Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Talking with Faculty about Library Collections

Earlier this month, I made my way to Maryville, MO, home of Northwest Missouri State University. It's a lovely drive north from the Kansas City Airport, more and more rural over the course of 70 miles. (Some of you may know it from the 'Brick & Click' Library Symposium held there each fall.)  Even locals describe Maryville as "in the middle of nowhere," but Northwest's B.D. Owens Library might be better described as "in the middle of the action."
iPlace: blurring the line between library & classroom
Over the past two years, Dr. Leslie Galbreath, Director of Academic and Library Services, has spearheaded a transformation of the Library's services, spaces, and collections. At peak times, the Owens Library now resembles a busy classroom, with groups of students huddled together around tables and laptops, covering the many whiteboards with outlines, graphs, and diagrams. The Library also houses several academic support departments, including a Talent Development Center, a Writing Center, a Proctoring Center, a Computer Lab, a Center for Information Technology & Education, and a collaborative workspace known as the iPlace. Northwest is seeking and apparently achieving a very close relationship between the Library and the University's teaching & learning services.

"Where Learners and Resources Meet"
Some of the space needed for these services was reclaimed from little-used print journal and reference collections, which have been removed and sold or recycled. Stacks on the first floor were reduced in size and number. Freed space was redesigned based on close observation of user behavior and many conversations with students. New designs include reconfigurable furniture, collaborative study space, casual spaces, individual study rooms and a quiet floor, a popular reading collection, and productive relationships with the academic support centers. Students are expressing their approval with their feet, driving  a 58% increase in gate count over the past two years.

The Owens Library: a happening place
This success raises new questions about how collections--especially print book collections--should be managed in future. At times, there is still more demand for seats than can be met. Meanwhile, as in most libraries, Owens circulation transactions are low and declining. Users largely prefer electronic resources. Like most universities, Northwest will continue to face budget constraints for the foreseeable future. More clear thinking and hard decisions are needed: about the balance between collections and curriculum, collections and budget, collections and user preferences, collections and space. To address these issues, the Library has begun to develop its first formal collection management plan.

Because some weeding has already taken place, Northwest has bought itself enough time to build its plan carefully. The Library's 200,000 or so books occupy shelves on two floors; most are at or below the 75% capacity recommended for efficient operation. The stacks are in excellent shape, with some room for growth, but also with potential for consolidation. Because space pressure is not the main driver at the moment, there is time for a campus-wide conversation about the future of collections. Even more importantly, that conversation can begin by focusing on user needs and budget realities rather than stack space. The Library also has time to engage its stakeholders. In fact, that was why I was invited to Maryville: to kick off a discussion with teaching faculty and librarians about the future of collections.

Here's an impressive fact about Northwest Missouri State's faculty: nearly 30 of them showed up on what was technically a day off to spend several hours thinking about library collections. The morning consisted of  two presentations, each followed by a fairly active discussion. My partners and I at Sustainable Collection Services (SCS) created these sessions in the course of developing our own business, and evolving our thinking about what we call "actionable collection intelligence."  The first, called "Rethinking Library Resources", outlines why we need to reconsider current practice: space pressure, low circulation, digital archiving, high levels of print redundancy, and the viability of shared print collections. The second, on "Data-Driven Deselection", describes how print collections might be drawn down safely and cost-effectively, working with a library's or consortium's circulation and holdings data.

For the most part, faculty have not previously heard these issues framed in this manner.This was the third time I've had an opportunity to speak directly to faculty. Reactions to the message vary, but the conversation is always interesting.

Rick Lugg of SCS talks about the future of print collections with NW Missouri faculty & librarians
At Northwest, several specific concerns surfaced as I suggested that print collections could continue to be drawn down with negligible impact on users. I've generalized these somewhat, to incorporate comments from discussions with faculty in other institutions:
  • Collection use is a flawed metric. This objection has surfaced in every discussion I've had with faculty. The fact that a book circulates does not necessarily make it more valuable than a book that does not circulate, only more popular. Circulation alone should not determine whether an item stays or goes.
  • In-Library use is under-counted. This is another common (and valid) comment. Users consult many books while working in the library, but most are not checked out. For libraries that do re-shelving counts, this use can be captured. Estimates of in-house use vary widely, with some libraries reporting 10 in-house uses for every circulation; a more common estimate is 2-3. We have no disagreement here. Re-shelving counts should be incorporated into use data whenever they are available.
  • Qualitative measures are more important than quantitative measures. All uses are not equal. Sometimes a work is "essential" to an argument or piece of research. These should be weighted more heavily. Some books are better than others. The library should keep the best books on a topic, not the ones that happen to be used the most. Conversely, some books are poorly researched or written, and should be removed on that basis, regardless of use.
  • A library must have books. Someone referred to this as 'books for looks'. Students need to know what it feels like to be surrounded by books, and to witness the extent and value of the scholarly record. A library collection represents that value tangibly.
  • Accrediting bodies and curriculum committees require books. While this literal interpretation of library resources is no longer true in most disciplines, the perception remains that these bodies care about how much is published -- and collected -- in their disciplines.
  • eBook versions are not always adequate. They work well in some disciplines but not in others. A History professor noted how difficult it is to take notes from/in eBooks. On the other hand, the ability to mount chapters for use in online classes is important.
  • Books have artifactual value. Some books have value over and above their content. A sequence of editions, the use of a title over time, and the object itself may warrant retention.
  • Shared print involves delays. Northwest is fortunate to be part of MOBIUS, a statewide resource-sharing network with a well-developed delivery infrastructure. But even a relatively short 48-hour wait for delivery can disrupt research, where a local copy on the shelf would allow it continue uninterrupted. ILL can take even longer. While a library can't hold everything on its shelves, more is better.
All of these points warrant consideration. As I've noted in a previous post, data-driven deselection can only be as good as the data. We should do our best to create the fullest picture of collection use. We should attempt to develop and implement qualitative measures, drawing from core lists, award, key authors, and faculty recommendations. But this has to be balanced with the fact that title-by-title consideration is simply not possible. We need techniques that rely on data, rules, and patterns. Faculty input can make collection management better, and their comments should give us pause, and cause us to adapt. But they should not stop us entirely.

NW Missouri State faculty & librarians prepare to visit the stacks

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