A closer examination of 19th and early 20th century books

During the ALA conference this year we saw an interesting presentation about the Booktraces project, which focuses on capturing artifactual usage details from 19th century and early 20th century books.  Andrew Stauffer from the University of Virginia demonstrated compelling examples of notes and inscriptions that were found in library books held by the university, examples which shed light on the significance of these books to those that used them.

Professor Stauffer has encouraged crowdsourced contributions to the project web site in hopes of preserving these details before they are lost.  With space at a premium in campus libraries, and with weeding efforts targeting low-use titles for discard or transfer to storage, such an effort seems timely indeed.  Among the questions this effort raises, is the one of scarcity.  How widely held are these titles? 

From the standpoint of the Booktraces project, titles that are flagged as widely held are more likely to be found on a weeding list and thus more at risk of not being examined for useful marginalia.  This assumes that libraries are using WorldCat holdings levels to inform their weeding efforts—something that we, of course, encourage.  Our clients typically regard a title as widely held when they have at least 50 U.S. holdings, though often  this threshold is set at 100 holdings or higher.  

To satisfy our curiosity on this matter we looked at data from 120 client projects run over the past two years.   All but 2 of them were academic libraries, ranging from community colleges up to ARL libraries, with the majority being mid-sized institutions.  Within this sample population of libraries we gathered information on 658,224 unique titles published between 1800 and 1923. Here is a graph showing the distribution of these titles by how widely held they are in the U.S. 

Nineteen percent of these titles are held by more than 50 U.S. libraries;  seven percent are held by more than 100 U.S. libraries.    The median value is 18 U.S. holdings.

This holdings level varies by decade of publication, with earlier works being less commonly held.  The following set of boxplots shows the distribution of these titles by holdings level per decade.  

The top and bottom of the blue boxes represent the 3rd and 1st quartiles respectively while the red line represents the median holdings level.  The width of the blue bars is proportional to the number of titles for that decade.  Note that the 1920s are a partial decade (1920-23).

Also notable about these 19th and early 20th century titles is the fact that 44% of them are digitized as public domain titles and made available in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.   As a secure, accessible digital surrogate – a Hathi Trust version can signal to a library that it is safe to deaccession that title.  In practice, however, our clients rarely use this criterion to identify safe withdrawal candidates, preferring instead to rely on physical copies nearby or held by consortial partners.

The chart below shows the number and breakdown of these titles by decade of publication and Hathi Trust status.

Talking With Faculty About Library Collections (Revisited)

In the course of our work at SCS, we regularly visit campuses to talk with teaching faculty about “Rethinking Library Resources: The Role of Print Collections in a Digital Age.” I wrote about one such session more than a year ago, and have subsequently done another half-dozen. Listening to faculty views on the use and future of print book collections is invariably interesting, and vital to our thinking and actions. Not surprisingly, these discussions about the changing value of local print collections reflect a much broader dialogue about the changing nature of higher education.

Well-attended faculty session at US Naval Academy

Well-attended faculty session at US Naval Academy

In recent conversations at Trinity University in San Antonio and the US Naval Academy, there was strong representation from the Humanities disciplines and robust exchanges about browsing, serendipity, the limits of data, changing student behavior, and how the library is valued on campus.

In these sessions, SCS presents profession-wide data and trends, and makes the case for engaging in deeper analysis of print book collections, and for considering the full range of deselection decisions: retention, preservation, storage, sharing, and withdrawal. For these two libraries, we had already completed a preliminary analysis of their respective collections. We were able to talk specifically about circulation rates, subject dispersion, holdings among designated peers, their collection’s match rate against Hathi Trust, and other factors. We were also able to frame each library’s collection characteristics in relation to our SCS Monographs Index, which profiles aggregate and average collection attributes across all the projects SCS has completed to date.

A few themes emerged which are worth highlighting. These observations are supplemented by insights from librarians at Connecticut College and Wesleyan University, as presented in earlyNovember at the Charleston Library Conference.

  • The limits of data: Most libraries have reasonably good historical data on circulation. On average, we see 15 years’ worth of total checkouts, a significant subset of which will also include the last checkout date. Some libraries also record in-house use via re-shelving counts. Depending on how it is tracked, reserve use might also be captured. Together, these provide the best available picture of collection use. But there is a strong conviction among faculty that these measures under-count actual use. They argue that circulation data is not comprehensive. They believe that in-stacks use is much higher than browsing statistics reflect. Faculty often re-shelve the books they use, and assume others do the same. Some assert the value of “negative use”, in which titles they reject or bypass in browsing help lead them to what they actually use. And, no matter how good the use data, many faculty members believe that use is not a legitimate indicator of a title’s value. Every book has intrinsic value, irrespective of use.
  • Whose use?  Like all of us, faculty tend to view things through the prism of their own experience. They think about how they now use the collection, and more importantly, how they used the collection when completing their Ph.D’s. To some extent, they project that experience onto other users. Undergraduates should be working in the stacks, and using print books. But at the same time, undergraduate use (or non-use) of the collection is viewed as an unreliable indicator; “we should not be basing collections decisions on the behavior of 18-year olds.” Some faculty have argued for weighted usage statistics, in which use by a graduate student or a faculty member counts more than use by an undergraduate. Here again, some valid points, and perhaps an argument for incorporating ‘patron type’ into the data, something that is not typically done.
  • The role of browsing: Again, people are often recalling their own research experiences: how they used the arrangement of books in the stacks to get an overview of a discipline. There are many stories about serendipity, and how browsing can broaden or focus an inquiry. These are certainly legitimate points, but always seem to loom disproportionately large. Physical browsing has always been a partial research strategy. It is limited to the books held (and not currently checked out) in a given library. Subject collections can be dispersed across multiple buildings, floors, or classification schemes. Books are only one format—it is still necessary to look at journals, e-resources, government documents. And a modest weeding or shared print project does not eliminate the stacks – browsing is still possible. I have taken these issues up in more detail in entries on “Browsing Now” and “Browsing Now (2)”, and “Virtual Browsing.”
  • Getting students into the stacks: Among Humanities faculty in particular, there remains a strong desire to assure that students get into the stacks and experience the riches of the print collection. Faculty acknowledge that this is an uphill battle, but continue to exhort and sometimes design assignments that require use of print books. They believe that students will produce better work if they are required to push beyond the convenience of electronic resources. Underlying this is a sense that academic standards are slipping, that student work is less substantive and nuanced than it should be, and that print books compel focus and reflection in a way that online resources do not.
  • Our undergraduates are different:There are many variations on this theme, depending on the identity of the institution. But every session includes some mention that students on this campus use more print than average. The reasons differ: they are high achievers, they are confined to campus and cannot visit other libraries, they want to use print even for last-minute work. This is impossible for an outsider to judge, but is always anecdotal, and often seen very differently by the librarians. And these behaviors are rarely put into context: what proportion of users walk through the library's front door as compared to the proportion that enters through its many virtual front doors.
  • What users want or what is good for them?:  There is a real philosophical divide here. Should the library (and the faculty) give students what they want or what we think they need? Many faculty seek to guide or encourage students toward more thorough, reflective work--and that is often construed as toward print books. There is often a sense that we are making it too easy for students, allowing them to bypass the richness of our print book collections in favor of the convenience of Google or online resources. We need to force them to dig deeper, work harder -- not just give them what they want. Student work and learning will suffer otherwise.
  • Digital surrogates are not sufficient:Not surprisingly, many faculty members are unfamiliar with Hathi Trust, and its crucial role in securing the scholarly record. Once they learn about it, there is a tendency to construe it as an access path, rather than a preservation solution. One factor comes through loud and clear: any book-length digital surrogate, no matter how secure or accessible, pales in comparison to having a print copy nearby. There is a fertile discussion here about the limits of onscreen reading, enhancement of discoverability, and copyright distinctions.
  • Concern about the library:  Faculty often feel and act protectively toward the library. Transformation of stacks space into collaborative study areas, information commons, or teaching/learning centers is sometimes met with skepticism: what does that have to do with the “real” library function of connecting users and resources? There is often a suspicion that any space freed in the library may be redirected to non-library uses: admissions, development, welcome center, etc. On the positive side, this indicates the value they place on the library.  
  • Being informed, being heard:  Like any constituency, faculty are susceptible to sensing that things are happening that they are not privy to. They want more information and context on library (and campus) direction. They want to register their concerns and express their support. Sometimes they want to lament the pace of change and the perceived erosion of standards. They want to assert the value of traditional approaches to teaching and learning, and they want to hear and discuss the future of the library. These are difficult issues and difficult choices. It's important to take these questions seriously, and to spend the time necessary to listen and respond, even to the extent of one-on-one meetings with those with the strongest opinions. It won't always be possible to persuade or to accommodate, but it is important to have the dialogue.
Listening to Faculty:  the Presenter's View

Listening to Faculty:  the Presenter's View

Listening to Faculty: the Presenter's View

What's confusing is the mixture of rational and emotional elements in this discussion. All of us who work in this area have some uneasiness about the changes we're trying to manage. At some level, the debate around print collections is part of a conflict of values that is being played out at all levels of academic institutions: how to weigh the needs/demands of current users with the traditions and values of the academy; how to make the difficult choices around cost of and participation in services; how education should work versus how it is actually working. Teaching, learning, and scholarship are all being rocked by changes in technology, pedagogy, and publishing/access models. It’s not surprising that these fault lines also run through the print collection.

The Library De-Supply Chain

Anyone who recycles or composts on a regular basis knows that disposing of things responsibly can require more effort than acquiring them in the first place. Library collections are no different. When handled with appropriate care, the back end of the content management lifecycle involves as many decisions, task, and interactions as the front end. But because academic libraries have for decades not prioritized deselection and related tasks, work processes tend to be underdeveloped and are only partially supported by vendors. This is beginning to change. Out of necessity, we are inventing what I will call the 'library de-supply chain.'

Volumes in ARL Libraries, 1969-2005

Volumes in ARL Libraries, 1969-2005

Beginning in earnest with the library construction boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, academic libraries began to amass local collections of books, journals, and government documents that may never again be equaled. Locally-held print volumes offered convenience to users and were essential to library ranking and accreditation. Collection growth was the order of the day, as it was the best way to serve users, and to assure the preservation of the scholarly record.

The scale of book purchasing from the 1970s through the early 2000s outstripped the ability of most libraries to manage that work without assistance.The library supply chain began to develop. Book vendors and subscription agents began to appear, and libraries found benefit in consolidating orders with a source that could in turn deal with myriad publishers on their behalf. Over time, vendors extended their role from order fulfillment to selection and eventually deep into library workflows and systems. Approval plans helped librarians identify and automatically acquire relevant titles. As library staff faced a greater variety of demands on their time, vendors developed web-based selection and order management systems, integrated ordering and invoicing with ILS vendors, and provided cataloging and shelf-ready books. In short, the library supply chain evolved in range and sophistication, growing into an indispensible component of library operations.

We can argue over the degree and pace of the change, but libraries are beginning to rethink the role of local print collections, and of necessity to reduce the number of low-use, widely-held volumes on their shelves. As a community, we are now beginning to identify and remove millions of surplus copies from library stacks each year--sometimes bound for storage, sometimes for digitization, sometimes to be resold, donated, or recycled. The workload generated by these processes is remarkably similar in scale and complexity to that of acquiring books in the first place. Operationally, these are new and rapidly growing tasks, and most libraries find themselves pressed to find staff hours to dedicate to them.

The library-vendor ecosystem invented a supply chain when it was needed. We are now in the process of inventing a library de-supply chain, to assist with careful and orderly removal of low-use surplus copies from library shelves.

My partners and I at Sustainable Collection Services (SCS) recognized this emerging need back in 2008, and began to create a key link in the de-supply chain: decision-support services and systems for monographs. Our services capture and normalize data on collections, holdings, and usage, enabling rules-based deselection decisions that are both informed and efficient. The underlying technique (using rules to define relevant content) is remarkably similar to that used in approval plans, but deployed in support of a different part of the content lifecycle. 

As with selection, however, a deselection decision is only one step in a more comprehensive workflow. Deselection can lead to a range of possible actions: storage, withdrawal, transfer, digitization, retention, or preservation. Each of these involves a different workflow, but all of them generate significant amounts of physical handling, record maintenance, and problem solving. Still more work may be required in order to enhance some records (e.g, by adding links to e-book editions oradding tables of contents) to improve discoverability and description of materials moved offsite.

In short, there is a boatload of new work being spawned by deselection decisions. It may be useful to look at these tasks categorically:

  • Verification: Years or decades of deferred inventories and shelf-reading make in-hand verification necessary for both withdrawal and retention commitments. At some point, every book needs to be handled, to assure it's there and to gauge its physical condition.
  • Physical disposition: Storage candidates must be flagged, retrieved, and moved. Withdrawal candidates require the same, but may also require staging for review by librarians or faculty. Preservation candidates (i.e., titles held scarcely in other libraries) need to be evaluated, and possibly moved to special collections or digitized. After final withdrawal decisions, books might be shipped to a re-seller, or to a State surplus property office, or donated to libraries in another country. And in some cases, books may be recycled.
  • Record maintenance and enhancement: Books to be stored offsite require changes to location codes, and often re-labeling or re-barcoding to accommodate high-density inventory systems. If an explicit retention commitment is made, that needs to be recorded in the MARC 583. Item and bib records must be maintained, suppressed, or removed. WorldCat holdings must be adjusted. Enhancements might involve insertion of a URL for a Hathi Trust public domain version into the 856 field, to assure ready access even after the print version is withdrawn.
  • Project management: While it may be preferable to integrate deselection tasks into ongoing workflows, this is not always an option.When deselection work is driven by an immediate space need or planned renovation, the timeline can be short and workload enormous. Libraries often have lean staffs and competing priorities. Projects of this scale benefit from dedicated management.

It seems abundantly clear that academic libraries will need support in these areas, and that vendors can play a valuable role--much as they do in the early stages of the content lifecycle. In addition to the collection analysis and decision-support offered by SCS and others, there is a growing need for services closely tied to the deselection process, including in some cases temporary onsite assistance. Some of this is already underway:

  • Library services vendors such as Backstage Library Works can provide remote or onsite record maintenance and enhancement, and work with ILS vendors to build or improve batch maintenance capabilities related to deselection and shared print management.

At SCS, we recognize that successful deselection projects require far more than good analysis and decision-support. Our vision is to assemble a suite of services that supports all aspects of deselection workflows. We will maintain our focus on our core strengths in data management and decision support. But we also intend to establish strategic partnerships with firms who provide related services. Together we can create a library de-supply chain that is as useful and efficient as the library supply chain.