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.

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