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Talking with faculty about library collections (revisited)

Rick /

In the course of our work at SCS, we regularly visit campuses to talk with teaching faculty about "Rethinking Library Resources: The Role of Print Collections in a Digital Age." I wrote about one such session more than a year ago, and have subsequently done another half-dozen. Listening to faculty views on the use and future of print book collections is invariably interesting, and vital to our thinking and actions. Not surprisingly, these discussions about the changing value of local print collections reflect a much broader dialogue about the changing nature of higher education.

Well-attended faculty session at U.S. Naval Academy
Well-attended faculty session at U.S. Naval Academy

In recent conversations at Trinity University in San Antonio and the U.S. Naval Academy, there was strong representation from the Humanities disciplines and robust exchanges about browsing, serendipity, the limits of data, changing student behavior, and how the library is valued on campus.

In these sessions, SCS presents profession-wide data and trends, and makes the case for engaging in deeper analysis of print book collections, and for considering the full range of deselection decisions: retention, preservation, storage, sharing, and withdrawal. For these two libraries, we had already completed a preliminary analysis of their respective collections. We were able to talk specifically about circulation rates, subject dispersion, holdings among designated peers, their collection's match rate against Hathi Trust, and other factors. We were also able to frame each library's collection characteristics in relation to our SCS Monographs Index, which profiles aggregate and average collection attributes across all the projects SCS has completed to date.

A few themes emerged which are worth highlighting. These observations are supplemented by insights from librarians at Connecticut College and Wesleyan University, as presented in early November at the Charleston Library Conference.

  • The limits of data: Most libraries have reasonably good historical data on circulation. On average, we see 15 years' worth of total checkouts, a significant subset of which will also include the last checkout date. Some libraries also record in-house use via re-shelving counts. Depending on how it is tracked, reserve use might also be captured. Together, these provide the best available picture of collection use. But there is a strong conviction among faculty that these measures under-count actual use. They argue that circulation data is not comprehensive. They believe that in-stacks use is much higher than browsing statistics reflect. Faculty often re-shelve the books they use, and assume others do the same. Some assert the value of "negative use", in which titles they reject or bypass in browsing help lead them to what they actually use. And, no matter how good the use data, many faculty members believe that use is not a legitimate indicator of a title's value. Every book has intrinsic value, irrespective of use.
  • Whose use? Like all of us, faculty tend to view things through the prism of their own experience. They think about how they now use the collection, and more importantly, how they used the collection when completing their Ph.D.s. To some extent, they project that experience onto other users. Undergraduates should be working in the stacks, and using print books. But at the same time, undergraduate use (or non-use) of the collection is viewed as an unreliable indicator; "we should not be basing collections decisions on the behavior of 18-year olds." Some faculty have argued for weighted usage statistics, in which use by a graduate student or a faculty member counts more than use by an undergraduate. Here again, some valid points, and perhaps an argument for incorporating ‘patron type' into the data, something that is not typically done.
  • The role of browsing: Again, people are often recalling their own research experiences: how they used the arrangement of books in the stacks to get an overview of a discipline. There are many stories about serendipity, and how browsing can broaden or focus an inquiry. These are certainly legitimate points, but always seem to loom disproportionately large. Physical browsing has always been a partial research strategy. It is limited to the books held (and not currently checked out) in a given library. Subject collections can be dispersed across multiple buildings, floors, or classification schemes. Books are only one format—it is still necessary to look at journals, e-resources, government documents. And a modest weeding or shared print project does not eliminate the stacks—browsing is still possible. I have taken these issues up in more detail in entries on "Browsing Now" and "Browsing Now (2)", and "Virtual Browsing."
  • Getting students into the stacks: Among Humanities faculty in particular, there remains a strong desire to assure that students get into the stacks and experience the riches of the print collection. Faculty acknowledge that this is an uphill battle, but continue to exhort and sometimes design assignments that require use of print books. They believe that students will produce better work if they are required to push beyond the convenience of electronic resources. Underlying this is a sense that academic standards are slipping, that student work is less substantive and nuanced than it should be, and that print books compel focus and reflection in a way that online resources do not.
  • Our undergraduates are different:There are many variations on this theme, depending on the identity of the institution. But every session includes some mention that students on this campus use more print than average. The reasons differ: they are high achievers, they are confined to campus and cannot visit other libraries, they want to use print even for last-minute work. This is impossible for an outsider to judge, but is always anecdotal, and often seen very differently by the librarians. And these behaviors are rarely put into context: what proportion of users walk through the library's front door as compared to the proportion that enters through its many virtual front doors.
  • What users want or what is good for them?: There is a real philosophical divide here. Should the library (and the faculty) give students what they want or what we think they need? Many faculty seek to guide or encourage students toward more thorough, reflective work--and that is often construed as toward print books. There is often a sense that we are making it too easy for students, allowing them to bypass the richness of our print book collections in favor of the convenience of Google or online resources. We need to force them to dig deeper, work harder -- not just give them what they want. Student work and learning will suffer otherwise.
  • Digital surrogates are not sufficient: Not surprisingly, many faculty members are unfamiliar with Hathi Trust, and its crucial role in securing the scholarly record. Once they learn about it, there is a tendency to construe it as an access path, rather than a preservation solution. One factor comes through loud and clear:any book-length digital surrogate, no matter how secure or accessible, pales in comparison to having a print copy nearby. There is a fertile discussion here about the limits of onscreen reading, enhancement of discoverability, and copyright distinctions.
  • Concern about the library: Faculty often feel and act protectively toward the library. Transformation of stacks space into collaborative study areas, information commons, or teaching/learning centers is sometimes met with skepticism: what does that have to do with the "real" library function of connecting users and resources? There is often a suspicion that any space freed in the library may be redirected to non-library uses: admissions, development, welcome center, etc. On the positive side, this indicates the value they place on the library.
  • Being informed, being heard: Like any constituency, faculty are susceptible to sensing that things are happening that they are not privy to. They want more information and context on library (and campus) direction. They want to register their concerns and express their support. Sometimes they want to lament the pace of change and the perceived erosion of standards. They want to assert the value of traditional approaches to teaching and learning, and they want to hear and discuss the future of the library. These are difficult issues and difficult choices. It's important to take these questions seriously, and to spend the time necessary to listen and respond, even to the extent of one-on-one meetings with those with the strongest opinions. It won't always be possible to persuade or to accommodate, but it is important to have the dialogue.

Listening to faculty: the presenter's view
Listening to faculty: the presenter's view

What's confusing is the mixture of rational and emotional elements in this discussion. All of us who work in this area have some uneasiness about the changes we're trying to manage. At some level, the debate around print collections is part of a conflict of values that is being played out at all levels of academic institutions: how to weigh the needs/demands of current users with the traditions and values of the academy; how to make the difficult choices around cost of and participation in services; how education should work versus how it is actually working. Teaching, learning, and scholarship are all being rocked by changes in technology, pedagogy, and publishing/access models. It's not surprising that these fault lines also run through the print collection.