Abundance, Scarcity and Deliberate Efficiency

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As academic libraries continue in 21st century collection development, librarians face competing questions of abundant information resources and scarce infrastructure internally and have opportunities to collaborate externally to alleviate some of these problems. In this context, how important are general circulating print collections to each individual institution, when so much information is digital? Will the character of the 21st century academic library ultimately be defined by its special collections of unique resources? Will the library’s importance be gauged by what it alone can provide?

At The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we are in an ongoing space crunch. We have less shelf space than our print resources require. Since 2007, we have been transferring less-used volumes to the Library Service Center, a long-term storage facility that we share with Duke University (or, maybe more to the point, Duke shares with UNC). In May of this year, we transferred our millionth volume to the LSC.

For many years, UNC collected multiple copies of important books by default. We no longer need those additional copies, so part of the process in moving books to storage involves choosing the “best” copy to move to storage, allowing UNC to discard the other copies.

Transferring books to storage requires coordination among subject librarians, Circulation staff and Resource Description & Management staff. As items designated for storage have begun piling up, Circulation and RDM have proposed ways to streamline the process, saving time for RDM, Circulation and subject librarians, without usurping the authority of subject librarians to determine the disposition of books in the collection. In a nutshell, in cases when a subject librarian designates a book for storage and we have another circulating print copy of the book, the copy designated for storage would be discarded by RDM staff. Special Collections and select other locations’ books would be exempt from being considered “another copy.” Any other exceptions to this rule would need to be indicated by the subject librarian requesting the copy be sent to storage.

In a large organization such as ours, we often encounter friction between broad goals, principles and streamlined processes; and smaller unique collections’ needs. I’m not airing dirty laundry: this is a truism and our library staff are collegial and considerate in our discussions.

During our discussion about this proposal is when I learned about association copies, whose definition I looked up on my netbook during the meeting. The question, “Are we looking out for association copies when doing these mass transfers and discards?” arose. According to the Independent Online Booksellers Association, an association copy is “[a] book once belonging to the author, or signed or annotated by the author to someone closely associated with the author of the book or the book itself in some way. Also, a book inscribed by its author to a famous person, or owned by someone of interest.” The marginalia may be as useful to a researcher—or more so—than the original content, not to mention unique. On the open market, association copies would intuitively have more value than un-marked copies of the same work in comparable condition. From a library special collections perspective, association copies may warrant special care, handling and cataloging.

Our LSC transfer processes already include not only transferring less-used books to storage but also discarding extra copies of books. Is searching for association copies, which librarians would review for adding to our Rare Book or other Special Collections, a logical step in this process? How many association copies does the University have in its circulating collections? How important is that question?

How is your library handling space issues? How do you resolve competing interests among departments in serving the same community of users, but different needs? Does your organization’s mission inform these discussions? How about vice versa?