Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Measuring Collection Use

Despite Neil Young's warning that 'numbers add up to nothing', sometimes they have to suffice. In the data gathering that underpins our deselection and shared print projects, we at SCS spend a lot of time looking closely at circulation statistics. Several factors influence what can be gleaned here:
  •  ILS: Different library systems capture and store circulation data in different ways.
  • Duration: Most libraries retain circulation data back as far as their last system migration, though a small percentage port historical checkouts over as part of the data transfer process.
  • Definitions: Often a checkout is just a checkout. This usually includes direct borrowing and ILL transactions, but not always. Some libraries also use checkouts to monitor workflows, charging books out to Acquisitions, Cataloging, Bindery, etc.
  • Transaction dates: Some systems capture only circulation totals. In others, it is possible to learn the date of the most recent circulation transaction.
Not to put too fine a point on it, there are no standards for circulation data. While this imposes some limits on the analysis that can be done for an individual library, it can be even more problematic in shared print projects, where it is necessary to derive a common basis for circulation activity. Even with its limitations, though, circulation data provides an important objective measure of collection use.

No one would argue that circulation activity constitutes the full picture, of course. As Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman point out in Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality: "To be effective politically, it is vital to record the totality of collection use." [WorldCat record]. This is easily confirmed in conversation with faculty and other library users, who often assert with some vigor that circulation represents only a partial picture of use. They base this, reasonably enough, on their own habits, and there is some quantitative support for this in cases where statistics for in-house use are available.

In one library we worked with recently, a 2-month sample of reshelving counts indicated that ten in-house uses occurred for every circulation. That is the highest number we have encountered. A more commonly-reported level is echoed in Future Libraries: "When libraries have counted in-library use, usually omitting pure browsing, the numbers are 2-3 times as high as actual circulations."

Especially when deselection is being considered, recognition of any and all use is important. The last thing we want to do is remove something from the shelves that is actually used. How can we be certain we're getting the fullest picture? 

The obvious answer is to institute or re-institute reshelving counts. This is a frustrating conclusion. It seems completely counter-intuitive and backward-looking to add this sort of work to a library's daily operations in the digital era. Reshelving counts are time-consuming, and require cooperation from users. They shift the focus to print when all signs point toward declining use and value.

But we need the data. We are beginning to make long-term decisions about the future of print collections, and we need those decisions to be as informed as possible. This means we need to capture in-house use--at least in some form.

The simplest and most accurate approach is to provide and promote regular reshelving counts--to identify and count all books used in the library. Stacks workers can scan the barcode and either tally in-house use separately or count it as a checkout. This approach ties use statistics to specific titles, which is optimal.

Some libraries will find this investment hard to justify or sustain. In those cases, a sampling approach could be adopted. Adopt reshelving counts for one week per quarter or one week per semester. This less labor-intensive approach could provide sufficient data for extrapolation; i.e., to calculate an estimated rate of in-house use that could augment actual circulation statistics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Art Books: A Special Case?

Imminent weeding, storage, or transfer projects often prompt vigorous discussion about the value of local print collections. As we’ve considered in a recent post, Browsing Now, the prospect of losing direct, hands-on access to books is of particular concern to students and scholars in the Humanities. They argue that library stacks constitute the ‘laboratory’ for their disciplines, and that the ability to browse onsite collections is essential to their work. There are pros and cons to this position, but at heart it asserts that the values of ‘library as place’ and ‘library as collection’ are tightly linked. We’ll continue that debate another day.

Today’s question is related but narrower. Are there disciplines that warrant special treatment—i.e., exemption from weeding, storage, sharing, or consolidation—because the characteristics and use of their literature are different? In other words, are there subjects where locally-held print books are so superior to the alternatives that they must be retained in situ? Let’s consider a prime contender for exceptional treatment: books in Art and Photography. And let’s consider a current real-world example.

Wesleyan University has decided to close its Art Library and move the 25,000 books now held there to the Main Library. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that this move will unite a collection that is now split between the two buildings. These are well articulated in a recent article in the student newspaper, and in the excellent WesWeeding blog maintained by the Library. 

Still, faculty and students are concerned. This is a substantial and concrete change, which will directly affect convenience and user work habits. University Librarian Pat Tully and her staff have kept all activity and dialogue transparent, and have managed to engage the campus in a productive discussion of this difficult topic. And while all disciplines will be affected by this move (since the main library itself must be weeded to accommodate the transferred art books), art students and faculty will face more change than most.

It’s important to note that there are really two separate components to this change. One concerns the loss of a specialized, conveniently-located branch facility, close to studios and classrooms. In a sense, a branch library of this sort is embedded among its primary users. Its value as an informal community center built around shared interests is clear, but this is not unique to Art. A branch library for Physics, Education or Music offers the same advantages. The presence of relevant library resources may enhance this embedded environment, but social and collegial activity would occur—and will continue to occur-- even without shelves full of books. Since this is not fundamentally a collections issue, we’ll set it aside for now.

For our purposes, a second set of questions is of more direct interest. Are art books actually different than books in other subjects? Are books in art and photography used differently than books in other disciplines? And if so, what should we do about it? Part of my curiosity here stems from observation of my step-daughter Emily’s library use. Initially interested in anthropology, she mostly used the library’s online resources. When she became a studio art major, however, stacks of print books began to appear on her coffee table with some regularity. Why?
  • Art books are different. Obviously, books in art & photography are more likely to include images. Print images are typically of higher resolution and greater fidelity than digital images. A recent Slate article by Jim Lewis notes that "a well-produced photography book might get as high as [...] 600 dots per inch, [...] about 8 times finer than an Apple monitor. The result, especially on high-quality paper, is much greater detail and a much subtler range of tones." Even if digital images were of comparable quality, however, many are simply not available in that form. As publishing consultant Emily Williams notes in the Digital Book World blog, "books are complicated bundles of copyrights." Just because a publisher has the print book rights to an image doesn't mean it has the digital book rights. In short, print books still rule in the arts.

  • Art books are used differently. Because image quality is so important, art books are used not only for close examination of a work, but also in support of studio assignments. Art students often bring books into the studio, propping them open next to their easels for inspiration or to complete an 'in the style of' assignment. While similar portability may be possible with a PC or an iPad, the quality of those images is likely to be unsatisfactory. So at least some art books become tools for use in the studio. 

  • So what should we do? The simple answer is to treat art books more conservatively. For deselection, this may take care of itself, since print books in art do tend to circulate more actively than some other disciplines. Because of rights and resolution issues, the transition to eBooks will be slower, so most libraries will continue to purchase new print books in art. But we might benefit from monitoring user behavior more closely. This could include instituting re-shelving counts, to capture in-house use. It would also be useful to know when the quality of digital images reaches the point where a tablet replaces a book propped up next to the easel. 
Caution: Images At Work

Monday, April 2, 2012

Practicing Collection Management

For the past 12 years, my partner Ruth Fischer and I have consulted for academic libraries on workflows and organizational redesign.  One unexpected result of that experience is that I became deeply uncomfortable with the concept of ‘best practices.’ To perform well, systems or organizations must continually adjust to changing conditions. And while disciplined attention—i.e., practice --  is essential, no practice fits every organization. There are always local realities that must be accommodated. The process of adaptation is never complete. There is always more to learn; the environment remains dynamic.

For an individual organization, then, there are no best practices. There are only good practices, modified to fit a specific set of circumstances, always with one eye on the future, the budget, and previous investments. At most, these are best possible practices.

All aspects of library work are changing rapidly. Within the sphere of collection management, the very concept of 'collections' is under scrutiny, as electronic resources dominate, as patron-driven acquisitions gains traction, and as library space is wanted for other purposes. The value of local print collections is changing, as we consider rates of circulation and in-house use, and as our awareness of redundancy and life-cycle management costs grows. Paradoxically, this makes the practice of collection management more important--and interesting-- than ever.

That's why it's always heartening to see good work in progress. A case in point: in preparation for a recent visit to Colgate University, the Library sent me a copy of its Collections Management Working Group's Final Report.

The Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology, Colgate University

University Librarian Joanne Schneider formed the group in June 2011 to address emerging space and collections challenges. Colgate had opened an automated storage & retrieval system (ASRS) in 2007. Named LASR, it now holds 375,000 volumes, and was designed to provide capacity for 30 years' collection growth. (This September 2011 Library Journal article provides a fine description of the Colgate implementation.) While overall shelf and storage space remains ample, the distribution of print materials across subjects and locations has created some unexpected congestion in certain areas. In particular, the shelves which house LC Classes A-H are currently at 84% of capacity. As described in a previous post, 75% capacity is considered optimal. Even when adequate resources are available, the process of adaptation is never complete.

The Working Group's analysis and response strikes me as an excellent piece of work, adapting the Library's collection management plan to its changing realities. A few highlights (paraphrased with the Library's permission) suggest the intelligence of the group's approach: 
  • Cross-functional membership: the Working Group was chaired by the Head of Collection Development, and included representatives from Reference, Cataloging, Government Documents, Stacks Management, and the LASR facility. All perspectives and workflows had a voice.
  • Balancing of priorities: stewardship of collections, space, and the user experiences all carried weight in the group's recommendations.
  • Projections of collection growth: while it is enormously difficult to predict the future, it is important to try. The Working Group made thoughtful assumptions, looking toward the next 15-20 years, working in 5-year increments, in several areas: 
    • Collections budgets will remain flat or near flat
    • Electronic resources will continue to claim a greater share of materials money
    • E-book adoption will be slower than was predicted as recently as 2010
    • There will be more reliance on regional shared print strategies
    • Regular weeding and transfers will help control collection growth 
  •  Projections of collection capacity: At a macro level, Colgate's LASR has room through 2030. But the details of 12-inch bins vs. 10-inch bins, monographs vs. journals, the dispersion of print resources in open stacks, and decisions about government documents will all affect how and when that space is used. Even if collection capacity is adequate for the long-term, Colgate believes weeding still has a role, especially as shared print efforts become more common.
  • Workflow Awareness: Transfers to and from an ASRS take time and effort, as does large-scale shifting of collections in open stacks, once weeding or transfers are completed. In long-range thinking, it is important to minimize unnecessary materials movement and record maintenance. 
  • Weeding Criteria Defined: For books, the Working Group agreed on specific--and relatively conservative criteria. Nonetheless, 132,406 potential withdrawal candidates were identified:
    • Low-use: used 0-1 times [total checkouts <2]
    • Relevance: not checked out in past 15 years; not on reserve in past 10 years
    • Age: 20 years or older
    • Available from 2 or more consortial partners
    • Active items: not suppressed, missing, billed, etc.
    • Main book collections: not Special Collections, reference, etc
    • Multi-volume works: excluded from consideration
  • Weeding Criteria Adjusted: Initial estimates were reduced by 20% to account for Colgate's uniquely-held titles within its consortium, and other reasons to retain (what we at SCS call 'title protection rules'). The group also recommended that its consortium agree in principle to a last-copy policy before relying on it as back-up for weeded materials.
  • Transfer Criteria Defined: Because titles in this category are going from stacks to LASR, criteria are looser -- the books will remain in the building. These criteria yielded 48,166 items.
    • Use: less than 6 total uses
    • Relevance: Not checked out in past 10 years; not on reserve in past 5 years
    • Age: 15 years or older
    • Multi-volume works: excluded from consideration
  • Manageable Timelines: The workload generated by the Group's report is formidable. They suggest staging the work over several years, with specific ideas about sequencing and load balancing. They envision collection management of this sort as an ongoing process, on regular cycles of five years -- or integrated into annual workflows in smaller increments. 

The Group's report concludes with a statement of the benefits expected if their ideas are adopted. There are, of course, no guarantees that all of their assumptions and reasoning are correct. Everything may be subject to change. But this exercise, adapted for local use, is one that many libraries could benefit from. And it's the regular attention to these matters, not perfect results, that defines the practice of collection management.