Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Everybody knows that a large percentage of our books never leave the shelf. Or do we? 

December 17, 2015

Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about.

Hilaire Belloc, “The Microbe” in More Beasts for Worse Children (1912)


Sometimes, what everybody knows turns out to be a little shaky once you track down the source material. Years ago Martin Raish was bothered by then-frequent claims that information doubles every five years (or ten years, or every six months or, in one report, every sixty seconds). He collected instances of these claims and tracked down the sources they cited and found there wasn’t really any method used to measure anything; they were fuzzy guesses based at best on back-of-the-envelope calculations. But they expressed something that seemed solid about a specific kind of anxiety that was in the air at the time as information migrated from print to digital formats. (If you care to track his essay down, it appeared in a collection titled Musings, Meanderings, and Monsters, Too published back in 2003.)  

Another thing that everybody knows is that most books in academic libraries are never taken off the shelf. Or that 40 percent of them never circulate. Or that a tiny fraction of books get used while the rest get dusty. That librarians are terrible at guessing what people want and should stop trying.

Amy Fry of Bowling Green State University (and a former colleague of mine) wondered whether that is actually true, so dug into the evidence of these claims. It turns out, it’s pretty weak. Some of the things she found are that:

  • many of the articles making this claim rely on extrapolating from a single study conducted at one institution between 1969 and 1975.
  • studies that have different findings have been overlooked in most of the literature on this topic. These underreported studies complicate the picture considerably.
  • the findings of the handful of studies that are cited are often misrepresented.
  • a handful of influential people speaking at the right events can persuade a lot of librarians that something is obvious and true.
  • this failure in collection development is often part of an argument for investing in ebook collections and turning to patron-driven (or demand-driven) acquisitions; these are reported to be superior to hand-picked print collections though the metrics for ebook use and print circulation are not comparable. (A “use” counted by a vendor’s ebook platform is different than the use of a checked-out book.)
  • some people in the publishing industry would prefer to license ebooks rather than sell printed books because they can limit sharing among libraries and control how books are used; likewise, there are administrators who feel shifting to ebooks will save money on staff and space. Besides, everyone’s doing it.
  • librarians are highly influenced by consultants’ presentations and informal communications and don’t necessarily ask to see the data underlying what “everybody knows.”

At this moment in time, for a variety of reasons including claims on limited space, the lower labor costs of relying on vendor packages compared to selecting, processing, and cataloging books one at a time, and the pervasive belief that students would rather use electronic sources than printed books, librarians seem eager to buy into a narrative of failure when it comes to book selection. Fry uncovers questions we’ve failed to ask as we make decisions about collections and describes the almost contagious way that academic librarians adopt beliefs that – as it turns out – aren’t strongly supported by research.

Conventional Wisdom or Faulty Logic: The Recent Literature on Monograph Use and E-book Acquisition” is well worth a read.


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