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  • The Death and Migration of Book Collections in Academic Libraries
  • William H. Walters (bio)

Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles have reported on the slow "death" of books in public and academic libraries.1 They describe declining book budgets, the withdrawal of once-treasured volumes, and the shifting of books to off-site locations to make more space for study areas and student services.

Most such articles fail to distinguish between four distinct practices: (1) acquiring fewer print books, (2) withdrawing books from the collection, (3) moving books to off-site storage, and (4) replacing print books with e-books. By educating the news media and the public about the differences between these four practices, we can help them understand the contextual factors that are not always apparent to those outside the library profession—the distinction between content and physical format, for instance. These four developments can also provide a framework for the consideration of trends that may bring book publishing and journal publishing into closer alignment.

Acquiring Fewer Print Books

The first practice, acquiring fewer print books, has one direct benefit: both space and funds can be diverted to other uses that may have a greater impact on teaching, learning, and research. The indirect benefits are less often recognized, however. A reduction in book acquisitions may lead to a greater emphasis on the library's selection criteria, resulting in the selection of a smaller number of books that are better aligned with patrons' needs. A carefully focused collection will likely bring greater precision in students' book searches as well as a system-wide increase in the proportion of retrieved items (records or texts) that are relevant.2 If acquisitions funds are reallocated from books to journals, the emphasis of the collection may also shift from book-centric disciplines such as history and literature to the journal-centric STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) that have been identified as national priorities for secondary and higher education.3 [End Page 415]

The disadvantages of acquiring fewer books are readily apparent. Obviously, the quality of the collection will decline if funding drops below the minimum needed to acquire enough high-quality books in each subject area. Moreover, book collections are more economically sustainable than journal collections; because journal prices increase more rapidly than book prices, the inflation rate for the collection as a whole can be expected to rise if funds are diverted from books to journals.4 A shift from books to journals may also result in a collection that is harder for undergraduates to use—holdings that are less readable and more likely to demand prior knowledge of content and methods. Such a change may also reduce students' exposure to content that is especially well suited to long-form exposition: instructional material, theoretical discussion, in-depth narrative, and extended argument.

Withdrawing (Weeding) Books from the Collection

The advantages and disadvantages of the second practice, withdrawing books from the collection, have been documented extensively in the LIS literature.5 The benefits include currency and factual correctness (reliability, from the patron's perspective), readability in terms of writing style and formatting, better alignment of the collection with the curriculum, and the assurance that current selection standards are upheld throughout the entire collection. Other advantages include reduced risk of physical deterioration (due to mold, for instance), the opportunity for conservation treatment as part of the weeding process, improved perceptions of the collection's utility (among students, in particular), and the potential for diversion of library space to more productive activities. We can add another advantage if the withdrawn books are offered for sale as individual titles: the matching of books with the readers who most value them.

The drawbacks of weeding include the inadvertent removal of important works, the potential use of weeding standards that are not well suited to the mission of the university, the possibility that reclaimed space will be used for less constructive activities, and the negative perceptions of stakeholders. The opinions of faculty are especially important, since their support may be needed for other library initiatives such as book selection and information literacy instruction. Even with clear communication and close collaboration, faculty may object to the principles underlying...


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pp. 415-422
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