Friday, April 29, 2011

The Current Collection and Services

wild dogwood, Blackwood woods
Thanks flickr. This photo displays *much* better than when I try to use blogger.

Let me begin by saying that our library's collection of printed books is increasingly out-of-date and shrinking. Printed books, once perhaps the primary focus of library collections, have for a number of years been demoted to just one of many available types of media. The Internet is not entirely to blame -- even before electronic collections hit their heyday, printed books faced stiff competition for dollars from periodicals. (Although, come to think of it, was electronic access to journals partly to blame for the disproportionate rise in periodical subscription costs?)

Unfortunately, a certain segment of our student population is not particularly sophisticated academically or technologically. And for these students, the easiest gateway to learning to use the library is through printed books. I think this is why plenty of instructors specifically assign students to use printed books. Invariably, these students reject our selection of e-books because they see them as too complicated or equivalent to the Internet, which their instructors warned them away from. This is a pity, particularly in light of the wealth of academic e-book titles we have available through ebrary, but it's not always something librarians can correct, no matter how gently or persistently we try.

I feel I'm swimming against the tide when I try to make the case that printed books are still important to our users. And I do understand that at a commuter school where enrollment for online classes is growing, off-campus access must be a priority. The climate is not right to advocate for allocating more money to improve and increase the size of our printed book collection. 

There is a company advertising on NPR right now with the slogan "People when you want them, technology when you don't," and I think that captures what we are struggling with. We try to staff a physical reference desk in addition to providing chat (instant messaging), phone, email, and SMS (text messaging) reference services, as well as providing largely unmediated web resources such as LibGuides, LibAnswers, and a vibrant library web page -- not to mention library presence on Facebook and Twitter.

Similarly, we try to have a physical library with books and DVDs and even archives of certain printed periodicals, while also collecting e-books, streaming media, and of course online subscriptions to journals. But rather than building a coherent collection, sometimes it feels like we are just being spread thinner and thinner -- our printed books are all old in one area because we subscribe to a great e-book collection in the same discipline; the streaming media fails when there is not enough bandwidth; we have foreign language dictionaries online but not in print for the student who wants to take one to a test; our e-books can't be used outside of our system or borrowed on interlibrary loan, etc. etc. etc.

Of course, we usually only hear about the problems rather than the successes, and it's possible our library is serving the majority of patrons admirably.  And I don't really have a solution to offer, except that perhaps we should be treating this as a difficult balancing act rather than irreversibly prioritizing one type of media, format, or access point over another.

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