Some Thoughts on Print Collections and User Spaces: A Continuing Opportunity

Posted on

Over the past few decades libraries have evolved from storehouses of books to vibrant user-centered spaces that embrace learning, research and collaboration. By simple historical observation of the O’Neill Library one can see that the Level One area went from a dead-end space that housed obsolete print collections and an equally under-utilized government documents department to an active area that includes a collaboration room, mixed landscape seating with natural light, selected technology and student art. The renovation also created a link between the Library and Maloney Hall. In short, by repurposing the space, the Library facilitated a better learning environment and, by extension, now better serves the formation of our students.

But repurposing spaces does come with a cost.  In the vast majority of cases, it’s the onsite book collections that are sacrificed for the new user spaces.  We continue to have discussions about what to do with the physical onsite book collections as our spaces no longer accommodate existing collections, let alone growth, which amounts to about 30,000 print volumes per year.  As we look into the near future of the BC Libraries, I anticipate that we will soon need some space not just for collections but to meet the growing need for a variety of user spaces.

Every research library is trying to figure out how to manage their print collections, and similarly, what to do with the spaces that are now occupied by books.  In most cases, books are relocated to nearby offsite locations where they are easily accessible and retrievable. The key to successful offsite collections is threefold: 1) keep collections in an environmentally safe location, 2) make the collections discoverable, and 3) have a robust, timely and reliable delivery mechanism in place.

Moving large collections will always be complex, time-consuming and potentially political. Typically, libraries begin with baseline data such as circulation statistics. For example, BC Libraries maintain about 1M volumes in O’Neill and Bapst. Of those, about 30% have not circulated in the past 5 years. However, the metric is nuanced by the fact that we already have moved many volumes and boxes of materials to a proprietary offsite facility in Danvers, and, at the same time, a significant part of our collection resides in the Kenny Cottle building on the Newton Campus. Given our experience thus far, moving an additional 250-300K offsite might be reasonable. But just to be clear, no decisions are imminent and we remain open to many potential approaches.

Deciding what to send offsite will not be easy. It is a process that will entail faculty input both by necessity and good practice. We will take into account the needs of our patrons and how we can continue to offer the highest level of service throughout the process. Physically pulling these materials off the shelves is not trivial.  Then the books that remain have to be shifted and re-shelved into the remaining spaces. Finally, before shipping them offsite, all the books have to be re-examined for accurate cataloging records to ensure reliable discovery. In high-density offsite facilities, the books are shelved according to size and are accessible by a new item-record. Put simply, moving research collections does not scale down. It’s complex, time-consuming and quite frankly, no fun.

However, identifying and finally relocating collections is feasible and is worthwhile if it allows us to make better use of our spaces. We in the Library are prepared to get this work done in a thoughtful and collaborative way. Decisions about how to use the freed-up space must precede the decision to move collections, because knowing the intention of the space will help in determining how many books might need to be moved.  Given the BC Libraries’ track record in responding to and anticipating user needs, I’m confident we can enhance the academic and formative experiences of the entire BC community if given the latitude to design these newly available spaces collaboratively.  That said, in our case we would not move more than absolutely necessary, and most people would probably not even notice that selected books are offsite (but still readily available). What would be apparent, however, would be enhanced library spaces for students and faculty. That’s the opportunity.

We in the BC Libraries have tried to stay ahead of this complex dynamic. There is no set timetable, and in fact we’ve been moving items offsite for some time. Looking ahead, we continue to believe that sending some items offsite can be a win-win situation for Boston College because we can continue to create new and interesting user spaces for learning, research, collaboration and formation without giving up our commitment to accessing and delivering content in both print and digital forms. We will continue to keep you abreast of these discussions and developments, but we steadfastly remain committed to providing the best spaces, content, experiences and services for the entire BC community.

Tom B. Wall

University Librarian