The uncirculated monograph?

An interesting social media experiment is underway at Mason–each week a different member of the Mason community takes over the university’s official Twitter feed.  This week, Mark Sample had the honor and one of his tweets got me thinking about local numbers…


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The report Mark cites can be found here.  Curious how Mason might compare, we ran a few SQL queries against our local catalog/circulation system.

The highlights:

If we limit ourselves to books that might have been expected to circulate (meaning we’re not counting reference books, e-books  or government documents), we found that since December 31, 1989, we have added 958,303 books to our collection.  Nearly one million real books placed on real shelves.

By library:

  • 699,114   Fenwick
  • 186,547   Johnson Center
  • 42,080     Prince William Campus
  • 30,505     Arlington Campus

285,799 or 29% of those 958,303 monographs have never circulated.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve never left the shelf or that they’ve never been used. Walk past a “reshelving” area in any of our libraries and you’ll see that many items are in fact used but inside the library.  And though it would be bad form to speculate in any detail, surely some small number of items by-pass the circulation desk altogether as they’re taken on a one-way trip out the door.  Nevertheless, the circulation numbers are surely an adequate proxy for usage.

One more bit of fine print:  We’re counting items added to our collection since 1990 which isn’t precisely the same thing as items published since 1990.  Doubt the difference affects the numbers much.  Every year purchasing an older imprint becomes more difficult thus the monographs we acquire in book form today were most probably published fairly recently.

So which is better?  A higher number (like the 55% at Cornell) or something lower (like Mason’s 29%)?

There’s much to be said for the lower number, particularly if it tracks along with at least a moderate-sized collection.   It suggests we’re good stewards of collection development funds but with a cushion that indicates we’re not just purchasing the fads of the moment (isn’t that a downstream problem with patron-driven acquisitions?).  Further, I think it shows we’re not paying huge utility costs or stealing collaboration space just so we can warehouse books that were last touched the day they we put them in the stacks.    Probably safe to say it also suggests we’re likely taking advantage of alternative formats (e-whatever) as we build our collections.

A higher number…well, if a library’s never-circulated percentage is high enough (and I’ve seen estimates as high as 80% for some)  you reach the researcher’s library nirvana: a collection so deep that even the most obscure request will likely be immediately satisfied. That is certainly a worthy aspirational goal for any library.

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