Improving Internal Communications at Georgetown University Library
by Melissa Jones (English & Humanities Librarian, Georgetown University)
Column Editor: Michael A. Arthur (Associate Professor, Head, Resource Acquisition & Discovery, University of Alabama Libraries, Box 870266, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487; Phone: 205-348-1493; Fax: 205-348-6358)
Column Editor’s Note: In this month’s edition of Being Earnest with Collections, I am featuring a talented librarian I met a few years ago when we served together on the Gale Library Advisory Board. Melissa is a dedicated librarian who is well spoken. In this article, Melissa provides best practices to improve communication between the various stakeholders involved with decisions about subscription review and cancellation. Many of us have been involved with reduced purchasing power caused by budget reductions, inflation, or even flat budgets. In the article you will find important takeaways that may help if your library is anticipating a large scale review of titles with possible cancellations. My thanks goes to Melissa for her detail and efforts in making this information available to ATG readers. — MA
After several years of steady collections growth, Georgetown University Library (GUL), like most academic libraries, faced initially flat and then declining collection budgets. A flat budget in FY15 prompted the library to assemble a task force of librarians to make small-scale reductions in order to account for serials inflation.1 Although the library previously had various standing committees to address collection development and management concerns — the Collection Development Council (2000-2010) and the Allocations Committee (2011-2013) — these groups had been disbanded in the course of key personnel changes. Without an existing standing committee, a task force was convened to deal with the collection review decisions needed to balance the budget. The collection review also coincided with two crucial vacancies — the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources and Services and the Head of Collections, Research, and Instruction — adding to the existing challenges of the collection review.
Under these circumstances, the Collections Review Task Force (CRTF) was formed in fall 2014 with the charge to “establish and apply objective criteria for analyzing the content, cost, and actual/projected usage of titles. To ensure that the library’s limited resources are allocated appropriately, they will work closely with liaison librarians who will inform and involve interested faculty members.” The task force comprised the Head of Technical Services, the Head of Electronic Resources and Serials, the Collections Coordinator, and three additional subject librarians, representing a variety of disciplinary perspectives. For the first round of cuts, the CRTF was directed to find savings from within current electronic resources and serials subscriptions, standing orders, newspaper subscriptions, and microform subscriptions. Since the collections hadn’t been holistically reviewed in a significant amount of time, most of the initial cuts were for resources with low-to-no usage.
Concluding the first year of cuts and anticipating future cuts, the CRTF reached out to the subject librarians to solicit comments on and suggestions for improving the review process. To that end, the CRTF sent a survey asking for feedback on the following questions:
- What worked well in the collection review project this academic year?
- What did not work well in the collection review project? What would you suggest for improvement?
- Do you have other suggestions about how to approach the cuts in FY16?
From the survey the CRTF identified a number of ways it could improve its processes. Suggestions ranged from the review’s timing, which coincided with the busiest part of the fall semester, to internal communication processes and coordination of the review. The success of the project, in terms of meeting the budget reduction goal, would rise and fall on the active participation of all the subject librarians. With that in mind, the CRTF took the librarians’ critiques to heart and established several practices to ensure that information flowed smoothly and steadily to and from the task force and the subject librarians. While we couldn’t change the review’s timing, we could improve our methods of disseminating key information about the review.
In the following fiscal year, the university significantly reduced the library’s budget, requiring a concerted effort on the library’s part to meet the target cuts. In the FY16 review, no proverbial stone was left unturned. The task force and librarians systematically looked at all areas of expenditure from firm orders, approvals, and standing orders in the monograph collection to all resources with ongoing expenses, including individual journals, journal packages, databases, newspapers, and microforms. Cuts to the monograph collection were made across the board: an even percentage cut to all firm order funds and the cancellation of domestic approvals and standing orders. Reductions in our subscription resources required more attention by both the task force and the librarians, which made communication between these groups even more critical.
For FY16, the task force’s composition was slightly amended so that the membership was more representative. Librarians from technical services, electronic resources and serials, library administration, and five subject specialists representing the arts and humanities, business and professional programs, social sciences, sciences, and area studies now comprised the task force. The new iteration of the CRTF distributed the responsibility for communication across the subject librarians on the task force whereas the first year of cuts had put the onus of communication on the collections coordinator. The distributed communications model alleviated the pressure that had fallen on one librarian while allowing for increased personal contact with subject librarians. This also gave subject librarians a clear point of contact if they had questions for the task force. If there were particular questions related to a humanities discipline that arose, then the CRTF representative for that area would work with the appropriate librarians to gather their feedback.
Another crucial factor in the FY16 collections review was that the Library filled the vacancy for the Head of Collections, Research, and Instruction just prior to the fall 2015 semester. The newly hired head joined the task force and was instrumental in moving the review process forward and helping the library meet target goals for reducing collection expenditures. The new department head helped increase cohesiveness in the task force and provided a voice of authority when communicating review tasks to the subject librarians.
In order to share information with the librarians in real time, the task force used a shared Google Sheet to relay information as resources came up for renewal. For each database the electronic resources and serials department staff would add it to the spreadsheet along with information on the FY15 cost, the FY16 cost, the fiscal years impacted by the payments, potential savings, a due date for the review decision, the librarian primarily responsible, and space to record drop/keep recommendations along with comments. As resources were added to the review list, then updated usage statistics were pulled and placed in a readily accessible shared drive. The CRTF members worked closely with subject librarians to ensure that each of them had subscribed to receive e-mail updates regarding changes to the spreadsheet. This allowed all librarians to know in real time when resources were up for review and to see what the task force’s final decision had been. The due dates provided also clearly indicated how much time was available to review each resource. Even with the automated notifications, members of the task force would personally contact individual librarians when questions arose and when resources in their disciplinary areas came up for review.
In its first iteration, the CRTF had established criteria for reviewing resources; however, because the initial process lacked a systematic process for gathering feedback, the criteria weren’t always applied evenly. The criteria were designed to encourage librarians to consider the monetary and intellectual value of each resource and to discourage them from simply keeping all resources in their area without thoughtful analysis. As each resource came up for renewal, librarians were asked to recommend whether the library should keep or drop a particular resource. Any recommendation to keep a resource had to be accompanied by a justification form in which librarians considered the following factors:
- Usage stats, cost, cost per use
- Relevance to curriculum/research (e.g., class assignments, faculty input, etc.)
- Overlap analysis to determine overlap between collections
- Environmental scan (consider the resource’s contents in comparison with our other holdings, inclusion in LOCKSS, etc.)
- Percentage price increase
- Impact factor (for journals, where applicable)
To gather this information for the FY16 collections review process, the CRTF developed a justification form in Google Forms so that subject librarians had a streamlined, consistent way to provide feedback on resources. The form also allowed multiple librarians to review a given resource, which provided for cross-disciplinary review. The task force members relied heavily on the subject librarians’ assessments in order to make well-informed decisions. As an added benefit, collecting responses through the form meant that all responses could then be easily shared with the task force and considered in retention and cancellation decisions. Without a completed justification form, the default decision was to drop the resource.
While the Google form and spreadsheet were used primarily to track database renewal decisions, the CRTF also asked subject librarians to review individual journal subscriptions from EBSCO and Harrassowitz, journal packages, newspaper subscriptions, and microform subscriptions. While the CRTF did most of the analysis on the journal packages, the responsibility for reviewing other resource types was shared with the subject librarians. Each project was distributed via e-mail with links to appropriate resources such as usage statistics, review directions, and deadlines. Some of the deadlines were driven by vendor-set renewal dates whereas others were set by the task force, but regardless, the CRTF attempted where possible to allow adequate time for each review to take place. With careful coordination and communication between the task force and subject librarians, the library was able to successfully meet the collection reduction target and balance the library’s budget.
The importance of two-way communication between the task force and the librarians can’t be over-emphasized. The task force had the onus for sharing information with and responding to questions from the subject librarians in a clear and timely manner, but the subject librarians also were responsible for providing timely evaluations of resources and for communicating the priorities of the disciplines they represented. The dialogue that ensued was essential for the success of the review process.
The task force’s work highlighted the need for a standing committee to focus on library collections. At the task force’s recommendation, the library charged a Standing Committee on Collections (SCC) in FY17 to:
- Serve as an evaluative body for Library collections purchases and licenses
- Identify changes in scholarly publishing that the Library should address within the framework of its collections
- Conduct ongoing assessments of the Library collection
- Make determinations about cancellation or alteration of subscriptions to ensure that limited materials funds are expended appropriately
- Recommend action items and review GU’s participation in Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC) projects on a local level (i.e., any initial discussion would take place in SCC) based on information brought by GUL leadership from WRLC committees (e.g., Coordinated Collections Committee)
- Work with liaison librarians to review potential purchases, subscriptions, and trials
- Report SCC issues and decisions to liaison librarians, who will inform and involve faculty as cancellations, revisions, trials, and additions are made to the collection
The newly formed committee includes appointed members representing the humanities, social sciences, sciences, area studies, archives and special collections, and specified ex-officio members: the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources and Services, the Head of Collections, Research, and Instruction, and the Head of Electronic Resources and Serials. Similar to the CRTF, the SCC will serve as the front line for collection review and assessment projects and will build on the work of the task force.
Communicating well about collections within the library was crucial to the success of the review process and will continue to be crucial as the library makes collection decisions and defines collections strategies going forward. While the work of the task force laid the groundwork for improved communication about collections, the work is not complete. The new standing committee will have to continue to communicate well with subject librarians in timely and consistent manners in order to succeed. True two-way communication builds both trust and buy-in with broad collections decisions and strategic directions. We must all earnestly seek to have real, continuous dialogue about collection priorities, sharing information and listening well to one another.
- Georgetown University’s fiscal year runs from July to June, so FY15 encompasses July 2014 through June 2015.