Managing print books: A mega-problem?

This research note was co-authored by Brian Lavoie  and Constance Malpas.

Opportunity cost seems to be the watchword for print book collections these days. The staff, physical space, and other resources consumed by print-centric collections and services are badly needed to support new priorities in library services, such as deeper user engagement and closer alignment with changing research and learning practices. In the face of evidence of declining print book usage, combined with an ever-expanding array of digital alternatives, it is not difficult to imagine a future where “bookless” libraries are the norm.

But this may be premature. Few libraries are prepared to pack up their print books and send them to off-site high-density storage. On several highly-publicized occasions, plans to reduce local print book inventory have met vigorous opposition – witness the recent firestorm at the New York Public Library. In short, print collections pose a dilemma for libraries: they are assets too valuable to dispose of, yet sinking in priority vis-à-vis other aspects of the library service portfolio. The phrase “managing down print”, increasingly common in print management discussions, neatly captures the dueling imperatives: the need to allocate resources away from managing print book collections, but to do so in a gradual, orderly way. So the search is on for the golden mean: a viable print management strategy that can at once leverage more value out of the legacy print investment, and lower maintenance costs. This question is far from settled, but the contours of the solution are becoming apparent. First, future print management strategies are likely to be collaborative, with print books increasingly viewed as a shared asset to be managed cooperatively. Second, the scale of cooperation receiving the most attention, in terms of both planned and implemented solutions, is at the regional level.

This is not to suggest that the rest is a mere matter of detail: for example, the policy and technical infrastructures needed to support a regional strategy for cooperative print management are still in early stages of development. In the meantime, we can speculate on what a network of cooperatively-managed regional print book collections might look like. The OCLC Research report Print Management at “Mega-scale”: A Regional Perspective on Print Book Collections in North America explores a new geography of print book collections based on the concept of mega-regions. Mega-regions are geographical areas defined on the basis of economic integration and other forms of interdependence. The mega-regions framework has the benefit of basing regional boundaries on a substantive underpinning of shared traditions, mutual interests, and the needs of a common constituency.

In the report, we combine WorldCat data with an operationalization of the mega-region concept by urbanist Richard Florida to produce a network of twelve mega-regional print book collections – i.e., the collective print book holdings of all libraries in each region – corresponding to the twelve North American mega-regions identified by Florida (see figure below; click on image to view full size). We explore the salient characteristics of the mega-regional collections individually and as a group, and synthesize these characteristics into a set of stylized facts. The stylized facts are then used to explore the implications of a regionally-based, cooperative print strategy across a wide spectrum of issues, including access, management, and preservation.

(Click on image to view full-size version.)

Viewing print book collections as a cooperatively-managed regional resource yields benefits on both the supply-side and the demand side. On the demand side, aggregating the print holdings of many institutions into a single collective collection creates a resource of greater scope and depth than any single local collection. Exposing this collective collection to users around the region – or even beyond – may amplify or even create demand for print books that experience little or no local use. On the supply-side, regional coordination could streamline print management and reduce costs. Opportunities emerge for collaboration and coordination in collecting and retention decisions – for example, by diminishing excessive duplication and sharing collecting priorities across many institutions.

While our application of the mega-regions framework to print management is speculative, evidence does suggest that the organization of library stewardship is being reconfigured on a new supra-institutional, regional basis. The Western Regional Storage Trust, a cooperative effort to archive print journals in libraries in many Western (and even Midwestern) US libraries, is one among many examples.  Some of these initiatives, like the CIC Shared Print Archive or the ASERL Print Journal Archive, have the potential – if not the explicit intent – to deliver benefit at mega-regional scale:  CIC member libraries are distributed across the expansive CHI-PITTS  region and ASERL’s membership is concentrated in CHAR-LANTA.  It will be interesting to see if these natural experiments in redistributing print preservation responsibilities across broad geographies result in a richer collective resource, undergirded by a robust federation of preservation commitments, or a differently fragmented set of regional collections.

In the coming year, we’ll have an opportunity to extend our mega-regions analysis by taking a demand-side view of the North American print book collection. We’ll be working with partner libraries in the CIC (notably the Ohio State University) to examine how inter-lending data might be combined with supply-side holdings data to inform a regional print management strategy for retrospective monographic collections in CHI-PITTS. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the regional resource, excerpted from our project proposal:

In aggregate, the print book resource held in CHI-PITTS libraries amounts to more than 40% of print book titles in North America. About 16% of these titles are unique to the region, i.e. not duplicated in any of the other eleven mega region collections. The remainder constitutes a significant preservation “backstop” for other North American libraries: 50-92% of titles held by other individual mega-regions are duplicated in CHI-PITTS libraries. Thus, investments in the preservation of print books in the CHI-PITTS region can deliver significant benefit to libraries throughout North America. Conversely, there are relatively few regional collections that duplicate a significant share of the CHI-PITTS collection, which means that the burden of print preservation responsibilities (and investments) will be largely shouldered by institutions within the region. Since less than a fifth of the print books in the region are held by academic research libraries – traditionally viewed as the institutions with the greatest stake in print preservation – it seems apparent that networks like the CIC will have an important role to play in rationalizing regional print preservation priorities and investment.

The CIC is an interesting test case for this sort of project, since all libraries in the consortium are partners in the HathiTrust Digital Library, a shared digital repository. By our reckoning, a third or more of the titles held by CIC member libraries are already “backed up” by digital preservation copies in HathiTrust.  Yet from a regional perspective, the situation is strikingly different:  we estimate that less than a fifth of the print books in CHI-PITTS are duplicated by HathiTrust. The collective preservation burden therefore remains significant even in a region with comparatively robust cooperative library infrastructure.

In regions where shared library infrastructure is less developed or less integrated, the challenges may be even greater.  Take Southern California, for example.  We estimate that the regional print book resource in the SO-CAL mega-region amounts to just under 10 million titles with about 40 million library holdings (i.e. holdings set by libraries in the region).  While much smaller in size than the CHI-PITTS collection, the SO-CAL collection represents an important regional asset and a significant stewardship concern for academic libraries in the area.  As elsewhere, these libraries are individually and collectively reassessing the opportunity costs of managing local print inventory and considering “above the institution” solutions.  Not surprisingly, smaller academic libraries look to larger research-intensive institutions as partners in the preservation enterprise and potential providers of shared infrastructure.

The University of California system, with five large research libraries and a high-density storage facility in the SO-CAL region, is an obvious focus of attention. But the infrastructure developed to support a statewide research university system with a global brand cannot simply be extended to serve all other libraries in the region. There is no shared governance model for the regional library resource, which is distributed across hundreds of public and private institutions. And there is no business model currently in place that would enable libraries to opt in to “preservation by proxy” arrangements. Yet, progress is being made. A group of library leaders from academic libraries and consortia in and around Southern California will meet later this week to begin what is certain to be a long conversation about a regional print management strategy. Bob Kieft, a long-time supporter (and sometime agitator) for collaborative collection management, has organized the meeting, which will be hosted by UCLA. It’s impossible to predict what the outcomes of the discussion might be – there is certainly no recipe for success in regional print management – but it is unquestionably an important first step in addressing what is increasingly a “mega” problem.