Managing the Collective Collection: research libraries and legal deposit networks in the UK and Ireland


Brian Lavoie and I have just wrapped up a project examining the collective collection of a number of important research libraries in the UK and Ireland. The key findings from our analysis are published in a new OCLC Research report, Strength in Numbers: The Research Libraries UK (RLUK) Collective CollectionWe were very pleased to have an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from the RLUK consortium on this project, our first foray into extending our collective collections research to geographies outside of North America. RLUK has a role in the UK that is comparable to that of ARL in the US, and its analogues in other places: it provides ‘coordination capacity’ for research libraries that share a number of similar challenges and operate within (broadly) comparable institutional circumstances.  As in our Right-scaling Stewardship project, undertaken in partnership with research libraries in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) a few years ago, the insights and engagement of libraries in situ provided invaluable context for our analysis of WorldCat bibliographic and holdings data.

In the US, universities libraries have a long history of engagement with WorldCat as a core bibliographic utility for cataloging and resource sharing operations. In the UK, participation in WorldCat has – until recently – been more opportunistic and instrumental in nature. This has meant that coverage of UK library holdings in WorldCat is somewhat uneven. In preparation for the collective collection study, a number of RLUK libraries undertook major record-loading projects to bring their WorldCat holdings up to date. As a result, we now have a much better picture of the distribution of library resource across research libraries in the UK. The figure below, not included in our report, gives an idea of the regional concentration of RLUK library collections.

Geographic concentration of RLUK holdings in WorldCat (January 2016)
Geographic concentration of RLUK holdings in WorldCat (January 2016)

It is no surprise that the greatest concentration of resource is found in and around London – there are many RLUK institutions in the area, including the British Library. The regional concentrations that are shown in green (Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Edinburgh) reflect the depth of legal deposit collections in those locations. Edinburgh is a particularly bright spot, given it includes both the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. The very prominent concentration in the North of England represents holdings of the British Library that are managed in Yorkshire. Setting aside the legal deposit libraries, the median collection size of RLUK libraries in WorldCat (as of January 2016) was about 827,000 titles; the average size was about 1.1 million titles.

An interesting question that arose in the course of this project was the degree to which the existing legal deposit libraries in the UK and Ireland might serve as preservation hubs within the larger RLUK network. As more academic libraries are looking to manage down locally held print inventory (transferring materials to offsite repositories, increasing reliance on shared print agreements etc.), there is growing interest in identifying latent print preservation capacity that might be more effectively leveraged, so that the total cost of stewarding research and heritage collections can be reduced and the overall scope of the collective collection increased. In the UK context, where universities (and their libraries) are largely supported by public funding, it is reasonable to ask whether investments in national legal deposit collections, and de facto preservation collections in some university libraries, can be used to support some rationalization of print collections management across the larger higher education sector.

While a close study of bi-lateral duplication rates within the RLUK group (e.g., duplication between individual legal deposit libraries and other university libraries) was beyond the scope of our collective collection project, we did do some preliminary investigation. The project advisory board, composed of representatives from 11 RLUK libraries, was especially interested to know if a large share of scarce or distinctive resources in the collective collection were concentrated in the legal deposit libraries. If so, they reasoned, other libraries might relegate or even de-select local copies of those resources, with confidence that legal deposit partners would uphold preservation and access responsibilities. We looked at titles held in fewer than 5 RLUK institutions and found that 73% or more were held in at least one legal deposit repository.  The percentage of titles held in legal deposit libraries increased with the overall duplication rate: for titles held by 4 libraries in the RLUK group, the legal deposit duplication rate rose to 95%. Among the legal deposit libraries, the British Library – the largest of all the legal deposit collections within the RLUK – was the most frequent source of duplication, with Oxford University a close second.

What this suggests is that while the legal deposit network in the UK represents a significant source of preservation and access infrastructure, the capacity of individual legal deposit libraries to contribute to shared RLUK preservation goals will vary. Put another way, the collective capacity of these libraries is greater than the sum of their individual institutional capacities. What the optimal allocation of preservation responsibility across the RLUK group will ultimately look like will depend on a number of factors. Rick Lugg, Ruth Fisher and colleagues on the OCLC Sustainable Collection Services will be working with subsets of the RLUK group (including members of the White Rose Libraries consortium) in the coming year to examine how print preservation responsibilities can be shared among UK research libraries.

From a research perspective, we are interested in delineating patterns that reveal where library collaboration can increase system-wide efficiency and maximize institution benefit, without necessarily prescribing specific choices or courses of action for individual libraries. This recent collaboration with RLUK libraries provided a wealth of opportunities to explore how WorldCat data can be used to support group-scale approaches to collection management. Not all of the research it motivated is reflected in the final report, but it has helped to illuminate some lines of inquiry that we hope to explore in the future.