Time-traveling librarians, shared print, and being excellent to each other

There’s a scene in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where they lament that they need some keys that were lost two days earlier. But because they have a time machine, they can just wait until later, go back in time before they’re lost, and leave them right next to where they are “now” for convenience.

It’s funny, of course. But also, kind of … smart. It shows that if you can count on someone doing something in the future, you can make current plans based on that knowledge. The trick is, each of us has to know what the other is planning.

Bill and Ted can rely on a future (and past) version of themselves to complete their plans. Library staff have to rely on shared data and common, agreed-upon signals across our collective collection.

Operationalizing the collective collection

Libraries have been sharing data about their collections for decades. OCLC was founded 50+ years ago around the two ideas that sharing bibliographic data helps libraries better share knowledge and save money. Strategic use of that shared data has allowed libraries to do copy cataloging, resource sharing, global discovery, and all kinds of management and service tasks.

But most of those tasks depend on data about what has already been purchased for collections and what resources are here today based on yesterday’s metadata. Operational strategies—plans for tomorrow—require a bit of time traveling.

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How do we accomplish that? By emulating Bill and Ted and being more deliberate about our intentions.

[T]he collective collection was guided by the “invisible hand” of aggregate local policies and decisions. Historically, collections evolved autonomously and locally within individual libraries. Stewardship of this collective resource was a benign side-effect of the massive distribution involved in the print model… . As libraries manage down print collections, explore shared print models, and digitize collections, this “invisible hand” approach is less adequate.

Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog. August 20, 2019

I like how simply my colleague Lorcan put that: the “‘invisible hand’ approach is less adequate.” It’s not enough to just do the right things for my own library and, over time, hope that everything works out. We need to be more explicit in our planning.

When two percent is a huge number

In 2018, OCLC and CRL were awarded a grant from the Mellon Foundation to “enhance the underlying infrastructure of the OCLC WorldCat database and CRL’s Print Archives Preservation Registry (PAPR) to accommodate and make accessible actionable data for shared print serials management.” That project was completed this past June.

Why is this important? Because libraries and archives are guardians of the scholarly and cultural record. But they also face pressures to be more efficient, pivot toward e-first strategies that align with new modes of teaching/learning, and repurpose physical spaces. Facing these two seemingly conflicting sets of goals means that we need to think globally (collectively) and act (operate) locally about our materials, resources, and budgets.

For example, when OCLC reviewed data submitted for GreenGlass projects by 322 US academic libraries, we found that two percent of their collections are made up of materials that are held by five institutions or fewer in the country. Now, someone outside the library community might think, “two percent isn’t that big a deal,” or “five copies are plenty.” But inside the library community, this is a bit scary. For the 322 libraries analyzed, two percent represents 2.76 million monographs at risk.

Libraries mostly make weeding decisions based on local decisions, like how often an item has circulated. Or how old it is. Or if the material seems dated or worn or part of a subject that isn’t taught much anymore. But what if it’s only one of five copies in the whole country or world? Or the last copy? Scary thought.

However, what if you can see that other libraries have made commitments to retaining that content? You can make plans accordingly, confident that the materials will be available in the future.

Collaborative time travel

Lorcan’s discussion about operationalizing the collective collection draws on the work of Brian Lavoie and Constance Malpas in Stewardship of the Evolving Scholarly Record: From the Invisible Hand to Conscious Coordination. In that report, one of the ways they suggest moving toward more conscious coordination is “systemwide awareness,” and another is “explicit commitment.” Our work on shared print aids in both of those areas.

More than 18,000 libraries share data in WorldCat. Many WorldCat libraries register individual and multipart monographs and, thanks to recent enhancements funded by the Mellon Foundation, libraries can register retention commitments for individual and multipart serials. We’ve aided the operationalization of this process in products like Collection Manager to allow for bulk download of retention data; the WorldCat Metadata API for real-time access to registered commitments; and FirstSearch, Connexion, and WorldShare Record Manager to find shared print commitments in regular library workflows.

The point is to make it easy for libraries to share data not just about yesterday’s collection decisions, but also about tomorrow’s operations. All of this makes better strategic planning possible, helps protect the integrity of the scholarly record, and enables efficiencies at scale.

Registering retention commitments for the future—one good way for libraries to be excellent to each other.