Libraries United

This article by Taylor McNeil originally appeared on the Tufts Now blog.

With hundreds of thousands of new books published each year in America and shelf space mostly fixed, libraries have to make tough choices about which books to keep in their collections, and which to discard. It’s especially true for a university library system like that at Tufts, whose collections date back more than a century.

To address the issue, Tufts is taking part in a new initiative with 46 other library systems in the Northeast—most in higher education—to analyze their collections and create criteria for retaining books. The goal is to ensure an appropriate number of each volume is kept and can be shared among the 47 institutions.

Called the Eastern Academic Scholars’ Trust (EAST), the project, begun by the Five Colleges Consortium in Massachusetts, is supported by a two-year, $995,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a three-year, $400,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. Laura Wood, director of Tisch Library, is a co-principal investigator on the Mellon grant.

“This is mainly about the opportunity to do a deeper collaboration on a regional scale,” Wood says. “If we don’t coordinate, we have the potential to make bad decisions about what to keep, and what not to keep.”

It’s still important to own hard copies of books. “The books themselves have value as objects, and most readers prefer to read books in hard copy,” says Wood. While many volumes have been digitized, many more have not, and most are still in copyright, meaning that the digitized editions cannot be easily shared.

The task facing the group is huge. First, a list will be compiled of all the books at all 47 libraries and the circulation records to determine where there is overlap. The collaborators will then conduct an analysis to determine the likelihood that a book listed in a library system’s catalog is in fact on its shelves, and not lost or misplaced.

The private firm Sustainable Collection Services (SCS) will help with the analysis. The Tufts libraries used SCS last year for its own collection analysis, which allowed the university to compare its collections with those at peer institutions for the first time.

The SCS analysis “will hopefully lead to recommendations for retention,” says Wood, who is also president of the Boston Library Consortium, an association of 17 research libraries in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Many of the consortium libraries, including those at Boston University and Williams College, are participating in the EAST project.

The librarians will need to agree on the minimum number of copies of each book that should exist in the EAST system, and which library should retain which copies.

And then there’s the issue of trust, which needs to develop among the institutions. In other words, if Tufts gets rid of its copy, can the university be confident that another institution won’t get rid of its edition to make room for other books?

“We don’t know how many copies is the right amount of redundancy. This is an attempt to set a bar and have a conversation about how we get at appropriate levels of redundancy,” Wood says. There may be, for example, 200 copies of a book that no one is borrowing throughout the system. That would be a good thing to know, because it would allow library collections to be thinned to free up space for new books.

Tufts students and faculty currently use a separate interlibrary loan system to borrow from other institutions, and it’s likely that the material in EAST institutions will continue to circulate in that way, Wood says. Under the current plan, EAST member libraries will not charge each other to borrow books; that’s not always the case with other university libraries, she notes.

Even though funding for the project ends in three years, Wood predicts that EAST will continue long after that, and may even eventually add new members. “It is about the common collective and common good—that all this content will be available to all our members.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.