February 17, 2018

The Wicked Problem of Too Many Books | From the Bell Tower

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.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Jim Neal says:

    Steven has certainly addressed some important values and strategies in the successful and community supportive implementation of large scale off site shelving of collections. In fact, NYPL
    has been working with Columbia and Princeton for over a decade on the management of the shared 10 million volume ReCAP facility in New Jersey, now being expanded to handle an additional 8 million volume equivalents. This makes ReCAP one of the largest off site shelving facilities in the world. What have we learned. Faculty consultation is critical in the selection of materials, as is flexibility in bringing material back when appropriate. The improved security and preservation for the items off site is also important to emphasize. But most valuable are responsive and timely delivery services, both physical and electronic, and improved and expanded bibliographic control including table of contents scanning. What we now need to do is to build collective collection agreements in these shared holdings, and move to implement a national program of last copy print repositories, so that we can reduce the unnecessary multiplication of low use items and maximize the effective use of these facilities. How space in libraries is creatively and effectively redeployed when collections are moved off site is also crucial.

  2. Thanks Jim for adding these additional insights, from your long experience with these projects, on how to help them to get off the ground with a good chance for acceptance and success. Your point about improved security and preservation is certainly an important point that I would not have thought to mention – but it certainly falls into the “benefits” category. I do notice you refer to ReCAP as an “off site shelving facility” and not a remote storage site.

  3. Barbara says:

    I don’t entirely understand the “what? you’re moving the books?” response to the NYPL plan – the stacks are not only closed, they are truly not browsable since the books are shelved by size and when they were added, not by a classification scheme. But I do think it’s a mistake to close two large and busy public library buildings so the real estate can be sold and pretend that everyone’s interests can be nicely accommodated in a revamped research library. It’s not that research and public needs are entirely different things – NYPL’s research library welcomes anyone regardless of their credentials, and plenty of people did research down the street at the Mid-Manhattan branch. But these three libraries served different purposes. Squashing them into one building with the promise of being more modern and more democratic is, to me, not an answer to “why are you selling off the real estate that has been been the site of two very busy libraries?” A more honest answer might be “because we need the money” or “we can’t afford to maintain and staff those libraries, so we’re doing the best we can while making some needed renovations to the iconic library.” Being told “Gee, this is awesome! You’ll love it!” doesn’t seem to be working.

    Or maybe I’m wrong, Maybe they don’t need the money and just think there’s no need for the Mid-Manhattan or business libraries anymore, that the city should give up those spaces for commercial purposes. Is anyone protesting the fact that two popular libraries are going away? When I lived in New York a dozen years ago, I used all three libraries – for different purposes. All of them were incredibly busy. I can’t imagine all of that being accommodated in one space, even if most of the books are in New Jersey.

  4. Helen Boelens says:

    When I read the caption to this article, I immediately thought “what a luxurious problem!”. The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), Information and Library Services in Amsterdam and the ENSIL Foundation are attempting to assist new university libraries in a number of countries in Africa. University librarians in these countries are crying out for books for their collections. In many cases, online resources and e-books are not an option, due to unreliable supplies of electricity and ICT expertise.

  5. Former Library Director says:

    There are several specific quotes which stand out to me. First: “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.” One of my observations is that the people who are objecting to off-site storage, have never managed a building/collection, and in some cases have never managed at all! They are concerned with getting what they want when they want it, and everyone else be damned. Managing involves trade-offs. Sometimes, you need to make a hard decision because the other choices are worse.

    The second quote is: “what we witness is a strong visceral, emotional reaction when the plans are announced.” Some of my reaction is included in my comments above, but it is the emotion not the logic/reason which seems to sway the day (or at least the media).

    Finally is the quote which echoes some of my reaction to Nicholson Baker, among others: “Perhaps it’s not so much the physical book as much as what the book symbolizes for all generations.” I was a public library director for a quarter of a century. In one library we had to start locking the dumpster to keep people from pulling things out of the trash! At the end of an annual book sale, we would dump lots of stuff. It was the items which were old, shabby, outdated, and, most importantly, had been picked over for 4 days by thousands of people. A library discarding a book does not mean that they library is making a value judgement on the ideas included (although it it true sometimes). The book is just a package. Period. People simply do not get this. Sometimes intelligent people do not get this.

    Thanks Steven. I do think your ideas about building relationships and processes are important and valuable, an hope that they are taken to heart by those planning off-site storage.

    Oh, and Jim Neal is so right, and rocks my world!