Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Not Dark Yet

Recently, in the course of writing an article on 'Data-driven deselection' for Insights: the UKSG journal, I grew curious about the UK perspective on the future of print monographs. In particular, I wondered if the UK Research Reserve, described, in a quadruple-modifier extavaganza, as a "collaborative distributed national research collection" includes monographs as well as journals. For now, it does not. The UKRR remains focused on print journals, and an 'ambitious target of releasing 100km of shelf space by the end of 2013.'

But the group has indeed considered the question of books, most recently in a June 2011 report entitled Less is more: Managing monograph collections in the 21st century. The report is based on a 'Strategic Management of Monographs Forum' held in London on March 17, 2011. The purpose: "to determine whether there was interest in the library sector for a scheme aimed at de-duplicating monograph collections." More than fifty representatives from higher education, national library organizations, and the British Library considered the history of collaborative collection management efforts (e.g., the Atkinson Report [abstract], which in 1976 recommended 'self-renewing' libraries, with low-use material being discarded to make room for new material).
Forum participants working up 'punchy responses'

Attendees also weighed the potential for shared collections, as suggested in recent initiatives such as the White Rose Collaborative Collection Partnership among the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York and the British Library. (This project will be the subject of a more detailed post here soon.) But the main point of the day was to solicit views from many perspectives on deduplicating print monographs. A number of interesting comments surfaced as the group confronted four broad questions:
  1. Is there a need for cooperative strategic management of monographs?
  2. What are the risks and challenges to a collaborative model?
  3. What are the barriers to success?
  4. How might cooperative management be put into practice?
Primary source material, digitized
The document is well worth reading in its entirety, but the responses that particularly caught my eye included the following: (I have consolidated and paraphrased slightly, but have *not* tampered with their promised "punchiness.")
  • The ecology of monographs is complex and fundamentally different than journals.
  • Rationalisation of monographs would greatly affect the humanities research process.
  • There is no strong demand for a large-scale national initiative. Better to build on existing regional initiatives, such as the White Rose collection management project.
  • Libraries cannot afford, either fiscally or reputationally, merely to store collections. Active curation and disclosure are necessary.
  • There is constant pressure on libraries across all sectors to reduce their estate footprint.
  • In these difficult financial times libraries have a responsibility to only house collections which are of value to their institutions.
  • There is a need to articulate a clear vision supported by all stakeholders. Any initiative should encompass the wider issues of strategic collection management and not be limited to deduplication activity. The drivers [to shared print management] need to be broader than financial.
  • There is a risk of missing the window of opportunity for collaboration (as institutions begin to deduplicate independently instead.
At the end of the day, Less is more summarized the sense of the UK academic library community in this manner [emphasis added]:
"The steer from the delegates was though it would be useful to address these issues collaboratively it was not currently top of their institution's priorities [...] Indeed the group decided that now was not the time to commission a scoping study to look at this further."
As measured and rational as this conclusion may be, this 'wait and see' strategy strikes me as somewhat risky. Given what we as a community know about circulation rates (low), collection overlap (significant), and lifecycle management/opportunity costs (high), there is a strong argument for immediate action. Seen from a certain angle, libraries are expending scarce resources for very little return, and, at least in the US, this has not escaped the attention of administrators outside the library. That is not where we want the impetus for change to originate. We want the future of shared print collections to be shaped by library values. If we want enough time to assure that 'doing no harm' (to the collective collection) remains our top priority, it may be better to start now. As Dylan says, 'it's not dark yet, but it's getting there.'

[Photos from UKRR Website: 'Strategic Management of Monographs Discussion Forum' page]