The dream of a single library

Two states over from Vermont in the great state of Maine, our library colleagues at Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin are in the midst of what to many might seem to be a radical experiment. They have created what is known in Library Land as a shared approval plan for all three schools. They have all agreed to buy more or less all of their books through a popular vendor called Yankee Book Peddler, known as YBP. Every week, YBP sends shipments of books to only one of the three schools. The result of this is that they now think of themselves as a single library collection that happens to reside on three residential campuses relatively close to one another. A van shuttles books back and forth among the campuses on a daily basis. The consequence of this is that they are able to build a richer collection of materials with less money, at the cost of forcing their patrons to plan more, since they can no longer rely on their local (meaning, on campus) collection being complete.

In thinking about this disruptive practices, I also recall a scheme that my former colleagues at Kenyon and Denison cooked up. It’s called a floating collection. The idea is pretty simple. Kenyon buys a book. They catalog it and put it in the stacks. A Denison patron requests the book. The folks at Kenyon send it down the road to them. The Denison patron returns the book to the Denison library and then the Denison library puts it back into the stacks at Denison. This means that if the next person who wants the book is at Denison, they just go into the stacks and retrieve it, while if the next person who wants it is from Kenyon, then the book takes the trip back to Gambier.

Put together and thought of on a slightly grander scale,  these two fairly simple ideas have huge implications. What if, for example, all of the NESCAC schools, who collectively spend upwards of $40 million dollars per year on library materials, began to think of themselves as being a single library collection that worked together to build a single collection to serve their collective curricular and research needs? What if all of the materials that would need to travel among the participating schools only had to take one-way trips to the places where they were wanted? What happens to our notions of a unique collection when you outsource the selection process to the approval plan software that our book vendors write to emulate the expertise that our collection development librarians develop over a career of studying the local curricula on our campuses? And what happens when you think of this collection as needing to span the needs and interests of all the schools in this consortiuum?

While this notion of a floating collection of ‘books on paper’ that sloshes around the northeast corridor of the United States may appear untenable for any number of reasons, there are of course other strong forces within the publishing economy that suggest that now is not the time to invent new models for supporting an old, and perhaps soon-to-be obsolete format: the physical monograph. Print-on-demand technologies like the espresso book machine and qoop, devices like amazon’s kindle, and large-scale digitization efforts like google books all give anyone paying attention pause. What if the demise of the mass-market or not-so-mass-market printed book happens faster than anyone ever expected? What if we grow quickly accustomed to reading our books on screens? What if we manufacture on-site or on-demand just-in-time the books that we need, rather than collecting miles and miles of books just in case?

As anyone who has paid attention to library budgets over time, the shift to digital has produced exactly the opposite budgetary effects as one might have hoped for. The world of analog print is a world organized around sharing. Libraries have been heroes in developing infrastructure and policies to allow for broad and generous interpretations of copyright law that have enabled interlibrary loan, and in fact the very act of loaning out one’s collection to patrons. The digital revolution, while making the activity of sharing technically trivial, has also tied our hands. Instead of relying on fair use and the rights associated with first purchase, the shift to licensing instead of outright purchase has limited our ability to share. In the new world of e-books, the resource sharing that we’ve enjoyed in the world on analog books is very much in question.

What can a small liberal arts college and its library do in the face of all this uncertainty? Do we stay the course and stick to the tried and true? Do we circle the wagons with like-minded friends and hope that we can wait it out while this storm passes? What role if any can we play in the definition of the rules of engagement for this new world?


  • #   Ryan Kellett on 06.04.09 at 8:46 pm     

    Good to see you blogging again, Mike!

    I read an article a few weeks back about colleges in close proximity sharing public safety officers — that is radical. Sharing books is much more logical, but it’s important to factor in the environmental weight of less books versus more car/mail travel to get books places.

  • #   Steve on 06.08.09 at 1:30 pm     

    As far as I know, Vermont has one print-on-demand machine which is publicly accessible, at the Northfield Bookstore in Manchester Center. Perhaps a destination for a little library field trip? Check it out:

  • #   Brenda Ellis on 06.17.09 at 10:28 am     

    I agree we should form a partnership like CBB with similar libraries in our region. Williams would be the most logical for us to start with. Rather than combine our approval plans and alternate who gets the shipment, it might be better to expand and divide up the publishers for approvals and let faculty and librarians submit firm orders for those critical titles we didn’t get but want in our own collection. There should always be a role for faculty and librarians in selection. There are too many small or specialized publishers to include them all and faculty/librarians can pinpoint the most useful titles so that money is conserved and good titles are selected (a recent comparison at Midd of approval vs. individual selection showed that in almost all categories the individually selected titles circulated more, despite most of these selections not being from the top approval publishers).

    However, there is still a delay in borrowing so I’d love to see us go together on a e-book plan with a portion of our budget (could be with just Williams or with our whole NExpress consortium). We’d pay more per title to have the book be available to all, unlimited users, but between all of us buying titles, we’d amass a good collection relevant for liberal arts colleges. (The Netlibrary experiment was a failure due to the wrong partners, 1 user at a time per book, and limitations of the NetLibrary platform). But the idea was good. If done within NExpress it would be very easy for our users since they already use it for print materials and get frustrated when they find something that they can’t access. But we would need to spend equal (or weighted shares) of money. As for the future, technology (the search tools) is still driving people back to the print (circulation of print books is strong) so it will probably be a combination of both for quite some time. Much more could be said. This would be a good brown bag topic.


  1. a dream of one library… : A blog @ all things LIS

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