Posted by: Steven Harris | January 20, 2010

Unused Portion

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%.



  1. Cool post–part of what I love about libraries is knowing how much more is there than I’ll ever realize. Maybe some game theory could help predict?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steven R. Harris, Steven R. Harris. Steven R. Harris said: Blog post "Unused Portion" [library collections] – […]

  3. Someone in the library book biz suggested recently that approval plans may go the way of the dodo within 5 years. I’m dubious. I think they’ll be here for a while. Some vendors are even gearing up to offer ebook approval plans.

  4. This is a very interesting and startling post. Where could I find the study that found the 30-70% statistic?

  5. Great post! I think you’re right about needing a mix of inputs to the acquisition process.

    On-demand e-books have potential to help with the “I need it now” work habits of undergraduates. We’ve been using EBL for this at McMaster for about three years, and undergrads have been heavy requestors. The process of mediated loans is a little clunky, but keeps the budget under control.

  6. I would argue that the following statement isn’t necessarily true — “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.”
    What about the requests by students for material that is subsequently used by future undergrads? I find that most of my patron-driven requests by students are for material they are using for research in classes that will be offered again, in future semesters, using same topics. Why are we so sure that approval plans by vendors will make better choices for selection than our own users? With limited budgets, I’d rather spend money on materials my students and faculty are requesting now, than rather for some future demand that may or may not ever be used.

  7. I largely agree with what you say, Kate. I don’t think undergrads should be excluded from on-demand requests. And I think that anything that is patron-requested is likely to be used again. And I think the just-in-case stuff is probably a waste.

    In a world where delivery is immediate, I think undergrads would be well served by purchase on demand. But for many things, immediate delivery is still not there. The path of least resistance is still to have a good cross section of materials available right now.

    All this might change with e-books, but I think most platforms and collections we have available right now are not ideal.

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