Saturday 28 June 2014

Are print books holding libraries back?

So, here's a modest proposal: what if we just took all the print books out of the library?

Consider the following:

Space. Shelves of books take up a lot of floor space, especially if you hold a big collection. Space that could be used for furniture, or technology, or collaborative work spaces.

Labour. Print books are extremely labour-intensive. Every book that comes into the library is catalogued, stamped, labelled, and covered. Even if we calculated that at 5 mintes of labour for each book processed, multiply that by tens of thousands, and it's a huge labour expense.

Then consider the amount of labour involved in moving books around. 2-3 staff for an hour unpacking the interbranch transfers before opening the library, one and a half hours of shelving for a dozen staff every day. Circulation desk duties of issuing and returning books. Then for every book that a borrower claims to have returned but isn't on the shelf, there's an exhaustive process of talking with the borrower, checking the shelves, and making all the othet branches check their shelves, and then the follow-up if the book never resurfaces. 

Also, take into account collection maintenance. When books deteriorate, then they are either repaired, which may require any number of procedures, depending on the damage, or they are removed from the collection, involving deletion from the catalogue and physically recycled either through preparation for a book sale, or moved to a recycling centre.

Speaking of deletions, did you know that for every book that is put on a library shelf, a book needs to be removed from the collection (more or less)? Libraries buy a lot of books, and so they need to decide which books need to go. Many of these are made up of irrepairable books, but reports are also generated to identify books that aren't circulating. And then, yep, we need to go out and find themall and   remove them from the shelf.

Then there are other time-draining but necessary jobs like shelf-reading - where we literally spend hours every month reading the spine labels on the shelf to make sure that the books are in order.

Expense. Books are expensive. Libraries spend hundreds of thousands a year on books. Most of them won't be on the shelf in five years' time, having either fallen apart, been stolen / never returned, or removed because nobody read it.

Environmental sustainability. What does it say about our corporate social responsibility when we still insist on using so much freaking paper?!

Unpleasantness. There will be no more library fines, and no unpleasant conversations with the pub,ic about overdue, damaged or missing books.

Innovation. If all staff at the library spend the majority of their time processing or moving print books, then this comes at the cost of innovation. We have the technology to make much of our book collection accessible through digital means, and if staff weren't spending all of their time with print formats, then they could spend so much more time interacting with the community, and helping them connect with information through a more efficient and accessible means.

Community. Often it seems that the main reason we deal in so much print is because it's what the community demands. But the reality is that shifting to more digital collections means that we can reach so many more people in the community, and actively encourage them to embrace the benefits of new technology as an exercise in lifelong learning.

Don't get me wrong - I love print books. However, the current model of libraries are still ridiculously skewed to the management of print books that it is to the detriment of progressive services. People talk of the advent of the internet and ebooks as the death of the library, but maybe it's the best thing that could happen for them.

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