Strategic thinking about on-campus collections: Early thoughts

In the best spirit of blogging, I’m using this post as a dumping ground for some nascent thoughts on what criteria academic libraries ought to be using to determine what kinds of items to keep in shrinking on-campus collections. Comments always welcome, but especially on this topic.

Seems like every major academic library is wrestling with the challenge of moving large proportions of their physical collections into non-browsable storage. For us, that storage is primarily off-campus, not open to patrons, and with items available for next-business-day paging. At the other end of the spectrum is the very cool underground Automated Storage and Retrieval System at Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, where items can be available in as quickly as 15 minutes (which is probably quicker that most patrons could have found it themselves in open stacks).

From my perspective, what is missing is a strategic vision of what a core on-campus collection should be and what needs it should serve. In other words, I’d like to see some theorizing about what factors libraries should consider when making decisions about what kinds of items stay on-campus and what stuff we send off-campus.

As far as I can tell, just about everyone uses circulation/use as the primary consideration — sending low-use materials off-campus, and keeping high-use materials in the browsable collections on-campus. I’m not sure that’s the best approach. I’ve heard others talk about aiming for an on-campus collection that is a snapshot of the entire collection — in other words the subject distribution of the on-campus collection should match the distribution across the entire collection. If any knows of an academic library that is applying that logic, please send a comment!

As I think about what strategic criteria we ought to apply, I think it is important that we start from the essential differences between on-site and off-site:

  1. Preservation environment (advantage = off-site)
  2. Quick Access (advantage = it depends )
  3. Physical Browsability (advantage = on-site)

Those are the big ones I can think of. What’s missing?

With those in mind, some big principles emerge:

  1. Rare, valuable, special, fragile stuff that needs the secure tempature and humidity controls that are best provided in off-campus storage should go off-campus.
  2. Reference and other items that are generally used for quick access to discrete information should be in the location where they can be accessed most quickly (for us, that would be on-campus, for University of Chicago that might be underground).
  3. Items which are best discovered via physical browsing should remain on-campus.

I think the browsability issue is the trickiest one, and the one that is least often addressed. I also think it is the most important one, and unfortunately, the hardest to operationalize.

Some obvious factors that affect the physical browsability of items include:

  1. Level of cataloging and/or enhanced metadata. The more metadata available about an item, the easier it is to find in an online discovery environment. Items lacking in metadata are often hard to discover, except through physical browsing.
  2. Amount of non-text information within an item. Images, equations, symbols, and other kinds of non-text materials are not yet browsable online in the way that text is. It seems that physical browsing remains the most effective way to locate images within an item.
  3. Language. OCR for non-Western languages remains problematic, making online discovery of items in those languages difficult.

The big fear in reducing the size of browsable print collections seems to be a loss of serendipity. I think we have our work cut out for us if we decide to take that concern seriously in making strategic decisions about what constitutes an ideal on-campus collection.

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