Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

The thrill of finding the chaff


When I started my current position as Collection Assessment Librarian, I expected my work would be used for purposes both good and, well, not so good.  The good part is the evaluation of our subject-specific collections, for both accreditation and academic review purposes.  Comparing how we fare against our peer libraries using both quantitative and qualitative measures is interesting and fruitful.  We have been able to identify areas needing improvement, as well as satisfaction with other subjects.

The work I’m doing now is the not-so-good: identifying resources to cut due to impending reductions in our collections budget.  This is a reality of our institution, and while I look forward to having my skills applied to fighting these cuts in the near future, for now, I’m having to do the rather distasteful part of a librarian’s job.  So, why am I enjoying it so much?

The thrill of finding a resource for which we have paid (or, rather, were expected to pay) some exorbitant amount that has been so little used is becoming almost an addiction.  It is like cleaning out that back closet of stuff that hasn’t been used in years and has been taking up space (and resources) that could be put to better use.  Unfortunately, the latter part does not apply – after all, we’re cutting funding, not merely re-distributing it.

Admittedly, I am quite crossed in my emotions.  I understand the pain of loosing a resource that could prove quite useful for some of our patrons.  But it is so hard to justify continuing to pay for something that is so little used.  As a balance, I’ve been looking for alternative methods to access these resources, such as pay-per-view, limited “seating”, access via alternative interfaces, etc.  The “just-in-case” model is entirely too inefficient for many resources, and in this age of digitization and networking, “just-in-time” modes of access are more available.

Here are the primary measures I’ve been using:

  • Total cost
  • Cost per use (“use” is that which is as close to meeting the patron’s needs, as in full-text, record views, or abstracts)
  • Trends in costs & uses (3 years)
  • Costs of alternative methods of access (e.g. pay-per-view)
  • Efficiency (amount of content actually used, as in % of titles used for journal packages)

For some resources and packages, no other alternative would result in cost savings and the content is too valuable to remove.  For others, significant savings could be made by using alternatives.  And then there is the pure chaff – resources that have little or no usage and whose content, if still needed, can be found elsewhere.

Mind you, my job is merely to provide the data and recommendations on the disposition of resources.  I do not make the decisions.  These will be made by the subject librarians with consultation from the faculty.  My goal is to provide the information needed for them to make rational and informed decisions, and to provide the justifications for eliminating or continuing our resources.  My hope is to have a leaner, more efficient collection that continues to meet the bulk of the needs of our students and the faculty who teach them.  I also hope to be able to provide the necessary justification for additional funding that could be used to add or re-add resources back into the collection.  It is easier to justify resources with low relative uses and higher cost-per-use when there is enough money to spread around.

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2 comments on “The thrill of finding the chaff

  1. Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
    February 9, 2014

    So I wrote this item and then read the Library Babel Fish’s post on “Taking the longer view” – http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/taking-longer-view. That got me thinking…again.

    Yes, my metrics are short-term. Yes, we are struggling to come up with resources to remove so that we, too, may “survive another day.” And, Yes, this does mean we are sacrificing the long-term goals of the institution (becoming more research-oriented) for short-term goals (graduating more students). But librarians will not be able to survive by merely clarifying our visions for the future. We need to ensure that our goals are matched with the goals of those who fund us. That doesn’t mean we have to change our goals…but we do need to convince the funders to *own* these goals themselves.

  2. Martin Halbert
    February 12, 2014

    Karen, this is a great post, and your final statements in the comment above is dead on: we have to make our clientele more aware of and “own” the dynamics of the scholarly communication cycle that is in crisis right now. The fact that the different stakeholders of the cycle are fragmented and not unified is what’s killing us.

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This entry was posted on February 9, 2014 by in Academic Libraries, Collections.
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