Late summer harvest: fallen fruit

A map to fallen fruit in Sherman Oaks, CA.

I have often heard colleagues in the library community describe JSTOR print back files as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for distributed print archiving and other cooperative management schemes. This characterization, based on the relative ubiquity of the JSTOR digital archive in academic libraries and its high degree of use, belies the difficulty that many libraries face in changing local print management strategies. While much of the scholarly use of content represented in the JSTOR archive has migrated from print to online formats, and despite the presence of multiple dark and dim archives that replicate the digital archive in print format, there is little evidence that library managers are prepared to adopt a changed approach to managing widely duplicated print collections, of which JSTOR print back files are a singular example. The fruit may be easily within reach, but it is left on the tree.

This brings to mind a poem — ubiquitous in its own right, as it is visible in Google Books [in The Poet’s Companion] and held by more than 480 libraries [in The October Palace] — by Jane Hirshfield [WorldCat Identity], a poet based in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was once (ca. 1998) part of the circulating collection of the New York City public transit system, in the Poetry in Motion poster series. In few words, it describes the singular desirability of ‘The Groundfall Pear’:

It is the one he chooses,
Yellow, plump, a little bruised
On one side from falling.
That place he takes first.

This nicely expresses the vulnerability and sweetness of fallen fruit.

I have been looking recently at the distribution of library holdings for titles in JSTOR, Portico and a variety of other collections and have been struck by the degree to which aggregate library investment in print serials has clustered around a relatively limited number of titles. It is not especially surprising that journal titles in the JSTOR collections are among the most widely held in WorldCat; they were selected for inclusion in JSTOR based on their value to the academic community, which is reflected in their broad distribution in college and university libraries. What is surprising, or at least perplexing (as noted above) is the fact that the increasing scope and success of the JSTOR archive as a core scholarly resource, and the increasing pressure on library space pressures over the past decade hasn’t resulted in any significant change in print collection management.

Ten years on, and the JSTOR print back files are still among the most widely held journals in the system. Median library holdings for the print versions of these titles are several orders of magnitude greater than holdings for other journals, the content of which (being less widely distributed in print or electronic form) may represent a much greater preservation risk. If the widely distributed JSTOR print back file collections represent the low-hanging fruit for cooperative print management, then the even more heavily duplicated print titles represented in both the Portico and JSTOR digital archives represent something akin to groundfall.

By my estimate, there are nearly 250 print serial titles that are represented in both the JSTOR and Portico digital archives. (There are more than a thousand titles in the JSTOR digital archive and more than eight times that number in Portico.) These are journals in which many libraries have invested not once or twice but at least three times, by purchasing the original print-only format, licensing the digitized back file in JSTOR, subscribing to the prospective dual print and digital formats, contributing to the long-term preservation of the electronic content (digitized and born-digital) in the Portico digital archive and electing to retain the original print format. One might reasonably ask if at least some of this investment might be redirected to secure the long-term preservation and / or digital conversion of other highly-valued but less widely held titles. A coordinated effort to thin the heavily duplicated titles could free up space for the preservation of rarer material, thereby ensuring broader coverage of the scholarly record and the continuing enrichment of aggregate holdings.

How great is the opportunity here? 250 journal titles may not sound like much — many colleges and universities hold thousands, even tens of thousands of serials — but if you factor in the aggregate holdings for titles represented in both JSTOR and Portico, the potential impact looks fairly significant. On average, titles in this group of journals are held in print format by more than 700 libraries; some are held by thousands of libraries. Considering the relatively low duplication rates for print journals in general (roughly 9 holdings per title), and the robustness of the combined JSTOR and Portico infrastructure, this ‘groundfall’ has the makings of a respectable harvest. If one assumes a conservative estimate of 40 bound volumes per title (the average physical extent of print titles in JSTOR, by my rough count), this amounts to something like 7 million volumes, or a million linear feet of shelf space that might be repurposed. It remains to be seen if research institutions are prepared to reap this harvest.

(Looking for an image to accompany this post, I stumbled over an interesting project to map fallen fruit around Los Angeles. The organizers describe it as an ‘activist art’ project:

“Public Fruit” is the concept behind the Fallen Fruit, an activist art project which started as a mapping of all the public fruit in our neighborhood. We ask all of you to contribute your maps so they expand to cover the United States and then the world. We encourage everyone to harvest, plant and sample public fruit, which is what we call all fruit on or overhanging public spaces such as sidewalks, streets or parking lots. [“What is Fallen Fruit?“]

The next time I’m in LA, I’ll know where to go to find the public pomegranates. Sherman Oaks looks to have a ready supply.)

Constance Malpas is a Research Scientist at OCLC. Her work focuses on data-driven analysis of library collections and services, with a special emphasis on strategic planning and managing institutional change. She has a particular interest in the organization of knowledge and research practices in the sciences.

2 Comments on “Late summer harvest: fallen fruit”

  1. You make a good point about the broader accessibility of library print collections for unaffiliated scholars (who might not benefit from access to licensed resources) and those working at non-subscribing instititutions.
    The point I was trying to make was less about the intrinsic worth of print collections than the opportunity costs associated with maintaining redundant *local* inventory when alternatives are available. If the library you currently use guaranteed 24-hour delivery of American Studies, in print, to your home, office, or library carrel, would it matter where it came from?
    I too like the old print volumes; the challenge is how to make it possible for libraries to maximize the value of their continuing investment in print collections, so that there’s enough variety and depth in holdings to support research and scholarship.

  2. I imagine that many librarians who manage the JStor collections are a bit like me, they like the old print volumes and don’t really think about how much they cost to have on the shelf. I’m a historian and while I used JStor when I had access to it, when I was in the library I was happy to browse through the volumes of American Studies to see what folks were writing about. Of course, now in a situation without access to JStor, I appreciate the library that have the volumes on the shelves. It is that “randomness” factor that web-based access facilitates in new ways (like the map to Fallen Fruit) but not always in the old ways some of us liked. Will I change, sure. Will I change overnight, not as long as there is still some nice plums to be found in those bound volumes.

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