Benchmarking print book collections: a beginning

Stacks of library books

The role of print books in academic libraries is changing, as it has been for more than a decade. Library and campus administrators are evaluating the role of locally held print collections in the library’s strategy and their contribution to user satisfaction and success.

The factors contributing to this discussion—declining print book use, changes in library spaces, redundancy across the “collective collection” and the cost of maintaining local collections—are well known. Increasingly, shared print monograph programs are seen as a way to provide continued access to the full range of titles, while distributing the costs of storage and management among a number of institutions.

A change in focus on collections and spaces

As a library community, we face a large task, to understand and manage these print book collections in new ways. Librarians first need to guarantee that nothing disappears from the collective collection—that the scholarly and cultural record remains intact. We also need to assure that material in shared collections remains available to users quickly when needed. Only then can we responsibly consider sharing, storage or withdrawal.

As a library community, we face a large task: to understand and manage print book collections in new ways. Click To Tweet

Collection data and pattern recognition

Good data about collections can help establish priorities and focus. While quantitative data must be used carefully, information about overlap and usage can supplement the judgment of librarians and faculty. When aggregated across many libraries, collections data can suggest patterns and provide insights that inform management decisions.

Since Sustainable Collections Service (SCS) began working in earnest with print book collections in 2011, we have compiled data from more than 200 libraries. The SCS Monographs Index represents our attempt to identify patterns in some key areas and to provide useful context for collection managers.

SCS Monographs Index

These numbers are based on 179 US academic libraries and 70 million holdings. They include research libraries, state universities, four-year colleges and a handful of community colleges.

SCS Monograph Index


This March 2016 version of the Index gives a glimpse of what can be learned. It creates a high-level statistical profile of an “average” US academic library collection, drawing from the bibliographic and item data submitted by 179 libraries, supplemented with holdings data from WorldCat, HathiTrust and other sources. The Index suggests that the average library holds just over 388,000 monographs. Of these, about 3,800 (1% of its collection) are held by fewer than five libraries in the US. These scarcely held titles offer an obvious place to start securing an individual library’s contribution to the collective collection, to consider formal retention commitments and to guarantee that the scholarly record is secure. At the other end of the spectrum, 76% of the books in the average collection are held by more than 100 other libraries in the US. Here there may be more opportunity for shared management or deselection.

Collection use can also provide insight. Note also that of the 70 million US holdings represented by libraries in the Index, 75% (that’s 52 million holdings!) have circulated three or fewer times in the past 15 years; and 41% (28.7 million holdings) were not checked out at all during that period. That might suggest a starting point—or inspiration—for some sort of shared print program. It also suggests how difficult it is to predict which titles will be used in an academic library.

These are early days in aggregating this sort of data, and results should be viewed as indicative rather than definitive. But they can serve to guide us where to look more carefully.

My collection in context

While average data can be interesting and illuminating, it’s even more compelling to see one’s own library in this context. As OCLC works with each of its library clients, we provide a short list of Key Metrics in GreenGlass, our decision-support application. Recently, we have incorporated data from the SCS Monographs Index into this view, to enable a library to see its results in relation to the average results provided in the Monographs Index.

In the example below, 31% of this library’s collection shows zero recorded uses. This library’s results are significantly better than the average of 43% of titles with no recorded uses. The graphic in the right column indicates the overall range of results, with the gray square representing the Index average, and the blue dot highlighting my library in context.

GreenGlass recorded use example


shared_print_infographic_thumbMake the effort and take the time

Here again, we don’t want to overstate the significance of the results. Our base of users and data sets is growing, but still represents only 179 libraries and 70 million holdings. Nonetheless the patterns are intriguing, and suggest how useful this data will become over time, as we continue to gather, monitor and learn.

Managing print collections in new ways is a challenging task. Our goal is to provide an evidence base to help you make intelligent, data-driven decisions. Only after doing the research and building the tools can we identify which titles to keep locally, which to withdraw and which are the best candidates for shared collections.

This is a challenge best handled together.

Note: We have developed an infographic that illustrates how moving from locally owned to jointly managed library collections can change the library.  The images outline the impact that shared print projects can have on space, budgets and collection growth.

Your turn:

  • What have you learned from your collection management efforts?
  • What data do you wish you had about your print collection?
  • Do you like the idea of displaying retention commitments in WorldCat?