Academic libraries are great repositories of unused materials. In a typical university library, between 30 to 70 percent of the circulating book collection never EVER gets checked out. But I wonder if it is possible to significantly lower the percentage of unused material employing the traditional means of collection development.
Approval plans and librarian selection are always guessing at user interest. It’s the kind of thing that is really difficult to get right. Sure, some choices are easy: Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Greenblatt, Steven Pinker, Stephenie Meyer. But what about the first book by a subsequently famous author? Did you guess right on that? Or, more to the point, what about those thousands of Shakespeare studies NOT written by Stephen Greenblatt? Did you buy those, just in case, and did that case ever arise? Even knowing your English department is really into Shakespeare is not likely to get you more than a 50% circulation rate on those secondary materials.
What is the solution? I’m not sure. Demand is a strange mix of factors that is different for each segment of your user population. Undergraduates will often make due with the closest thing to their topic. Otherwise, I think they are primarily driven by faculty recommendations or other classroom suggestions. General name recognition may play some role: headline names, prominent book reviews, bestsellers, award winners.
Faculty are a different beast. All those high-profile materials will attract their attention, but they are also likely to be interested in more obscure materials. Citation realationships and “impact factor” play a larger role. Any given research project will probably draw on materials that no approval plan or librarian selection process could have predicted. (Graduate students, I think, lie somewhere between undergrads and faculty.)
In an unlimited budget situation, those unpredictable and escoteric faculty demands were met by simply buying as much as possible, acquiring the largest possible collection to be there waiting on the shelf when the demand arose. I think that kind of collecting increases the likelihood that any particular volume will go uncirculated.
On-demand or patron driven purchasing is one solution to this problem. Undergrads, however, are not very well served by that model. Their demand is more immediate and short-term. If they can’t get it now, it’s of less use to them.
I envision a 3-part approach. About a third of volumes would be acquired by each of approval, librarian selection, and on-demand methods. Approval would get the easy stuff: big names, award winners. Librarians would select to fill in the local needs based on their knowledge of the curriculum and major faculty research needs. Faculty and others with escoteric and unpredictable needs would have to rely on point-of-need kind of acquisitions.
Even so, I have doubts that the most user-centered collection process can get much greater than 70% usage. I aspire to about 75%.