Justifying your place on the shelves

The Washington Post is carrying a story on collection development at Fairfax County Public Library. Collection development? Well, the hook is more their ‘data driven’ policy on discards.

“We’re being very ruthless,” said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. “A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that’s a cost.”

That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books.

So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes. [Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway? – washingtonpost.com]

Diane Kresh from neighboring Arlington is also quoted:

Arlington County’s library director, Diane Kresh, said she’s “paying a lot of attention to what our customers want.” But if they aren’t checking out Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” she’s not only keeping it, she’s promoting it through a new program that gives forgotten classics prominent display. “Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages,” Kresh said. “The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community.”[Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway? – washingtonpost.com]

As my colleague Brian Lavoie noted recently, many questions come back to economics, the analysis of how people make decisions. He cites some principles of economics and the first two are very relevent here: 1. People face trade-offs (in an environment of scarce resources expansion in one area requires retrenchment in another), and 2. The cost of something is what you give up to get it (opportunity costs described by Brian in this way “the cost of choosing to undertake one activity includes not just the cost of carrying it out, but also the benefits foregone by not choosing something else”).
This article nicely underlines just these issues. There is a tradeoff between retaining stock and providing materials which boost circulation. And if circulation is a key indicator of success, and support, then this is important. And, in an environment where space resources are scarce, what is the opportunity cost in terms of space utilization or meeting other demands if one does not move materials from the shelves?
This is another example of how the opportunity costs of existing widely distributed print collections are an issue. It also poses in an interesting way the question about what responsibility to the cultural record public libraries have, and how it should should be exercised in changing times.
One direction is towards more shared systems of discovery, delivery and inventory management where the costs of managing lower used collections may be shared and where a collective approach to stewarding materials can be taken. Of course, this raises issues of structure, organization and …. economics.
Incidentally, I spoke at a staff day in Arlington a few weeks ago. I had a very enjoyable half-day in the library talking with Diane and a very engaged staff. I learned a lot talking to folks, which is why, in general, I prefer speaking to smaller library groups than to the larger conferences.
Washington Post article via Peter Brantley, who takes up his new post as Executive Director of the DLF in February.
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3 thoughts on “Justifying your place on the shelves”

  1. Having just finished listening to the audio book version of The Long Tail, what is described in the Washington Post article makes perfect sense — especially when juxtaposed with the book scanning operations in full swing now. It is risky to compare a not-for-profit library operation to that of a commercial enterprise, but I believe the analogy holds in this case. Physical shelf space is a precious commodity and an item on the shelf, whether for loan or for retail, need to justify its existence against the opportunity cost of putting another item in its place. By comparison, virtual shelf space (especially, as Chris Anderson notes, when the virtual space is made up of ones and zeros on disk) is very cheap.

    Since the cost of delivery of a digital item is near zero as opposed to the just-in-case cost of holding the physical item on the shelf, one wonders if the Fairfax County Public Library shouldn’t join the Open Content Alliance, digitize the works, and make them available to patrons that way. (Okay — that was a vast oversimplification of a solution, but in the eyes of the Long Tail I think it would make sense.)

  2. Peter’s right about the limitations of the physical plant. Anderson would call it the “economics of scarcity”.

    The Long Tail would kick in where the volume, while not available immediately on the shelf, was obtainable through some form of ILL.

    Personally, I found the description of Fairfax’s inventory practices very interesing.

    P.S. I’d’ve thrown out the O’Neill long before the Voltaire but that’s just the French major in me.

  3. I predict that what Fairfax County PL is doing will soon become the norm, and not just in public libraries.
    Actually, it is astonishing that the economics of storing large stocks of un-circulating books is not questioned more loudly in libraries. I suspect that the reasons for this are partly cultural (libraries are good, organizational sclerosis as well as some real difficulties in implementing new processes (discovery and mainly timely delivery. Mostly it may be an isse of cultural resistance to collaboration over competition.
    However, there are no easy answers – just quaestions –
    – is an efficient collaborative system for library print resources viable?
    – How do we do collecting in a just in time system
    – what is the future of scholarly communication in an virtual only environment?
    – will libraries be capable of managing the rate of changes that even more radical information technology will bring
    etc, etc

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