“With a little help from my friends” – a community-based future for print collections – Michael Emly

What is the future for our print collections?  Do we concur with the current president of CILIP when he blogs that “the library as a collection of books is a dead end”[1]?  Or lean towards Michael Gorman’s view that our function is “preserving the human record”[2]?

Certainly, things cannot continue as they are.  Every research library is under tremendous pressure to deliver against a wide variety of agendas, budgets are tight and space is constrained.  Print collections continue to grow and, even more importantly, occupy space that we want to use for other purposes. For many titles, digital surrogates are already available, or likely to become so within a short timeframe; and our users find them convenient.  “What is not available online doesn’t exist”[3].  Yet, as libraries serving the needs of the scholarly community, we know this isn’t true.  We cannot ignore our print heritage. Even after digitisation, we value access to the original format and we also recognise the importance of the book as artefact for some scholars.  Our obligations in this respect extend to future generations for, as Gorman asserts, a core function of libraries is the “preservation and onward transmission of our cultural heritage”.

Equally important in considering the long-term future of our collections is the condition of many of our older print materials, especially those published between 1870 and 1970.  Many have such poor quality paper that they are slowly crumbling.  Leeds surveyed its collection of early 20th century French literature and found that 60% of titles published before 1970 were in poor or very poor condition, mainly due to acid paper[4].  As things stand, by the time the current batch of Ph.D. students is close to retirement, all that will remain on the shelf will be a dusty pile of confetti.  The recent RLUK/BL Preservation Learning Project has highlighted these concerns and challenges us to find new ways of managing our collections in order to ensure ongoing access for our users[5].

Even back in 1984, the Ratcliffe report[6] recognised these very same drivers and acknowledged that the long-term needs of the scholarly community could only be met through coordination and collaboration in collection management.  This theme reappears frequently across the years in a series of reports and projects, many with RLUK involvement: Follett[7], Anderson[8], Cofor, CoCoMaN, Fielden[9] and CCM to name but a few.  RSLP proved very influential in pushing forward an agenda of cooperation between research libraries, changing the nature of the discourse and funding a number of projects in its Collaborative Collection Management strand[10].  After all, since it envisioned a National Union Catalogue for the UK and access to those information resources wherever they are held, then it was a logical next step to articulate the idea of a ‘distributed national collection of research resources’[11].  And Fielden laid the foundations for the UKRR which has achieved a remarkable success in actually implementing this idea within the domain of periodicals.

UKRR has certainly given many of us a breathing space – at least where space pressures are concerned. However, successful as UKRR has undoubtedly been, less certain, perhaps, is the commitment of the individual member libraries to actively safeguard those volumes which they hold for the national research community in the long-term.  This open question, as well as the small likelihood now of any short- or medium-term top-down funding for transposing a UKRR-like methodology to monographs, means that any further progress in this area will have to be of a grassroots nature.  Is this a viable option, what mechanisms might be used and would our community be prepared to engage with such an initiative? – these are key questions for RLUK, and ones which the recent Copac Collection Management Tools Project[12] attempted in part to address.

The work of this pilot, which has been widely reported, suggests an affirmative response to all 3 questions.  By building a collection management tool which exploits the data already present in the Copac database, the project offers a model for a low-cost solution that leverages existing infrastructure in order to improve decision-making, while making the underlying supporting processes more cost-effective and efficient (one case study reported an 85% saving in staff time for certain procedures).  The Copac Tools can be used to avoid disposal of items which are not widely held within the UK, or, more positively, the identification of such titles can be used to underpin programmes of conservation or digitisation, avoiding duplication of effort and providing broader benefit to the research community.  Local decisions can be made with awareness of the national context, and those same decisions can be shared with the rest of the community through Copac.  The focus and value of local collections can therefore be sharpened by acknowledging that they form part of a larger whole, and a more selective approach to retention becomes possible without detriment to the principle of long-term access for scholars.

A mechanism therefore exists; but would staff buy into it?  Remarkably, the consultative workshops organised by the project, and which involved representatives from 25 RLUK libraries, demonstrated a remarkable consensus in favour of the initiative.  Because there are such clear advantages for any participating library, the enthusiasm was palpable.  There was widespread concern about the potential loss of last copies, recognition that the needs of researchers can only be met in the long term through “deep resource sharing”[13] between the various libraries serving that community, and strong encouragement for further development of the Copac Tools in order to achieve these goals.  Workshop participants strongly supported the explicit development of a UK National Research Collection, distributed across our many institutions but with a national organisational framework to coordinate and provide direction.  They also looked to RLUK as an organisation to provide leadership in this initiative, a proposal which became one of the key recommendations in the Project final report.

It is rare that individual and community interests coincide, but in this case, they do indeed seem to.  We have over 30 years of reports and projects which provide the intellectual justification and rationale for collaborating far more closely in the management of our collections.  We observe similar forces at work in North American research libraries, again underpinned by a number of detailed reports and studies[14],[15],[16].  With the Copac Tools, we have, for the first time, a mechanism which makes this viable within the UK.  Do we have the wisdom, the foresight and the determination to embark on this radically different path in collection management within our own institutions?  And as RLUK, are we willing to provide leadership in developing a national collaborative framework for safeguarding our print heritage for the research community?  Are we prepared to create a future for our collections with a little help from my friends?  Or do we prefer, in 50 years time, to be the custodians of several shelf-miles of dust?

“With a little help from my friends” – a community-based future for print collections – Michael Emly PDF


[2] Gorman, M. The prince’s dream.  SCONUL Focus, 54 (2012), p.11-16 http://www.sconul.ac.uk/publications/newsletter/54/4.pdf

[3] I first heard this user attitude described by Clifford Lynch, speaking at a CURL workshop in Manchester in the mid 1990s!

[4] LIFE_SHARE Project. Case Study 4 (Leeds): Physical conservation vs. digitisation for preservation ( 2011) http://www.leeds.ac.uk/library/projects/lifeshare/docs/LIFESHARE_Leeds_Case_Study.pdf

[5] See particularly the papers from the 2010 conference and 2012 workshop organised by the project, available at http://www.bl.uk/blpac/dare.html and http://www.bl.uk/blpac/safehands.html

[6] Ratcliffe, F.W. Preservation policies and conservation in British libraries.  British Library (1984) p. 61

[7] Follett, B.Joint funding councils’ libraries review project group: report (the Follett report) HEFCE (1993)  http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/follett/report/

[8] Anderson, M. Joint funding council’s library review report of the group on a national/regional strategy for library provision for researchers (The Anderson report) HEFCE (1996)http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/anderson/

[9] CHEMS Consulting.  Optimising storage and access in UK research libraries: a study for CURL and the British Library CURL (2005)  http://www.rluk.ac.uk/files/CURL_BLStorageReportFinal-endSept2005.pdf

[13] A term coined by the 2002 report Barriers to resource sharing among higher education libraries http://www.rslp.ac.uk/circs/2002/barriers.htm

[14] Malpas, C.Shared print policy review report OCLC (2009)

http://www.oclc.org/research/publications/library/2009/2009-03.pdf

[15] Schonfeld, R.System-level strategic planning for collections management and preservation (2010) http://www.bl.uk/blpac/pdf/dareschonfeld.pdf

[16] Lavoie, B., Malpas, C. and Shipengrover, J.D. Print management at “Mega-scale”. OCLC (2012). http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2012/2012-05.pdf

One thought on ““With a little help from my friends” – a community-based future for print collections – Michael Emly

  1. As my comments are of a quite general nature and I am not sure to whose paper I should reply, I am sticking my twopence worth on at the end of Michael’s paper, largely because we discussed matters over a year ago in Leeds. I am VERY wary about speaking in generalities on the subject of collections since my experience is based entirely on working with the collections of Glasgow University Library for the last 35 years. However, it does strike me that the papers that have been posted reflect a variety of approaches to the several concerns which we gather together under the topic ‘Collections’ and that for each of us looking at the issues, there are different drivers. For many of the larger research libraries, particularly those in the metropolitan areas of the country, the major concern appears to be one of space (or the increasing pressures on and lack of it!). Decisions for one library are not necessarily vaid elsewhere, especially where the research collection serves a community greater than the staff and students of its parent institution. In this I mean that some of us in the far-flung corners of the country are a little less ready to discard too much where there are no other nearby institutions with similarly major holdings. It is my experience that, despite this being a relatively small country, many academics are not too keen to have to travel to far to consult material – as we have found trying them to go to the National Library in Edinburgh!

    Michael’s paper makes reference to UKRR2 and to the breathing space it has bought us but, when we pare back the success and experience of UKRR2, it has meant different things to different institutions AND their inter-action with the programme has varied. The original premise was to investigate low (or more often, non-) use journals but, at Glasgow, it very much turned towards looking at disposal of journals where we had guarnteed permanent e-access. Even in this, there was much debate about what constituted a guarenteed and permanent access and, in Glasgow, we have still fought shy of offering paper copies where the alternative is JSTOR, for example, and have yet to convince College Librarians completely about offering titles in the Social Sciences. More importantly, this decision does mean that part of our readership (General Council, Special Readers, visitors) no longer have access to many of our journals in the Science, Technical or Medical disciplines as electronic access is restricted to staf and students only. You can see that this runs contrary to my above comment about the research collection serving a greater community.

    Of possibly greater significance is the fact that our early experience in checking journal holdings to be offered to UKRR2 with those in other libraries showed a far wider divergence than we expected and I think we ignore this at our peril since this can perhaps shed a warning light on the even greater diversity we face when we turn to look at monograph research collections. At the outset, UKRR2 did include multi-volume reference works in its remit but that aspect of library holdings was soon dropped and Michael already has referred to the small likelihood of any funding to support a UKRR2 style methodology to monographs. However, to me a greater issue may well be that, in many research libraries, we no longer have the staff experienced with the paper collections to support the necessary yet somewhat tedious task of ‘keeping the stock relevant to our users’. As I near the end of my professional career, I seem to be repeating to colleagues that ‘not making decisions is not decision making’.

    When I came to Glasgow, I was first appointed to my post by R.O. MacKenna, a well-respected figure in British academic librarianship who had served on the working party chaired by another Atkinson whose report ‘Capital Provision for University Libraries’ offerred the concept of the self-renewing library. It was a long time ago and, in terms of our paper collections, we have not moved particularly far down the road since then, largely because we do fear that we will make mistakes. In other areas, our development of research collections has been extremely successful and has led to the library being regarded as central to the whole institution’s success. BUT, and to me, it is a big but, for many regular users, the immediate impact of the library is still the large number of books on the many miles of shelving we all hold. How many of us have heard the comments from student satisfaction surveys of ‘too many old books on the shelves’ and what have we done about it?

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