Preserving collections is the mission of many academic libraries. That means keeping lots of books. But where to put them? That’s becoming controversial.
In the transition to a digital landscape where the expected focus is on hot technology, who would have thought that the really hot issue would be print books. There’s hardly a sudden interest about print books within higher education, nor a drastic outcry for academic libraries to acquire more print content. Rather the rage is over where to keep all these print books. Academic librarians are running out of space for all these volumes; many libraries exhausted it years ago. The rarely used items in the collection make good candidates for relocation to remote shelving sites. It sounds like a reasonable solution – except that scholars, mostly in the humanities, really hate the idea. The biggest “we must move out books” controversy right now isn’t at an academic library, but one of the premier public research libraries in America – the central branch of the New York Public. Perhaps there are lessons academic librarians can take away from the Big Apple book battle that could help future off-site shelving projects gain better acceptance?
Why so complicated?
As an academic librarian I often wonder why this is even an issue. No one is proposing getting rid of the excess books. It seems eminently practical to move less used material out in order to make room for more popular, contemporary materials or to give community members the types of spaces they desire. Granted, on those rare occasions when off-site books are needed, a 24-hour wait should not create a barrier. Some faculty suggest that librarians are unqualified to decide what should go into storage. In the event we do make some bad decisions, we can easily move items back to the main collection. So what’s the problem?
The real problem might be my “librarian knows best” attitude. Academic librarians think they know what the right solutions are for the library, but the library is truly owned by the community. Librarians are trusted to be wise stewards of this treasured community asset. When we make decisions about the community’s resources, we should rightly involve the community in the decision process. Knowing that off-site shelving solutions have the potential to create real animosity in the community, we need to be sensitive to the need to communicate early and often. With the case of something that should seem simple, things get complicated quickly – often because of poor communication about the plans.
A powerful symbol
All of these off-site shelving battles share a common thread. Whether it’s the library at Syracuse University, the New York Public or the University of Denver, what we witness is a strong visceral, emotional reaction when the plans are announced. We should anticipate that emotions will run deep because people continue to have a powerful bond with print books. As one Denver student said “There is something about being surrounded by books…Friends, adventures and information at the tip of your fingers, far more tangible than an article a few clicks away on your computer.” For scholars, it can be more than emotions. Having fast access to a needed book may make the difference between success and failure in a research project. Then there is the oft cited serendipity factor that is diminished when accurate book browsing is impossible. But for many others, even undergraduates like the one quoted above, there’s that hard-to-explain magical quality about books that makes removing them from the library, even if it’s just to put them a short distance away for justifiably good reasons, so distasteful that it creates community agitation. Perhaps it’s not so much the physical book as much as what the book symbolizes for all generations. It’s no wonder then that library administrators, despite their data and analytical reasoning, are challenged to convince anyone that moving books to a remote storage facility is in their best interest.
Minimizing the fallout
Given the difficulty of appropriately responding to strong emotional reactions and the resulting protests, what should library administrators do to ensure the success of an off-site shelving storage project? Reading the accounts of these various book move confrontations brings to mind a number of strategies for helping everyone to get through a change that is sure to be contested.
- Start by building relationships with the influencers who can help support the move on campus. If a few critical partners are willing to support the plan that can carry a great deal of weight.
- Make the case for an off-site shift well in advance of the need to actually make the move. Get the word out to the faculty and students. Have a good communications plan for promoting the shift and why it can work.
- In one of the articles about the move debate at the New York Public, a faculty member made it clear that she had only limited trust that librarians could effectively decide what to remove and what to keep. So it may prove beneficial to invite some faculty to participate in the decision process, or otherwise invest time in consulting with the faculty. If they are active participants and invested in the process, they are more likely to support its success.
- Faculty are far more likely to listen to other faculty than they are to librarians. As part of the preparation process, invite faculty from an institution where the campus already lives in peace with an off-site book storage, to speak at your institution, in-person or virtually. This has the potential to demonstrate that despite the fears, a remote shelving project is far less painful than imagined and can actually be managed.
- Have a persuasive vision for why the moving of books is necessary, and be able to communicate what the library and campus will achieve in the way of benefits. A charismatic leader with a convincing story to tell can make a difference. Community members are far more likely to accept why you are doing something than simply knowing what you want to accomplish.
- Some experts suggest that language matters. Apparently “off-site shelving” is less likely to get community members riled up than “remote storage”. (no guarantees on this one)
- If you don’t do so already, and there is a book storage challenge in your short-term future, consider becoming a regular reader of Sample & Hold, where Rick Lugg offers good collection advice – such as how to talk to faculty about book reduction projects – for librarians.
- Did I say you cannot underestimate the value of transparency and open communication about the project?
If at first…
Library administrators facing the prospect of having to move a chunk of the collection to a remote shelving site are in an unenviable position. While communicating early and often, involving the community and reporting regularly on the project may be of some help, it hasn’t seemed to work for Anthony Marx, the CEO of the New York Public Library. Given the strong attachment community members have to their books, in some cases the best option is to kill the project. Undesirable as that may be, it is the nature of higher education that an idea that is soundly rejected today may be accepted six months down the road. Patience and persistence may make a difference, but ultimately it may come down to the simple things: trust; relationships; communication.