Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Deselection and 'Remedial' Discovery

Last Wednesday in Charleston, my colleagues Bob Kieft (Occidental College) and Sam Demas ('freelance librarian') and I facilitated a day-long preconference on 'Shared Print Archiving: Building the Collective Collection." We benefited from a full roster of speakers experienced in management of shared print collections: Lizanne Payne (CRL, WEST, and CIC); Emily Stambaugh (California Digital Library), John MacDonald (Claremont Colleges), Kathryn Harnish (OCLC), Michael Levine-Clark (Univ of Denver), Judith Russell (Univ of Florida, ASERL), Rachel Frick (CLIR/DLF), and Doug Way (Grand Valley State University).

The hordes gather to discuss shared print archiving

 Because we employed lightning talks and approached the topic broadly, discussions were more exploratory than definitive. As befits a discipline in the throes of formation, a certain element of confusion and chaos attended the day. But my overall sense is that a group of smart, experienced people worked hard to share information about disparate efforts, and to integrate them into a regional and even national conversation. More work, more focus, and still broader participation are needed, but we built on good work already underway.

One strand of conversation very much surprised me. The discussion around deselection and drawdown of duplicative print collections repeatedly turned toward discovery and digital content. This seems ironic in some respects, as shared print initiatives tend to focus first on titles that have never circulated. Why would we be concerned about the discoverability of content that has remained untouched for 10-20 years? On the surface, deselection and discovery seem like mutually exclusive categories. Is there really a need to enhance discovery of something that is being withdrawn or moved to storage for lack of use?

 Well, perhaps there is. As a group, we surfaced several arguments in favor of what I'll call 'remedial discovery.' 
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: One reason that titles don't circulate maybe because they are not found. Users are not always skilled searchers, and even the best cataloging records have a limited number of access points. Cataloging errors may also play a role here (e.g., a misspelling in a primary access field).
  •  Shared print collections limit physical browsing: Paradoxically, the decision to rely on copies that are not held locally in open stacks increases the desire for some form of virtual browsing or enhanced discovery. A user may want to know more about a book before requesting it from another library or from a remote storage facility. The further away the books are, the more desirable virtual browsing appears.
  • Record enhancements have not been universally applied: Many OPACs have taken a page from Amazon to include cover scans, flap copy, and tables of contents. But these enhancements have not been adopted for all libraries, and may not even be available for older titles--those most likely to surface as withdrawal or storage candidates. In some cases, older titles may not have had the same level of exposure as newer titles.
  • Discovery layers are just coming into their own: Discovery tools have improved dramatically in the past few years. The more content that is indexed in those tools, the better the chances a user will find resources that may have been overlooked in the past. Here again, older materials have not benefited from these newer techniques. Perhaps they need another chance, with better tools.
Search: 'you are a faithless mad son of clocks and buzzers'
  • Full-text indexing could stimulate use of older titles: Already the Google Books, Internet Archive, and Hathi Trust interfaces have radically improved the chances of finding older titles -- perhaps older titles that have previously been little used. 

It's an interesting take, and perhaps worth some experimentation. We've come at this topic from other angles previously, in posts on 'patron-driven re-acquisition' and 'curating a discovery environment.' All of this needs to be thought through more carefully, but maybe we ought to consider two simultaneous courses of action once unused titles have been identified.
  1. Continue to draw down highly-redundant print collections in the context of shared print archiving and secure digital collections.
  2. Enhance the remaining records for optimum discoverability. Give them a second chance to benefit from newer discovery tools.
The second of these is somewhat counter-intutitve, since it involves additional investment in a resource that has already cost far more than it has yielded. Some titles may not benefit from the additional work. But it may be worth testing on a small scale. Not only would it level the playing field for older titles, it would provide additional convenience to users examining content remotely. Specific enhancements might include:
  • Add the Hathi Trust public domain URLs (where available) to catalog records for low-use titles
  • Add Tables of Contents to catalog records for all eligible withdrawal candidates
  • Add cover scans, flap copies, and links to reviews for these older, low-use titles
  • Add eBook PDA records for withdrawal or storage candidates
  • Devise a virtual browse function, similar to the Hathi page turner or Amazon 'Look Inside the Book'
No doubt there are other ideas. Some of them will require a good deal of work and investment. There are definitely some trade-offs here, and perhaps the approach must be selective to be affordable. But it's intriguing to think about creating better forms of discovery and access for material that is going offsite or will be held by another library. Lack of browsability is one of faculty's main objections to removing print from central campus stacks. Connecting deselection and enhanced discovery may be one way to answer that.

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