'What Not to Buy: How to Identify Books Likely to be Unread Before Purchase.'.

Author:Greiner, Tony


Large numbers of books in academic libraries are purchased, processed and shelved but are never read, browsed or touched by the readers they are intended to serve. This problem first received widespread recognition in Kent's 1979 study of materials use at the University of Pittsburgh Library. Kent found that over a seven-year period, almost 40 percent of the books in that collection were never checked out. This replicated results of a 1961 study of the University of Chicago Library by Fussler and Simon, and similar results at a junior college library, College of the Desert. (Hostrop, 1966)

Despite the development of WorldCat, which makes for fairly easy Interlibrary Loan (ILL) and easy access to items in consortia, recent studies demonstrate that the problem of too many unread books persists. A 2012 study of the Asbury Theological Seminary libraries in Kentucky and Florida found that, depending on the campus, only 30 to 37 percent of new monographs purchased between 2003 and 2008 were used. (Danielson, 2012) A 2008 study of seven elite liberal arts colleges (Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Colby, Colorado, Haverford and Swarthmore) revealed that 68 percent of titles in these undergraduate libraries never circulated. 5

Unfortunately, the problem of too many books going unread is not solved by joining a consortium. A 2011 study of the CARLI consortium in Illinois found that 33 percent of the books in the consortia were unused, (Wiley, 2011) and the Lingnan University in Hong Kong found that the number of unused items in its collection remained unchanged even after it joined a consortium of eight university libraries. (Cheung, 2011) In 2013, Sustainable Collection Services, a company that provides use analysis for academic libraries reported that of over 21 million books it has surveyed in fifty-seven libraries, 39 percent of the items never checked out. (Sustainable, 2013) Libraries continue to buy books that readers do not want or need.

While the library of a research institution may claim that its mission of supporting future research calls for this "just in case" acquisition, the establishment of consortia and computerized ILL make that argument less tenable. Is it really necessary that the 37 members of the OrbisCascade consortium own nine copies of The Fractured Community: Landscapes of Power and Gender in Rural Zambia? Wouldn't one copy, or two tops, of this book be enough? The argument that a book only used once might have great value to a single researcher does not justify multiple unread copies of a book.

Community and junior college libraries, particularly members of a consortia have little justification for 'just in case" purchasing, but there is evidence that many of these institutions are also buying large numbers of books that are never used. Ettelt's 1977 study found that over a nine-year period, 65 percent of books in a community college library had not been used. For current data, Sustainable Collection Services was asked specifically about book use in community college libraries, and they replied via email that they checked four community college libraries and found unused books accounted for 26, 38, 52 and 53 percent of those collections, respectively.

It is well established that for books already in the library, the best predictor of future use is how recently a book was used in the past. (Cheung, Chung and Nesta, (2011) Slote (1997) and Trueswell (1969.) While that knowledge will help librarians when weeding or placing books into storage, it does not give guidance on what books should have never purchased to begin with. To do that, libraries and their selectors need to know, in advance of purchase, which print books are likely to never be used. This study addresses that problem.

Literature Review

This study found a relationship between use and the number of volumes in the Library of Congress Classification Ranges held by the Mount Hood Community College library. (The other libraries used Dewey.) This confirmed the work of Trueswell, who found a strong relationship between the number of volumes in an Library of Congress Classification (LCC) and use of those volumes. The higher the number of volumes in a range, the more likely that an individual title in that range will receive use. Similar results were found by McGrath (1976) who found that course enrollment was a predictor of whether or not a book would be used. (Presumably a library would buy more titles for areas with higher enrollment.) These findings were confirmed by recent studies of Illinois' CARLI consortium (Wiley, Chrzastowski and Baker) and the Ashbury Seminary Library. At the two campuses of the Ashbury library, books from classification ranges with more than 600 titles were 11-14 percent more likely to circulate than books from smaller ranges. (Danielson)

There has not, to my knowledge, been a published source about the relationship between the type of publisher of the book and its use. The study of use in the CARLI consortium in Illinois came close. The researchers recorded circulation by publisher, but unfortunately, the names or types of publisher were not identified. It did report that, over a five-year period, the "high use" publishers, which included a mix of scholarly and non-scholarly publishers, had an average use per title average ranging from 1.75 to 9.39. (In the CARLI study, publishers whose books circulated on average two or more times in five years were considered "high use.") Among the "low use" publishers were a number that had very low or no-use throughout the consortium. Note, that means there were publishers whose books did not receive a single use throughout the entire consortium. (Wiley, Chrzastowski and Baker.)

Other studies that looked at which books get used examined approval plans, book reviews, and patron-driven acquisition. Ellis et al, (2010) found that books purchased via approval plans received more use than books selected by librarians. Still, depending on the Library of Congress Classification of the book, the percentage of unused books ranged from 37 to 66 percent.

Book reviews as an indicator of future use have been studied by Jobe and Levin-Clark who found, in undergraduate...

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