Recently the University of Canterbury Librarian Mike Grimshaw wrote a passionate article for massive and widespread reduction in the physical holdings of the books in the University Library. (I have enclosed Mike’s email to all Faculty at the end of this letter, in full – in the spirit of open academic debate. As the disclaimer says, this is not University policy, this is what an informed, experienced University Librarian believes is good academic policy . It was sent as an open letter for debate – here is my reply.)
Mike argues that there is an indisputable fact of non-usage of most library books based on evidence measuring the frequency with which books are, or are not, issued to borrowers. He argues further that value of a book can be measured by the number of users=borrowers: the more (fewer) times a book is “used”=”borrowed” in a formal issue transaction the more (less) valuable a book is in a library collection.
You can tell that I disagree with Mike’s argument – its premises , its conclusions, and relevant evidence.
Let me begin with two questions:
- Does the transaction of an “issue” of a book from a university library , or the absence of an “issue transaction” , measure anything sensible at all about either the actual use of a book by a university user or the value in use to a particular university user? Ditto for a citation (or absence of citation) at the end of a research report or journal article written by a member of this university’s staff?
- How should one measure “use” and “value” for a durable product which can be shared, in general, much less for a book in a “collection” of books from a university library…in a worldwide network of libraries….and in an age of ever increasing monopoly copyright protections
I underline university library because one has to go back to basics – what exactly are universities in NZ funded by taxpayers for?
The Education Act is pretty clear (and AQA and CUAP, our “academic quality” monitoring enforcement agencies agree ) : a university in this country is a repository of knowledge and expertise in a community of scholars and researchers who DO both teaching and research to advance knowledge and develop intellectual independence, at internationally recognized academic levels.
Here is an excerpt from Education Act 1989 S 162(4) (my emphasis in bold)as a reminder :
(a) that universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:
(i) they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:
(ii) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:
(iii) they meet international standards of research and teaching:
(iv) they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:
(v) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society;
Is academic “use” of a book in a library by an academic (student or staff, locally or nationally and internationally) measured by the number of times it has been issued in a formal transaction?
For research purposes, I have spent entire weeks in the summer months, and in mid-semester break time, physically in the library, collecting books from shelves, bringing them to a desk or table, sorting through , sifting through the many editions, cross referencing, checking out the many complementary books and related books on the adjacent shelves (“oh , that looks interesting” , jotting down notes and page references (often useful for identical books I have in my home library) , moving back and forth between my messy table of papers books and notes and the photocopier to capture a page here, an image there, checking out journal articles referred to in the books i’m browsing through.
All of this “pre issue” effort – and “use” – is due diligence, to see how I am covering the field adequately, to look laterally – by investigating interesting looking titles on adjacent shelves in the same or similar area, to see what books other academics/scholars in my community have ordered in the past that might be related to what I am currently doing. This lateral thinking approach in the library has served me well whenever I research an area of economics that touches on say philosophy, or psychology, or sociology, or engineering. I don’t know what I don’t know and the library’s system of collections helps me refine my lack of knowledge . I might “issue” 1 book for every 20 that I look at. And the Library space with those bundles of interrelated books is where I “discover” what is worth issuing or not – and of course the cycle repeats for me semester fater semester . Very infrequently I will check out one or two books to carry back to my office, but the idea of issuing a book as measuring its use and the non issue of a book as measuring it’s non-use by me is nonsense. What Mike’s team is measuring is not academic use of a book in a university library at all.
I can only imagine (and remember) how much more difficult this exploration p/ browsing phase is for undergraduates and graduates without offices . In that case the combination of space and books in the library area (not one without the other) is magic, a necessary magic. Ditto for newer or cash strapped academic staff who for many reasons cannot afford to buy the physical books they would love to have access to.
Let’s move for use to value. The “value” of use to an individual researcher is not measured by number of people checking out a book . In the first place, a book generally is an ” experience good” – the personal value of such an item or book is not known beforehand but is discovered in the process of using it, or more likely using it partially, “browsing”, a preliminary, flip through the pages, “is this for me” type of discovery process. Individual value – or lack of it – is discovered in and by individual use. And the university library system is there to facilitate that particular discovery process – not to prejudge the answer : “oh, it can’t be valuable to you becasue not many people are issuing it”.
In the second place, in a university library, what values do potential users place on these items? The short answer – and the long answer – is that you don’t know. But don’t pretend that “issue” statistics tell you anything about that value for research or independent thinking to any one person. For example, many books currently in the UC library reflect purchases out of limited budgets of books recommended by members of academic staff – for decades upon decades in the past. An example is the remarkable collection of books on Bayesian statistics acquired by the Library in the era of John Deeley, Frank Lad , and Murray Smith. Not everyone’s cup of tea I am sure, but their purchase decision reflected a weighing of what was important vs not important, at the time, inside a limited budget, evaluated by some very smart and highly specialized academics, all at the forefront of their discipline . In the future, the few students and staff who want to discover/rediscover the breadth and depth of BAyesian statistics can do no better than browse our library shelves….well at least until the non use =non-issuing of these books gets them thrown onto the scrap heap.
Finally, accept the uncertainty of personal value to your users in a university library. We’re academics, discovery and exploration of any sort of historical record, but particularly records in writing, printed material , is our name. Yes , there are a lot of useless rabbit trails (books) – by which I mean useless for me, not for others. EG I’m not interested in – becasue I can’t understand the language – books in German. But others are – and if the University is going to cater for anything related to studies in the German (or any other language) it needs repositories of German books selected by scholars in the German language/culture faculty for people to browse in. Why use the space, and the money, for such “useless” = issued “less” books? Becasue they have been selected for scholarship by the incumbent academics who teach and research in the area – all subject to an overall budge constraint. …so that students and staff can advance their knowledge of German by browsing minimally a full range of German books — well a “full enough ” range.
As with any public good made available for zero (or low) user fee, some choice has to be made as to how much to acquire in a way where experienced users knowledgeable in the subject area select for those less knowledgeable. Choice by such experienced users in the face of a budget constraint …not turnstyle checkout issues – reveals something about contingent, uncertain, future value in an academic setting- or at least some academic’s forecast of academic value . In the case of the field of BAyesian statistics that I mentioned, maybe the impact will be on only one Phd every now and again. But if that Phd person gains “value” from being exposed to , or having access to, a Bayesian reading garden worth tens of thousands of dollars in direct costs for books and as much again in opportunity costs of space….sound like an academic bargain to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of having to wade through huge tomes of paper material just to feel religious in the sanctuary of the library. It’s much easier to access and search through a well organised electronic database. But in my research on High Country land in New Zealand from the late 1800’s – laws, regulations, policy, debate….virtually NONE of that material was available electronically. Indeed, the vast majority of it was only discoverable through complicated interloan requests form small libraries spread around New Zealand. But some university librarian had the foresight to keep some old documents – a repository of past knowledge . WHich brings me to my final point – the network of open access libraries in NZ. Until many past books are digitized and made available electronically for browsing (recall that current monopoly right protections in copyright make this all but impossible for books written in the past 50 years) they need to be accessible by our community of scholars at some NZ library – so the physical costs of transportation and time costs of delay do not put up insurmountable barriers. Inter library loans are an amazing instituion – but the sytem is governed by reciprocity . Without idiosyncratic (low “issue”) physical books of our own to loan out, will UC library be a welcome player in the cooperative ventures of all other libraries? Of course a beggar thy neighbour policy seems eminently rational – until all libraries do the same thing. Then we are back in a prisoner’s dilemma where every library free rides on every other libraries holdings of physical books…except no rational library keeps physical books any more.
From: Michael Grimshaw
Sent: Wednesday, 13 August 2014 2:39 p.m.
I am writing to an open letter to you in my role as UC Library Committee Chair.
There has been some debate and concern voiced over the decision to downsize the German collection by 75%.
I have met with some of the concerned academic staff and I understand their point of view.
I have also met with senior management of the library, conveyed the concerns of the academic staff and included my own concerns.
That said, over a detailed discussion with the library considering reviews and reductions taken in other collections in the university and given the wider picture, my initial position regarding the reduction of this and other collections has changed. I must now say that there is actually a very strong case for reducing the collection by up to 75% and indeed undertaking sizable reductions in other collections.
The situation is more complex than perhaps most academic staff understand. Hence this detailed email.
It is also a decision that is not driven in any way by college or university management regarding the future of any subject area. This reduction and other reductions past, present and future in the library is based on a single, indisputable fact: what use is made of this collection?
It should be obvious to all of us that we exist in a context of financial and space constraints. This is especially true for the library. We need to remember that this is not a privately endowed university with deep cash reserves and wealthy benefactors. This is a university funded out of the public purse and there are understandable and necessary constraints – regrettable though they may be. The library has a particular budget and a particular limit of space. Collection size occurs within these factors.
There are some points we need to be aware of.
Firstly, all collections in every university library undergo a review and these are on-going thoughout the university. No collections are ever-expanding without review. Sizable reductions have occurred elsewhere in the library and will continue to do so.
A reduction involves both the removal to storage and the permanent withdrawal and disposal of texts. All collections have this reduction occur, but some collections have not undergone a review for a very long time – if ever. German is one of these.
There is a cost of keeping a collection on the shelf in the library and there is a cost of keeping parts of a collection in storage outside the library. These costs mean less resources for purchases and other library activities and support. The space, facilities and shelving used to house a collection is not cost-neutral.
There are always limits on space, and the size of one collection will always affect what is able to be done and held in others.
To put it bluntly, the on-going cost of one collection that is little used does impact upon what can be done with and for other collections that are more heavily used.
Some of our collections have more 60 % + of the books on the shelves not issued for 20 years; in fact when more recent purchases (since 2008) are considered, some collections are closer to 75% + of books not issued. While it is true that the use of a text is not always demonstrated by the issuing of a text, it is also true that many texts in our library have not been issued and indeed most probably not used for over 20 years.
The review of a collection also includes an analysis by library staff of texts used in student essays, LEARN, theses and Staff research outputs on Spark. From this detailed and careful work it is clear that the majority of some collections, and many texts in most collections are never referenced in these works implying that the research impact of these works is small.
In all reviews, texts that can de demonstrated to have a value in retention are retained. Texts that are in use are retained. Special collections within a subject area are often retained. In the case of German the proposed reduction is from near 20,000 texts to 5000 texts. The texts proposed for reduction have not been used for up to 20 years. Please also remember that such reductions are also necessary for other under-utilized collections.
On one level the option is clear. If we wish to retain what is in our collections we should make far more use of them. We need to make use of library texts ourselves as academics and we need to encourage our students to make use of them. The library is very skilled at working with academics to develop course content and assessment that involves students issuing and reading texts. Likewise the library is very skilled at supporting postgraduate students to make the best use of the collections.
However it would seem that over the past 20 years academics and students have made very selective and sparing use of many texts and collections in our library – while continuing to purchase new texts which need to be shelved. We need to issue and read more texts, use more texts – and perhaps, stop purchasing as many new texts that need physical space. E-books – while still having costs, require less space and handling costs. But even a greater move to e–books would still require sizable reductions in existing collections. For example, we have to move the education library into the central library and this means we need to have space to house it.
Some areas of the university are growing in the number of students and staff and library use. These require increased library space and resources. Other areas are – and perhaps historically have been – disproportionate in collection size to staff and students. When such disproportionate collections are also underutilized, hard questions must be asked as to the necessity and cost and keeping such underused collections at present levels.
However, if a subject area once reduced grows in use, staff and students, then texts will be retained and collection size may well increase. Also, texts removed can, if necessary in the future, be restored to the collection. This can occur via e-book and physical copies – the latter often easily and cheaply sourced second-hand. This is still cheaper than keeping a sizable collection that is underutilized.
Questions are always raised over the opening up of space for students to work in. Firstly, the library is a central resource for students in information and study- and this has never been just texts on shelves. The library has done an excellent job of upgrading facilities for students resulting in greatly increased numbers of students making use of the library for learning and study. We also need to remember that a library is no longer just a silent place housing books. It is a work space, a study space and a multi-use place for information, learning and other facilities- and most university libraries elsewhere in the world are well along this path
Other options such as getting greater wider public use of collections need to recognize that these are not cost-neutral. Further more, we need to consider that if our staff and students make sparing use of many collections why would the wider public?
To relocate parts of collection out of the library into designated space elsewhere in the university only serves to shift the on-going costs from the library to that department, school and college. These costs must be met from existing department, school and college budgets. To do so thus means less space and less money in the college. It is therefore never a cost-neutral decision. If these texts are not used now, why would they suddenly be used when out of the library?
Finally, proposals to reduce collections are never undertaken lightly. The library wishes to continue to work with academic specialists to identify a core collection of primary resources in each area. The library also appreciates the time and hard work of academic staff in reviewing proposed reductions.
I realize that as scholars in the Faculty and College we are often deeply attached to books as physical objects. Anyone unfortunate enough to have seen my office would realize that I live amongst books that threaten to overtake the space. But many of these are also library books- from across many disciplines. Some have borrowed from the German collection and such as have been used by me and others will be kept. But books and collections in a university library must do more than ‘furnish a room’. A library in the modern university cannot afford to be a storage space and display of unused books, especially books not used for over 20 years. Reductions, sometimes sizable, in collections do and must occur. Therefore, as Chair of the Library Committee I support this proposed reduction.
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