unknowns: bad matches
Titles w/ possible list price $.01-$2.50
Titles w/ possible list price of $10+

Education Titles

% of Total

SCS Withdrawal Candidates

Unmatchable: No ISBN
SCS Withdrawal Candidates w/ ISBNs
‘Culls’: No copies wanted
Unknowns: bad matches
Titles w/ possible list price $.01-$2.50
Titles w/ possible list price  $10+

Clearly there is some potential revenue here, but there also associated cost. We'll analyze these results more fully in the next post.

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