At the end of March, OCLC Research, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), and Ohio State University, hosted a very interesting symposium on print collections management. The symposium’s focus was on how collections of print books might be more effectively managed given changing usage patterns and needs for print books, and changing priorities for the allocation of library spaces.

The symposium’s jumping-off point was a new research report by Brian Lavoie and Constance Malpas, which analyzes Ohio State University’s print book holdings and usage patterns in the context of the overall CIC universities. The report explores “what portions of the local print book collection can be more efficiently managed ‘above the institution,’ and which should be managed locally?” It points to the necessity to select the right scale of collaboration in order to achieve the greatest benefits from collaboration in managing print book collections, an excellent follow-on to an earlier work on regional print collections management by the same team. OCLC Research’s sustained attention to the question of the best types of collaborations for print book collections is an important asset in community planning on these issues.

Other speakers framed out some of the basic issues facing the library community and options that might be considered. Mark Sandler emphasized that the CIC’s library directors wish to “substantially” reduce the footprint of their print book collections. Emily Stambaugh proposed that the library community could adopt logistics practices such as those utilized by Amazon and Netflix for warehousing and delivery of print books. Gwen Evans of OhioLink talked about the opportunities for her consortium’s members to expand the materials available to their users while saving their time in fulfilling resource requests.

I was asked to speak later in the program about what user needs may tell us about the prospects for a print to electronic transition for books, a topic I covered a few months ago in the Ithaka S+R issue brief, Stop the Presses: Is the monograph headed toward an e-only future?  In my view, we need to think about print collections management and shared print in the context of the future of the book and reading. The evidence suggests that we are currently in a dual-format environment, at least in terms of faculty member preferences for monographs: they prefer e-versions for some use cases, but the codex is generally preferred for long-form reading (see Figure 14 in the US Faculty Survey 2012 and Figure 16 in the UK Survey of Academics 2012).

Since print is still seen to be needed for purposes that go well beyond preservation, I suggested two basic approaches that the collections management and shared print communities can consider:

  • First, to build sharing networks for print materials that are more robust than ever before imagined, with Amazon/Netflix style logistics for warehousing and delivery, to ensure near-immediate delivery of the codex when needed for reading purposes. This approach would allow books collections to be “managed down,” albeit perhaps without the same space-reducing impact, or user satisfaction, that we have seen to date for journals.
  • Alternatively, we could identify long-form reading in digital form as the key challenge, both for readers and for collections alike. In this scenario, we would study systematically the apparently rather serious problems facing academics in long form reading of ebooks, especially through library provided channels. We would work to develop solutions with existing ebooks platforms and channels – or determine that the challenges are intractable.

I closed by emphasizing two potential outcomes. If long-form reading of ebooks, and other challenges, are in fact intractable, then we might need to manage a dual-format environment at least for scholarly books indefinitely. If on the other hand, and as I believe but we do not yet know, they are transitional, we have a slightly different kind of problem. Resource expenditures to optimize print collections  and logistics infrastructure would not be wise. Rather, our primary concern should be with how to improve our ability to serve user needs in an emerging digital book environment.

I was honored to be included in this symposium and hope that it helps the library community to consider the future of the book and how best to ensure its accessibility and preservation for years to come.