Look on my reference works, ye mighty, and despair
August 7, 2008 1:28 PM   Subscribe

What proportion of books in the library will never be opened again?

AskMeFi librarians, confirm or refute my my library melancholy! Whenever I'm in the stacks at the main university library, I feel the need to take a few random books off the shelf and look at them, just because I feel that the vast majority of these books will never again be looked at by anybody. And I feel sorry for them.

Am I right? Take a big general university library like Memorial Library here at UW, with 3 million volumes; what proportion of these do we expect will never be opened again?
posted by escabeche to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This can be calculated for your library (each library would be different). In addition, you might be able to predict which subjects the books would be about that would not be "opened" (I take this to mean used, or read, or consulted).

With modern library software, statistics on circulation can be easily gathered. For books that don't circulate (reference, periodicals, etc.) usage studies can be done (sign: STUDY IN PROGRESS. PLEASE DO NOT RESHELVE BOOKS IN THIS SECTION.)

Past usage can predict future usage.
posted by feelinggood at 1:39 PM on August 7, 2008

One (fairly old) book that outlines the techniques is Weeding Library Collections : Library Weeding Methods (4th ed., 1997) by Stanley J. Slote. There are probably more recent works. Some libraries (not university or research libraries) use these statistics to help them decide which books to throw out.
University and research libraries keep everything.
posted by feelinggood at 1:45 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Heh, I know what you mean about research libraries. I remember an anecdote about a researcher who went into an old little-used research library and checked out a book that had been published in the early 1900's. The pages had not yet been slit open as no one had ever used it. When he commented to the librarian that it seemed a waste of money that the library purchased an unused book the librarian replied, "ah, but we bought it for you".
posted by saucysault at 2:06 PM on August 7, 2008 [65 favorites]

While in law school, I took great joy in avoiding my work and walking the stacks, trying to find the oldest book available for checkout (I seem to recall 1453, a text on ecclesiastical law).
posted by Ponderance at 2:27 PM on August 7, 2008

Here's a citation that says 73% of library books are never checked out. That sounds high to me, but I'm not sure how you could monitor which books have been opened/read without being checked out.

It used to be my childhood dream to read every book in the library, but I soon realized what a waste of time that would be. Some books deserve to go unread.
posted by mattbucher at 2:36 PM on August 7, 2008

I worked in the University of Illinois research stacks -- 10 floors of about a city block of books. I'd estimate 95% of them were never and would never be read, anecdotally.
posted by felix at 2:44 PM on August 7, 2008

That absolutely cannot be right. Libraries frequently assess their collections, and they often get rid of books that aren't no one is looking at. Space is a premium for any library I've ever know or worked for.
posted by agregoli at 2:48 PM on August 7, 2008

I think the important thing isn't so much whether they are checked out or not, but that they could be.
posted by gyusan at 2:50 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It really depends what kind of library you're talking about. My small town library has room for, I would guess, under 10,000 books and maybe 500 active users. They don't let stuff get stale-- other than trying to maintain a good local history area, and some of the classics, things get culled all the time if they're not being checked out. Only a small percentage never gets checked out at all.

On the other hand, a major institutional library like the New York Public, major college libraries, etc. get rid of very little, because they have a mission to be repositories, and so they have a high percentage of books that are never checked out, although they might be consulted from time to time by a researcher.

At my college library, long ago, I sometimes used to wander the stacks looking at random books, also. In the old days, the out-checker signed his or her name to the book, with a date. I'd find books that were last checked out 75 years earlier.
posted by beagle at 3:07 PM on August 7, 2008

I've recently been doing charity book sales where the stock is all donated ex-library books. We get anything that has not been checked out in 2 years. From a small library we get about 4,000 books every 3-4 months. We are normally able to sell over 3/4 of this, and the rest are pulped. Adult non-fiction sells the best, teen fiction the worst.

So even if a library book is never checked out, that doesn't necessarily mean it won't ever be looked at again.
posted by vodkaboots at 3:22 PM on August 7, 2008

When I was in college in the 1960s, I took out a book of Robert Southey epics. The card in it showed it had been taken out 3 times since (I think) 1829.

It was a sword-and-sorcery tale told in verse, and pretty good for that sort of thing.
posted by hexatron at 3:41 PM on August 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I see it as a similar thing to having land that is set aside for preservation, although it may never be used for anything. Good books should always be appreciated. But even if they are not actively used, it doesn't degrade the value of having them.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:23 PM on August 7, 2008

Libraries where they stamp the due date in the book are great for informally tracking this without access to their computer system. I've taken books out of the library that were last due back 10 years ago.
posted by smackfu at 4:43 PM on August 7, 2008

I was recently scouring my big state univerity's library and came across textbooks on using extremely out of date calculators and computers. Some of them were last checked out in the 80's. It makes me sad too.
posted by alligatorman at 4:43 PM on August 7, 2008

University libraries don't keep everything. I know someone working in one of the libraries on my campus, and they regularly cull their collection of books. To be fair, these are books for which there are multiple copies, and they only throw out those that are in poor shape or have not been checked out in quite some time. But they do get rid of them.
posted by vernondalhart at 5:04 PM on August 7, 2008

Just to clarify some of the above a bit: University libraries are classified differently for different sized colleges and universities. Each state usually has at least one "main" state University that is designated as the Research Library for the state...some have multiple that share acquisition loads to broaden their collection, but for most states one is all that can be afforded. These Research 1 schools rarely, if ever, toss anything (in library terms, we call it weeding).

So, for example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will VERY rarely toss anything, and if they do it's likely to be a duplicate holding. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is likely to be more aggressive in their weeding, assuming that on the off chance they ever need the book they don't have, they can borrow it from UNC-CH.

To answer the question: I would think, even in the smallest academic library, the percentage of book that will never be opened is very high...over 90%.
posted by griffey at 6:10 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

My university library keeps stats on everything they can keep stats on, and there are "do not reshelve" signs everywhere because they want to scan the barcode and log the usage before they put the book back. I'd be surprised if UW didn't keep stats too, for weeding and whatnot.
posted by eritain at 7:56 PM on August 7, 2008

>University and research libraries keep everything.

Not true. I know there's a disturbing program between a few unis in my town where they consolidate some collections at an offsite store. If, between the various institutions, they have more than one copy of a book, they'll burn the rest. It makes my SO cry.
posted by pompomtom at 10:22 PM on August 7, 2008

It doesn't make me sad. It makes me grateful to and impressed with the book-buyer who knew this was an amazing book. And it makes me happy that I can finally give it the appreciation it deserves. (That's why I keep it at my house all semester.)
posted by salvia at 11:09 PM on August 7, 2008

That absolutely cannot be right. Libraries frequently assess their collections, and they often get rid of books that aren't no one is looking at. Space is a premium for any library I've ever know or worked for.
Not me, but I worked with heritage collections. We never threw anything out. The library had a policy of collecting anything written by NZ authors. This included vanity press material: family histories, self published poets and the odd unreadable crackpot diatribe on random subjects just to make things interesting.

What you are saying about University libraries and special libraries may be true, and my experience of Public libraries is that they are brutal about weeding their collections* but I would hazard a guess that National Libraries subject to legal deposit would not have such a policy.

In light of this I don't think 73% is too high a number at all, might be too low. I bet there are thousands of books in these types of collections that will never have their spines cracked.

*good luck if you want to read something other than one of their multiple copies of "Harry Potter and the Whateverthefuck" in some public libraries.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 3:40 AM on August 8, 2008

Best answer: The classic study of library circulation statistics is Allen Kent's Use of Library Materials (1979), colloquially known as the 'Pittsburgh study'. Kent and his team looked at the books and periodicals acquired by the University of Pittsburgh library in 1969, and tried to calculate how often they were borrowed between 1969 and 1975. They came up with two major findings. First, a high proportion of books (over 40%) were never borrowed at all. Secondly, borrowing rates declined over time, i.e. a book acquired in 1969 was most likely to be borrowed in its first year of acquisition, but once it had been on the shelves more than a year its circulation gradually trailed off, and by 1975 a lot of books no longer circulated at all. They concluded that a large proportion of books (about 50%) failed a simple cost/benefit analysis and should never have been acquired in the first place.

The Pittsburgh study influenced library policy in a number of ways -- some good, others not so good. It encouraged librarians to look more carefully at circulation statistics (good) and also made them aware that a small percentage of books acccounted for a high percentage of borrowings. It taught university librarians to work more closely with academic staff in selecting books for acquisition (good). But it also led them to believe that most books had a fairly short shelf-life and could be discarded as obsolete after a certain number of years (not so good). The results can still be seen in a lot of small libraries, like my local public library, where (as I've lamented before) most books are now routinely discarded after two or three years, so that anyone wanting to familiarise themselves with, say, the best contemporary fiction of the last forty years (Updike, Roth, Mailer, et al) will find it extremely difficult.

In response to the Pittsburgh study, it has been pointed out that borrowing is not the same thing as use. Many books, particularly academic journals, are very heavily used in-house (go into any large university library and you will see students with a stack of journal volumes piled up on their desk) but very rarely borrowed. Librarians are also coming to realise that stocking their shelves with a small number of titles that (in library-speak) 'issue well', and discarding everything else, is not necessarily the best way to encourage people to visit the library. (Personal anecdote: a few weeks ago I went into my local library in search of some classic French novels to read on holiday in Paris. There was nothing -- literally nothing. Victor Hugo? Non. Alexandre Dumas? Non. Jules Verne? Non. Stendhal? Non. The section previously devoted to French and German literature had been emptied and replaced with three shelves of graphic novels. So I went home and ordered a couple of books from Amazon instead.) Conclusion: a wide and diverse selection of books -- even if some of those books are very rarely borrowed -- will attract a wide and diverse constituency of library users.

Further reading, found by Googling for 'circulation statistics' and 'obsolescence':

Deborah D. Blecic, Monograph use at an academic health sciences library: the first three years of shelf life. (An academic article which contradicts the results of the Pittsburgh study by arguing that 'a large percentage of [books] circulated and use did not decline sharply with age'.)

Carol Ann Hughes, The Myth of 'Obsolescence': the Monograph in the Digital Library. (Abstract only, but looks like an interesting article supporting my point that a wide variety of stock encourages a wide variety of use.)

Gapen & Milner, Obsolescence (pdf). (Some interesting statistics, e.g. less than 50% of library stock accounts for 99% of circulation.)

Carol Ann Hughes (again), Obsolescence or Resurgence? The Monograph in the Academy. (Another critique of 'obsolescence' with a nice quote from Northrop Frye that I hadn't come across before: 'In a sense, you can't lose in the humanities. If your book is any good it's a contribution to scholarship. If it's no good, it's a document in the history of taste.')
posted by verstegan at 5:21 AM on August 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

D.J. Enright, The Word

The sage said: We are all books
In the great Library of God.
(He was a bookish person.)

One asked: Does He ever
Take us out?
We spend our years as a tale that is told.

The sage said: His will be done
In the Library as it is Elsewhere.

One asked: But perhaps
He is only interested in first editions,
Not in reprints, abridgements, strip cartoons
Or other adaptations?

The sage said: His love speaks volumes.
He is a speed reader. He is no respecter
Of Bestseller lists.
He suffers the little magazines to come unto Him.

Some hoped that their jackets would be clean
And well pressed when the call was heard,
Their loins girded about, and their lights burning.

God thought: I wrote all the books.
Now they expect Me to read them.
posted by verstegan at 5:29 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately libraries are modernising these days, and they're using supermarket receipt-type checkouts instead of stamping dates in the back. The UTexas Library and Austin Public Library both do this, and it's awful. What, librarians don't have the wrist to stamp paper?

I worked in the main UTexas library (Perry-Castaneda) in summer 2001. At the end of my tenure I wrote several messages to future patrons and used a few books on the 5th and maybe the 3rd floors as time capsules to store them in. I even wrote the call numbers on a slip of paper, which sadly has since disappeared.
posted by spamguy at 6:53 AM on August 8, 2008

Librarians have never stamped anything, spamguy. The 95% of library staff who aren't MLS librarians and who do all the grunt work do that kind of thing. I personally hate those receipts, even though I used to spend hours stamping due date cards back in the day (I also used to type card catalog cards, and I do not miss that task one bloody bit). The stamps and cards are cheaper, but receipt printers are trendy, so the directors want them.

It really, really depends on the kind of library, and I wouldn't trust the computer stats, either. Every ILS counts them slightly differently, so comparing stats from a Unicorn system and an III system is literally comparing apples and lemons.
posted by QIbHom at 7:16 PM on August 8, 2008

I've definitely been tempted to check out books on 30-year-old IBM computers simply because I know no one else will ever do so again.
posted by PueExMachina at 1:40 AM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

University and research libraries keep everything.

Oh yeah, then why can't I find a copy of Bootstrap Basic anywhere, then? Huh?
posted by Deathalicious at 2:06 PM on August 9, 2008

Deathalicious, have you tried ILL (inter-library loan)? Or asking a reference librarian to track a copy down for you?

OPACs and google only get you so far.
posted by QIbHom at 7:18 PM on August 9, 2008

If you look at citation databases for scientific medical literature, you see that most papers are never referred to in future papers. While this does not imply they were not read, it does strongly suggest that no one found them useful. Make a me sad.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:48 PM on August 13, 2008

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