ATG Original: Seeking Long-Term Solutions to the Future of Collections: Part 1 – Operating in a Connected World

by | Jan 9, 2020 | 0 comments

by Nancy Herther

In September the Pew Research Center released a survey which found that “roughly seven-in-ten U.S. adults (72%) say they have read a book in the past 12 months in any format, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since 2012.” Print still dominates, although audio books have seen an increase. And nearly four-in-ten Americans only read print books.  Clearly print isn’t dead.

In the October OCLC Research study, The US and Canadian Collective Print Book Collection: A 2019 Snapshot, the WorldCat producer provides an overview of the collective print book holdings – as represented in WorldCat – which includes 59.2 million distinct print book publications, based on 994.3 million holdings. The report projected that the numbers continue to grow, resulting in becoming more dilute, in terms of holdings duplication…[and] the collection is globally diverse in terms of country of publication and language of content

One of the key findings of their study is that “the US and Canadian collective print book collection is growing more ‘dilute’: that is, growth in the number of distinct print book publications exceeds growth in total print book holdings, which means that the average number of holdings per print book publication is falling. This suggests that duplication, or overlap, across local print book collections may be lessening.”

The OCLC study, written by OCLC Senior Research Scientist Brian Lavoie, used a collective collections approach for two reasons: “First, it demonstrates that the concept of a US/Canadian collective print book collection, far from being purely notional, can, in fact, be defined precisely and have its properties described using library data. Second, collective collections are growing in importance both as a source of intelligence about—and ultimately, the focus of—services that operate across collection boundaries, such as shared print management, group-scale discovery, and resource sharing.”

Discussions on space, collections and the future are not new to libraries – and neither is collaboration.  We have existing library partnerships that have proven the value of cooperation and provided organizational structures to support their development and existence. Three notable examples are WorldCat, the HathiTrust and the Internet Archive.

Source: Pew Research Center Jan 8 – Feb 7 2019 Survey


WorldCat is the manifestation of the creativity and innovation of the staff of OCLC and thousands of librarians,” their website proclaims. “Unique in scale and unparalleled in data quality, WorldCat makes [member] library collections findable and accessible around the world.” In over 45 years, this collaboration has allowed people around the world to freely use the database to find information on books and other material and has massively changed how libraries themselves catalog and locate materials.

However, today we are facing a different type of conundrum. In an article titled “Shaping a National Collective Collection: Will your Campus Participate,” in the July 2011 issue of Library Issues, Sam Demas (consultant and former Carleton College Librarian) and Wendy Pradt Lougee  (University of Minnesota Dean of Libraries) noted that “most academic libraries, including the 80+ high-density storage facilities, are already at or are quickly approaching storage capacity…isolated, institution-by-institution curation of the nation’s library collections is no longer a sufficient strategy.” Additionally, academic and research libraries are in the midst of a   transition from a collections-based model to a more diffuse services-based model, being asked to take on new campus roles.

A recent editorial by Wendi Arant Kaspar in College and Research Libraries noted the changes can be seen even in job advertisements, noting that a “brief examination of the change in librarian positions demonstrates a definite shift to engaging in the formation of information through analysis or assessment, data-driven practice, and scholarly publication. It is an acknowledgment that librarians are not just custodians of information but are also creators of information. It is not that this is a new role—but that it looks different now and the recognition of the importance of these efforts has been brought into the spotlight.”


HathiTrust is a unique partnership of academic & research institutions to use the Google digitization project collectively to make advanced access to the contents of millions of previously print-only monographs, gathered into a searchable, shared database that has significantly enhanced research access to the printed cultural record. Through the HathiTrust Research Center researchers are able to do more advanced searching and text analysis to meet the technical challenges and vast opportunities available with digital text analysis.

As their website notes: “Founded in 2008, HathiTrust is a not-for-profit collaborative of academic and research libraries preserving 17+ million digitized items. HathiTrust offers reading access to the fullest extent allowable by U.S. copyright law, computational access to the entire corpus for scholarly research, and other emerging services based on the combined collection. HathiTrust members steward the collection — the largest set of digitized books managed by academic and research libraries — under the aims of scholarly, not corporate, interests.” This partnership has broadened the collections of member libraries, opened access broadly across the globe and worked to apply copyright laws to maximize access to the world’s literature, governmental publications and other materials.

Source: HathiTrust Digital Library


Current copyright law limits what libraries are able to provide for their clients, especially those people needing texts beyond the one-user-at-a-time access window. As a part of their arguments for broader copyright access, the American Library Association (ALA) distills their perspective as:

“The vast majority of copyrighted works in library collections were purchased or were acquired through license agreements. Often libraries pay more for copyrighted works than would an individual. This is especially true of subscriptions to periodicals, to ongoing reference works, and to electronic information. These higher rates are presumably to account for multiple uses in libraries. Libraries often aggregate their purchases or licenses to enhance their buying power. In the electronic environment, this may mean that a consortium of libraries negotiates on behalf of all its members, or a state library agency may negotiate agreements on behalf of all the public libraries in a state.”

ALA notes in summary, “debate on such crucial policy matters is healthy. Adapting policy to rapid technological change is never easy. It makes all parties nervous because they know they cannot accurately foretell the future.” And given the proprietary nature of information and knowledge today – as evident in the Open Access Movement and copyright challenges – libraries continue to work to push for greater access and legal sharing of information.

Self-proclaimed Digital Librarian, Brewster Kahle, has opened new opportunities for libraries and the entire human population for knowledge and information: “Not everyone has access to a public or academic library with a good collection, so to provide universal access we need to provide digital versions of books. We began a program to digitize books in 2005 and today we scan 1,000 books per day in 28 locations around the world.” This vision has moved us closer to a global information powerhouse.


Founded nearly a quarter century ago, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive (IA) is working to create a truly universal library that is free and providing access to all knowledge to all the peoples of the world – today and in the future. The Internet Archive is already an amazing resource of a wide (and growing) collection of the cultural and intellectual assets of our world.  Today, this includes:

“The Internet Archive serves millions of people each day and is one of the top 300 web sites in the world. A single copy of the Internet Archive library collection occupies 45+ Petabytes of server space (and we store at least 2 copies of everything). We are funded through donations, grants, and by providing web archiving and book digitization services for our partners.”

The IA has become a major international player in the online web space and provides content freely, openly and with a strong sense of mission. Given the recent donation of television news coverage from the estate of Marion Stokes – which covers major news and other programming from the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 until December 14, 2012. The approximately 70,000 VHS tapes are currently being digitized. The collection of information never stops, and IA is ready, willing and able to take advantage of any opportunities that arise.


At the 2019 Charleston Conference, attendees were given not only a rousing pep-talk and Internet Archive (IA) update by Brewster Kahle but first word an important new  venture that will build not only on the strength of IA’s collections but provide important benefits for readers across the globe. Better World Books (BWB), an online for-profit bookseller with strong charitable heart was certified by the non-profit group B Lab  as a B Corporation in 2008, noting the company’s focus on goodwill and their policy to donate books or a percentage of its profit to literacy programs around the world.

The company gets much of their used book inventory “from regular book drives at over 1,800 colleges and universities and donations from over 3,000 library systems, in addition to donation boxes found on corners and on college campuses….To date, Better World Books has donated almost 27 million books worldwide, has raised close to $29 million for libraries and literacy, and has saved more than 326 million books from landfills.” The company processes as many as 30 million incoming books per year, a third of which are sold and another third are donated to partner organizations. So, what about the other third?  Not wanting to discard books of value, the company began to look at their options.

In 2019, the Better World Books team contacted the IA about creating a stronger relationship, or even a buyout to the Archive. Instead the leaders of each group came up with a different plan:  Better World Books was acquired by Better World Libraries, a nonprofit company that is “a mission-aligned, not-for-profit organization that is affiliated with longtime partner, the IA.”

BWB is building this new structure on their existing strong partnerships with other booksellers and nonprofits like Books for Africa. Their board includes many key people from libraries and other educational/nonprofit areas.  One of these, Jim Michalko, former president of The Research Libraries Group, Inc., noted that “this new relationship is a win for the library community. One of the biggest challenges facing libraries today is responsibly removing materials from their shelves so they can bring in more desirable materials or repurpose space to fit community needs. BWB has always been a trusted partner in this activity. Now, libraries can provide books to BWB knowing that a digital copy will be created and preserved if one doesn’t yet exist. That’s responsible collection management.”

This new relationship will allow BWB to provide a more stable stream of books for digitizing by the IA and allow the IA to dramatically increase their holdings. For libraries the advantage is clear: Any book that does not yet exist in digital form will go into a pipeline for future digitization, preservation and access. According to Kahle, “the Better World Books origin story is inspiring, and the service they provide to libraries is invaluable. These are our kind of people. We share their values, and we are proud to partner with Better World Books and libraries around the world to promote the goal of universal access to all knowledge.”

Better World Books has already made major contributions to the growth of the global internet library development.  As the company noted in their press release: “Better World Books has donated almost 27 million books worldwide, has raised close to $29 million for libraries and literacy, and has saved more than 326 million books from landfills. With the backing of the new not-for-profit Better World Libraries, BWB will enhance their valuable services to libraries and readers.”

These types of collaborations have become integrated into the organizational and operational patterns of research libraries. However, things aren’t stopping here.  Leaders in academic research environments are looking far beyond the local at other potential types of collaborations and efforts to further the goal of universal access and effective management and access schemes for the huge – and ever-growing – research collections both locally and across the globe.

These efforts represent some of the foundational moves that are being made to democratize access to information.  However, the growing masses of information – books, data, social media and so much more – that are needed by researchers today and in the future are causing research libraries to actively think outside the box of traditional collections. In Part two of this examination, we look more closely at collective collections and the work being done to reign in the growing avalanche of information, data and knowledge that is being produced and to guarantee structures that will guarantee future access.

Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.  [email protected]


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