Notes from the Field: Collections and Collective Action

Last week I participated in a symposium on the changing mission of academic libraries. While not directly related to assessment or strategic planning, those practices are implicit as we explored together “the mission of academic and research libraries in the 21st century information environment.”

The event was sponsored by the New York chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The organizers suggested that the library’s “traditional” mission – stewardship and guidance in the exploration of recorded knowledge and experience valuable for higher learning, may be due for some adaptation as research, teaching, publishing and mass communication are changing.

So how are we changing? A theme throughout the day was collaboration and collective action. Libraries are rethinking the traditional model of collection development, where the research library needs to own everything, maybe in duplicate. Eloquently speaking to this shift was David Magier,  Princeton’s Associate University Librarian of Collection Development. Magier’s work includes the coordination of (yes!) 55 subject specialists, all engaged with collection development (and supported by a healthy collections budget).  In his talk on “Collecting, Collaborating, Facilitating: New Dynamics in the Role of Content in the Research Library’s Evolving Mission” Magier described changes from his perspective (with a nod to Lorcan Dempsey’s notion of a facilitated collection). 

For example, Princeton is collaborating with Columbia and the New York Public Library to share storage space. They started with a “condominium” model – where libraries engage common processing but collections are maintained separately. This model led to lots of duplication. The libraries are re-conceptualizing the approach to create a more “collective” collection. In the emerging universe of shared print archiving, libraries commit to retention of a title allowing other libraries to let it go. It’s not easy. The model involves MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) about retention, as well as borrowing agreements between the institutions. But,  for the end user, the access to content is greatly expanded.

For those users, it does not matter how the content gets into their hands. Our job is to reduce the “friction” patrons experience in getting to the resource they discover. This friction can be more or less.  To click on a title in the library catalog and be able to read its entirety,  that’s no friction. To access distantly held materials by acquiring a travel grant to visiting an archives  – that’s a lot of friction. Magier thinks this balance can be expressed as a mathematical metaphor, with content being all the resources, and friction the pain in accessing that content:

Content ÷ Friction = Happy Spot

How does this relate to assessment? Or strategic planning? In order to do any of this well, the library needs to consider its core communities and their needs; both in the short and long term. The majority of attendees at this symposium were not from Princetons, but rather city branch libraries or community colleges. Their  patrons and the collection support they require are quite different. Their collections strategy look different as well. 

Figuring out the best balance of friction and access is also an assessment issue. What are the expectations of our users? What is the user experience we need to provide to them? How can we make the access to content as seamless as possible? 

And to understand the possibilities and costs, we need to collect and analyze the data. At what point should we be subscribing to a journal rather than using interlibrary loan? At what point are we better off buying the e-book rather than paying the usage fee? How few simultaneous users licenses can we get away with to best serve our patrons without frustrating them? 

These questions require collaboration within our library organization (collections, technology, access, subject specialists, administration) as well as without (our user community and partnering institutions).  It is exciting and inspiring to hear how other libraries are taking collective action.

Sunrise over Secaucus before a day of meetings


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