Campuses throughout the Northeast begin work toward shared library solutions

Even in a time when 80 percent of college and university library acquisitions are electronic, new books and other print materials still take up an increasing amount of space in campus collections, pushing libraries to explore new ways to maintain access to their print collections while repurposing space for new collections, media centers and even cafes. That is the issue driving the 90 colleges and universities participating in the Northeast Regional Library Print Management Project, an 18-month planning effort funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The idea behind the project is to develop workable models for storing and accessing rarely used print materials, particularly monographs—books focusing on a single, narrow subject. If libraries could make available scans of seldom-used print materials and have access to off-site print copies, they would have more options for managing their collections. Some campuses have created depositories for storing rarely-used print materials while others want to share costs with other campuses by developing regional depositories, or possibly even developing a system in which campus libraries each agree to store and share different monographs.

“Like a lot of libraries right now, we’re repurposing space that was collections space so that materials are still available, but not necessarily on site,” says Tom Wall, Boston College library director. “Our local issue is that we have several locations where we have parts of our collection, and I would like that to be consolidated in one location that has robust delivery and environmental controls.”

Wall and more than 100 representatives from some 70 campus libraries attended a meeting in July to launch the Northeast Regional Library Print Management Project. Organized by the project’s steering committee and held at the Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus, “the idea behind the project is to see which libraries in the region may be interested in participating in one or another joint project that could address storage of infrequently used monographs,” said Neal Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges and co-director of the project. “The meeting showed us that there is a huge amount of interest in this effort.”

Even Harvard University, which has its own state-of-the-art storage facility, is interested in the project. Matthew Sheehy, head of access services at the Harvard Library, attended the July meeting. He’s developing a 20-year storage strategy for Harvard that would rely on different kinds of space, and so is open to participating in projects such as the Northeast Regional Library initiative. His take-away from the meeting? “I believe that this project is more than a building,” he said “It is about libraries cooperating to share resources.”

Christopher Loring, director of the Smith College library and co-director of the project, agreed. “Not everyone sees the same solution as being the right solution for them,” he said. With that sentiment in mind, working groups are being assembled this fall to develop different models and report back to the assembled group. Based on discussions at the July meeting, responses to a follow-up survey, and consultations with the members of the group’s steering committee, the working-group topics are journals and serials, monographs, and shared private storage.

“The high level of enthusiasm for this project is encouraging, particularly as the working groups begin to develop viable business models,” Abraham said. “But we also know that in the weeks and months ahead, we have our work cut out for us.”