Rightsizing Your Collection

Make the academic collection management process more intentional and user-centric

May 2, 2022

Illustration: ©cristinn/Adobe Stock

Academic librarians have long grappled with issues of collection size, quality versus quantity, and maintaining a core collection. In previous eras, libraries provided access to content by acquiring and owning print copies of titles to allow immediate access to users.

From a national perspective, we now understand that collections are hugely redundant and large portions go unused. Collections were built on a just-in-case basis over the course of centuries; when items needed to be close at hand and out-of-print titles were difficult and expensive to acquire, this was the best strategy to ensure access.

This strategy is no longer sustainable. But more importantly, it no longer serves the best interests of most academic library users. Today, collections—both print and digital—are only one component of a vast array of services academic libraries provide, including research support, data repositories and data research services, publishing services, performance and creative spaces, and much more.

The realities of space and resource availability and the demand for new services are forcing even the largest and best-funded academic libraries to acknowledge that they cannot, in fact, keep everything. They must make irreversible decisions about discarding an unprecedented amount of material accumulated over the past century.

At the same time, relatively little is known about the long-term impact of current withdrawal practices on the future quality of legacy print collections. There is a significant risk: If we all weed our collections individually and with little or no coordination, we’ll be left with a de facto national collection built on whatever remains.

From weeding to rightsizing

This is excerpted from Rightsizing the Academic Library Collection, 2nd edition by Mary E. Miller and Suzanne M. Ward (ALA Editions, 2021)

Rightsizing is an approach to counteract that bleak future. It is an ongoing process that maintains a collection’s optimal physical size by balancing such factors as:

  • building current collections that have a high potential for use in the short and medium terms
  • choosing electronic resources over print ones for most new acquisitions
  • identifying local collections of distinction
  • removing low-use titles that are widely held by other institutions
  • participating in shared print programs to reduce the number of lesser-used titles held in a consortium or region, while retaining enough working copies to meet occasional demand
  • withdrawing titles in physical formats that duplicate user-preferred, stable electronic access to the same material

Rightsizing, at its core, is a method for prioritizing which content libraries should keep, including titles of local and regional significance and titles that are held by very few other institutions. It usually involves an awareness of regional and consortium partners’ needs to conduct these same activities, and it employs a variety of collaborative approaches for collectively meeting users’ needs for less-used material. This process uses data decision tools to create candidate lists for withdrawal and retention that take into account many variables, including local criteria and the holdings in other institutions and trusted digital repositories.

Rightsizing is not the ruthless culling of a library collection, nor is it just the tentative and apologetic removal of “safe” material like old editions of textbooks and superseded reference works. It is a strategic, thoughtful, balanced, and planned process whereby librarians shape a collection by taking into account factors such as disciplinary differences; the impact of electronic resources on study, teaching, and research; the local institution’s program strengths; previous use based on circulation statistics; and the availability of backup print copies within the region for resource-sharing. Rightsizing is determined by an individual institution’s mission, scope, priorities, and responsibilities; a rightsized approach for one institution might be too conservative or too aggressive for another.

While rightsizing does, generally, result in the reduction of browsable print collections through the intentional application of criteria and use of analysis, the term rightsizing encompasses much more than this. Through the same thoughtful processes used for the removal of collections, the library may identify rare materials it wishes to physically preserve, digitize, or transfer to special collections. The library may also identify groups of materials that it wishes to commit to retain, either as part of a shared print program or on its own.

The best of intentions

The rightsizing approach suggests intentionality throughout the collection management process—that the same care used in the initial process of selecting materials should be used throughout the life of an item. It is a holistic, data-informed approach to responsibly managing physical collections that allows libraries to thoughtfully determine not only what must be withdrawn, but also what should be retained, such as titles of local and regional significance and titles that are held by very few other institutions.

For decades, many academic libraries have deferred routine periodic analysis and strategic withdrawals. Alternatively, some libraries have built extensions and storage facilities and filled them with low-use material that is widely duplicated elsewhere.

One of the positive aspects of deferring this collection maintenance, however, is that both technology and national infrastructure are finally advancing to a point where libraries can more easily make decisions about whether to retain or withdraw large portions of their collections while ensuring that users will still be able to get hold of the materials they need. No longer must each individual library weed in a vacuum, nor must staff physically handle every single piece during the decision-making process.

Today librarians can easily compare local holdings across a consortium, region, country, and the world to make data-driven batch decisions that are based not just on local circulation figures but also on factors such as the relative scarcity of some print titles, the holdings of specific peer or partner libraries, full-text availability from a stable vendor, and many other considerations.

Improving the user experience

The reasons why libraries rightsize their collections are many, complex, and often interrelated. Space is an obvious reason; any growing physical collection cannot continue to occupy the same finite space indefinitely. Coupled with this is the need to use library space differently, or pressure to meet other campus priorities by finding space for new or expanding programs and services.

Large libraries that in the past seldom discarded  anything have found that over time their collections have grown enormously, and the cost of maintaining low-use material has risen out of proportion to the utility of having it available onsite or nearby, especially when much of this material is now available in digital equivalents.

Maintaining no- and low-use material also represents real opportunity costs: In what other ways might the library have spent those maintenance funds for better-used and more appreciated programs, services, and materials? Even when comparing the cost of storing collections onsite with remote storage, there are significant costs associated with keeping low- or no-use materials on browsable shelving.

Obsolescence is another major reason for rightsizing. The information in some books eventually goes out of date, although at different rates for different disciplines. Some parts of a library collection are now in less desirable formats, such as microform, and many other items are outdated, physically deteriorated, duplicated in newer and preferred formats, or unused because of program changes or other reasons, such as a lack of local academic interest. Users increasingly prefer—or will at least use—electronic resources, which provide 24/7 access when visiting the library is inconvenient or impossible, as is the case with the growing number of distance learners.

A further concern is that as collections grow and age, users will find it increasingly difficult to identify and locate relevant material on crowded shelves. Some studies have shown that books located on the uppermost and lowermost shelves are used less frequently than books shelved at more easily accessible levels. Circulation staff must spend more time shifting books to try to make more room. Crowded stacks may also be prone to shelving errors, thus requiring more staff hours for shelf reading.

While recovering space, removing unpopular formats, and avoiding further building costs are all important reasons to rightsize a collection, at the heart of any rightsizing project stands the core value that the effort is being undertaken to improve the user experience. Libraries can facilitate browsing by students and faculty and increase the relevance of the existing collection to current curricular needs by removing dated or irrelevant titles from open shelves.

Rightsizing projects should ideally be undertaken in the same user-centric spirit as collection development: as a complement to the activity of building the collection to meet user needs. Rightsizing shapes the collection to help users find relevant, up-to-date material quickly and easily, and provides access to publications that users prefer in a paper format.

Collective collections

A growing number of libraries also view contributing to the collective collection as a key component of user-centered rightsizing activities. Collective collections, also known as shared print programs, involve mostly academic or research libraries collaborating to retain, develop, and provide access to their physical collections. By consolidating the retention of little-used items across multiple institutions, libraries can protect the scholarly record while reclaiming library space and reducing the costs of maintaining duplicate titles.

In 2014 OCLC issued Right-Scaling Stewardship: A Multi-Scale Perspective on Cooperative Print Management, a report that looked at the issue both from the perspective of one of the member libraries and from the perspective of the entire consortium. The authors stated that shared print strategies not only focus on reducing redundancy among member libraries but can also identify both local and group strengths.

For example, while the print book collection at Ohio State University Libraries in Columbus duplicated much of the other consortium members’ collections, researchers also found that each local collection had a significant element of rare titles that were not widely held by other partners. They noted that, when it comes to titles, “uniqueness is rare, but rareness is common.”

The report concluded that “managing, providing access to, and preserving the collective print book resource must be a shared responsibility, because no single institutional collection (or even group-scale resource) has a reasonable approximation of the complete corpus of material, either overall or in any particular subject area.”

Lingering questions

When rightsizing, a single library should keep titles that are rare or scarce—that is, only a few copies remain within a prescribed set of institutions—even if local patrons no longer use them. Not only will these titles be maintained for the scholarly community in general, but they will also form at least part of the library’s contribution to future cooperative print-management efforts. Research suggests that 75% or more of the print books in any given North American region are held by five or fewer libraries in that region, meaning that scarcity is fairly common.

But a large question concerns the number of print copies that should be retained and where they should be located. While undertaking a rightsizing project, a common issue that staff at Wesleyan University Library in Middletown, Connecticut, heard was: “Yes, the books being considered for withdrawal are held by at least 30 other libraries in the United States—for now. But what if some or all of those libraries decide to withdraw their copies?” By participating in formal shared print programs with a memorandum of agreement that copies will not be withdrawn without consultation with other members, libraries can begin to address this type of concern.

Rightsizing is not a perfect process, and inevitably there will be a few mistakes, especially with large, retroactive projects that involve tens or hundreds of thousands of volumes—or even in the routine collection maintenance that rightsizing also requires. But none of these errors are irreparable if librarians focus on withdrawing low-use books that are widely held in print elsewhere, or on journals that either have electronic equivalents or are readily available through interlibrary loan.

Developing and building a consensus for thoughtful and strategic withdrawal criteria reduces the likelihood of many errors. It is important to focus on the overall benefits of reducing the physical collection, rather than agonizing over the few items that may need to be borrowed or replaced later.


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