Sunday, June 02, 2013

The digital sensitivity of a library collection

"How many books are there in the library and what are the annual circulation statistics?" says the secondary school administrator.

My first response is, what do you think that measures?
Books and Books
Okay, it's budget allocation time, so the underlying issue is financial competition with other development goals.  It's a request to justify the collection we're building as a new secondary school, finishing our second year of operation.

But let's start with the devil in the detail of our circulation statistics.
  • Browsing vs. Check-out:  A lot of books are taken off the shelf, but don't get taken out.  They're read  in the library, then left on tables.  Every day we have to go around and pick them up.  The most popular browsing material seems to be self-help and well-being books (yes, this includes sex-ed), art and photography books, poetry, graphic format (think: cartoons, comics and manga), middle-school novels (because: teachers regularly bring their classes in for free-choice, silent sustained reading), and Chinese-language books (reasons: various). 

    The fact that we're open until 9:30pm four nights a week for boarding house study time increases students' browsing potential within the library -- without having to check books out.

  • In-library-use-only Displays: Large numbers of curriculum-related books are kept on display tables while a grade has a particular focus - and students are asked NOT to take them out, for mass maximum access.  Students' ability to scan-to-PDF pages or chapters from books makes in-library-use-only more manageable.  Recent displays have supported units on peace and conflict resolution, human rights and up-standers/heroes, the Vietnam war, religions of the world, genetics, South Africa, etc.
  • Library resources are intertwined with those of the English Dept. -- so our circulation statistics should be considered jointly.
    • Some English teachers use the school library for their class library, checking out a box of books for in-class circulation over a long period.
    • Multiple copies of titles bought by the English Dept. are available on library shelves for general loan -- when not needed by a particular teacher -- rather than letting them languish in departmental book cupboards.
    • The library buys multiple copies of recently-published titles as part of the annual Red Dot Book Awards, and those books are automatically shifted to the English Dept. (both in the catalog and on the shelves) each June.
  • In such a new library, large numbers of new items are constantly being added.  Many resources haven't had much chance to be discovered and taken out.
Each school will have its own context that weakens the power of plain circulation statistics.

What is the ideal number of books in a secondary school library?  In different countries at different times, school library associations, whether national or regional, have cited research and quoted numbers.  12? 16? 20? 36? books per student?  I know schools that swear by each of those. 

But what are we counting?  Just physical books?

Avian books 34

Our collection size and substance is definitely affected by students' access to digital resources, due to our 1:1 Macbook program for grades 6-12.

To start with, we have no need for a separate reference section -- as databases provide that so well.

What doesn't the internet deliver as well as physical volumes in a school library?
  • Large-format art and design books -- ones you can spread out on a table and see many images at once.  Big beautiful books to browse.
  • Graphic novels and sophisticated picture books.  Same idea.  Big visuals.
  • Poetry.  Yes, you can find poems on websites, but due to copyright you can't find whole collections of one poet.  And so many poetry books are physical works of art in themselves.
  • Playscripts.  Again, a collection not accessed every day by everyone, but a godsend to someone interested in drama.
  • Special collections in one physical location, available for browsing -- Singapore books, self-help and well-being books, third-culture kids and global nomad books, "vintage" books (books published prior to 1950, culled from piles of donations, are a fascination to our students).  World languages (mother-tongue) collections come under this category, too.
  • Books the average person isn't going to buy for their home library.  For example, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.  Price: Expensive. Who is reading this, you ask?  Not just the art teachers.  Yes, they're assigning it -- because they're thrilled to have it available. 
  • Narrative and visual non-fiction -- about science, math, history, etc.  Biographies fall in this category. 
  • Experience with non-fiction book layout standards -- e.g., how to use a table of contents, index, appendices, etc.   I find middle school teachers are particularly concerned with giving their students access to and experience with non-fiction books precisely because the internet doesn't easily allow them to absorb the conventions of research texts. I'd prefer to let databases provide (up-to-date) access to basic science, humanities, and geography information, but the teachers are still requesting a physical collection.
  • Fiction.  We're still delivering fiction via physical books for the time being.  While ebooks are growing in popularity and availability, the software to be able to lend ebooks (e.g., Overdrive) isn't cheap or doesn't have a good enough interface yet (e.g., Destiny), plus the whole DRM (digital rights management) situation isn't easy.  Several international school libraries have bought the ebook lending software only to find the books their students want to read aren't available as ebooks (legally) outside the US or UK.  

    Our students spend a lot of time in front of a screen and when we have tried to deliver English-class texts digitally (e.g., for works out of copyright and readily available in epub format), there has been push-back. The school's standard-issue laptop isn't the ideal ebook device.  I am also not convinced that the library should invest in mobile ereaders to lend out.

    Discoverability -- seeing what's available to borrow -- is also much harder with a digital loan collection.  It's not like sweeping your eyes over a bookshelf.  (I find Overdrive very frustrating on the browsing-for-titles front.)  
Making the virtual visible is one of my library mantras.  Not just making the library's digital presence visually evident, but also creating a physical space that provides a sense of the world's knowledge -- organized in some fashion.  The environment is the "third" teacher --  therefore the library, as a physical space, should be a powerful influence upon learning.

What I think the library space needs to do better is to connect the user with the online resources that complement and expand the physical resources on the shelf.  To let digital nuggets convince you to read a whole book; it could be a video of the author speaking or an animated illustration of a book's argument or just a great article related to the book, freely available online.
The book

I never answered the question of how many books is enough.  This comes back to the question of what we want to measure in the library - and how it can be measured.  I'll save my proposed dashboard for a separate post. 

Images via Flickr:   
Books and Books by Kara Allyson 
Avian books 34 by Mal Booth 
The book by giopuo

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