Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The Grant

This report is the product of a planning grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2001 to the Tri-College Library Consortium, which comprises the libraries of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges. The grant proposal, entitled “Library Buildings and the Building of a Collaborative Research Collection at the Tri-Colleges,” set out a research agenda designed to address two central questions. The first question was a challenge: How could the three libraries come to terms with space problems caused by ever-growing collections and increasing demands to accommodate media, teaching, and student study areas in an environment in which library building expansion was a remote possibility? The second question was an opportunity: Could the libraries take advantage of their history of cooperation and the powerful tool of a unified online catalog to create a single research-quality collection out of the combined holdings of three strong liberal arts colleges?

The two questions seemed inextricably linked because many of the potential solutions to the space crises involved the same types of cooperative activities that would be needed to build an integrated collection. By addressing the two issues in a single study, the members of our Planning Group hoped to think about Tri-Colleges’ holdings in a broad, creative way, and to identify steps that would enable the colleges to solve their space problems while building a richer, unified collection.

The proposal put forth a series of 14 questions as a way of framing the challenges and opportunities our Planning Group wished to address and the information we needed to gather during the project. The proposal and questions appear in Appendix 1. Several specific issues highlighted by these questions are outlined in the following paragraphs.

First, central to the project was the need to develop an understanding of the interrelationship of the three collections. More precisely, we needed to determine the following:

  • The extent of overlap of materials among the collections
  • Where the collections overlapped by age and subject area
  • Trends in growth rates of particular areas of the collections and formats in which new materials had been acquired
  • Strengths of each collection
  • Areas where all three collections were relatively weak
  • The role of interlibrary loans (ILL) and use of the Pennsylvania Library Consortium Initiative (PALCI) on local collection-development decisions and the appropriate balance between such resources and local collecting
  • How much of the needed data were readily available and what types of tools would be needed to mine the data

A second area of investigation was collection-use patterns and what they indicated about an appropriate level of overlap. This investigation entailed an examination of the following:

  • Circulation patterns across subject areas and age of the collections and libraries
  • Information-seeking behaviors of faculty and students; in particular, the importance of shelf browsing and the rate of adoption of digital resources
  • Courses offered by each of the colleges and the degree to which the curricula overlapped
  • What enhancements to the Tri-Colleges’ shared catalog, Tripod, and Web sites could assist patrons in using the collections on- and off-site.

The Planning Group assumed that the three libraries desired to move toward a more integrated collection. Thus, we asked the following questions:

  • What are the political realities associated with integration, and how could those advantages be communicated to local constituents?
  • What processes and mechanisms need to be in place to foster joint collection development and management?
  • What should be the role of the faculty in an integrated collection-development scenario?
  • What are the implications for public service of an integrated collection?

Finally, the Planning Group explored the three libraries’ needs for space for physical collections and services for the next 25 years.

  • How would e-publishing affect growth rates of the collections?
  • How should the colleges address issues of long-term access to electronic resources?
  • Do digital storage and streaming of multimedia hold potential for saving space and reducing acquisitions budgets?

The Environment

Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges have much in common. They all originated as Quaker colleges, have between 1,100 and 1,500 students, are known for their strong liberal arts curricula, and are ranked among the best private liberal arts colleges in the country. All three institutions are located within a few miles of each other in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Despite these similarities, there are genuine differences among the three colleges. Swarthmore was coeducational from the time of its founding in 1864, and it came out of a different branch of Quakerism than did the other two. Haverford, founded in 1833, was an all-male college until 1980. Bryn Mawr was founded as a woman’s college in 1885, and has offered doctoral-level programs since its opening. It remains a woman’s undergraduate institution, but has male students enrolled in graduate programs.

Bryn Mawr and Haverford, often referred to as the “Bi-Colleges,” are located within a mile of each other, and have partnered in a wide range of activities. Each school’s students have been allowed to take courses on the other two schools’ campuses since the late 1940s, and as a result, there has been a fair amount of academic cooperation. Haverford, for example, hosts the only music and astronomy programs, while Bryn Mawr supports the only programs in archaeology, art history, and geology. In addition, there are formal bi-college programs in Africana Studies, East Asian Studies, Comparative Literature, Education, and French.

Swarthmore, situated 10 miles south of the other two colleges, has been involved in fewer collaborative efforts, although even here the history of cooperation is a long one. During World War II, the three schools shared faculty and briefly considered unifying their libraries under a single administration. Collaborative efforts slackened after the war, but academic, social, and library ties have recently begun to increase. All three colleges now operate on the same academic calendar, and students are allowed to take classes at all schools. Free shuttle buses and vans provide transportation.

The libraries have been the most active units on each campus in pursuing cooperation with their counterparts.1The catalyst for much of this activity was the agreement in the late 1980s to set up Tripod, the three libraries’ shared online catalog. Tripod, which became operational in 1991, offers a unified catalog to all of the libraries’ 2.3 million volumes and an easy means of ordering books from another campus. All requested materials are delivered within 24 hours via a Tri-College library delivery service. Members of the library staffs have met regularly over the last decade to oversee the operation of Tripod, and those contacts have expanded in recent years as the libraries found it worthwhile to cooperate on purchasing electronic resources and setting up electronic reserve programs. Consortium activities have increased dramatically in the last few years, spurred by the appointment of new library directors at each school. In the last two years the libraries have collaborated on cataloging Web sites, creating Tri-College electronic subject guides, setting up an online reference service, and initiating a pilot digital collections program. The work of the Tri-College libraries is done by a combination of central consortium staff (currently three people) and the staffs of the three college libraries, most frequently operating within the structure of Tri-College committees and task forces.

While this section has focused on cooperation, it must be remembered that the colleges and their libraries remain happily and even fiercely independent entities. Differences in institutional cultures and organizational structures, in the relationships between faculty and staff, in decision-making and budgeting practices, and in resources and institutional priorities, not to mention differences in the temperaments of administrators, shape the possibilities for cooperative effort.

Organization of the Project

The Planning Group for the study consisted of staff from all three libraries, a member of the Tri-Colleges Consortium staff, and a consultant who coordinated the work and compiled the results. The members of the group were

Linda Bills, Tri-Colleges Consortium Special Projects Librarian
Amy McColl, Assistant Head of Technical Services, Swarthmore College
Norm Medeiros, Coordinator, Bibliographic and Digital Services, Haverford College
Amy Morrison, Associate College Librarian, Swarthmore College
Eric Pumroy, Associate Director for Collection Development, Bryn Mawr College
Peggy Seiden, College Librarian, Swarthmore College

Judy Luther, President, Informed Strategies, was the project consultant.

The work of the planning grant was divided into five major components: (1) assessing the collections; (2) analyzing trends in electronic publishing; (3) understanding student and faculty library use; (4) examining options for gaining collection space; and (5) exploring models for organizing the work of collection development and management in a collaborative environment. This report is organized according to those components. The key findings for each section are summarized below.

Results and Findings

1. Collection Assessment

The Planning Group spent a considerable amount of time analyzing data from Tripod in an effort to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Tri-Colleges’ collections, the rate and pattern of collection growth, and how students and faculty use the collections. While further analysis of the data is called for, the following trends seemed clear.

Use of the collection. Three-quarters of the collection rarely circulates: 57 percent of the volumes in the combined collections have not been charged out in the last 10 years, and an additional 17 percent have been charged out only once. Nearly a third of the collection was published before 1950, and these older books circulate at a significantly lower rate than recent ones do. Furthermore, there is a substantial rate of overlap among the collections at the three libraries. Approximately 40 percent of the titles are held by more than one library, and of these, half have not circulated in the last 11 years. These high levels of uncirculated copies suggest that the collections could be weeded without jeopardizing libraries’ ability to meet the needs of students and faculty. Since the libraries are all facing space crises, reducing the size of the collections can extend the useful lives of their current buildings.

Overlap in new acquisitions. The libraries frequently acquire the same title on multiple campuses. Currently, approximately 80 percent of the books Swarthmore acquires through its approval plan are also purchased through the joint Bryn Mawr/Haverford approval plan. If the libraries can reduce the level of overlap in their current buying, they can free funds to use on expanding the breadth of the Tri-College collection.

Cross-campus borrowing. Cross-campus borrowing represents a significant portion of the total borrowing of both faculty and students. In 2001, it accounted for 31 percent of all borrowing at Bryn Mawr, 37 percent at Haverford, and 20 percent at Swarthmore. These borrowing patterns underscore the importance of a strong core collection at each library; at the same time, they suggest that students and faculty on each campus have become accustomed to drawing on the collections of the other two libraries.

2. Trends in Electronic Publishing

Electronic publications have been absorbing ever larger percentages of library acquisition funds in recent years. One of the important issues for the planning project was to determine whether electronic publishing is likely to reduce the growth in the size of the libraries’ physical collections and thereby decrease the need for additional collection space in the future. To help with this analysis, the Planning Group retained industry consultants to assess the current availability of electronic books and journals and the prospects for future expansion of electronic publishing. Major findings are summarized in the following paragraphs.

E-books. Electronic books are not yet a viable substitute for regular books because of copyright issues, the lack of a proven economic model, and the absence of a comfortable reading system. Nonetheless, e-books have considerable value as reference books, reserve readings, and browsing copies. In a consortial environment, e-books are especially valuable, because they ensure equal access to everyone in the system-including people working from offices, dorms, and off-campus sites.

Print-on-demand. Publishers are beginning to move toward a print-on-demand system for book distribution, which holds the promise that books will rarely go out of print. If this system comes into place, libraries will have fewer worries about books becoming unavailable and may not feel such a strong need to purchase duplicates.

E-journals. Electronic journals are becoming increasingly common, particularly in the sciences. Most major publishers have initiated programs to convert back runs of their titles to electronic form. Whether libraries will discard print copies once the electronic versions are available depends upon the reliability of the provider and the completeness of the content. In cases where confidence in the provider is very high (the nonprofit JSTOR is one example of an organization held in such regard), the libraries have the potential to realize significant space savings by eliminating duplicate sets. The Tri-College libraries do not have the same archival role that research libraries have. They can more readily shift from print journals to electronic form, knowing that print copies will still be available from other libraries should they be needed.

3. Understanding Student and Faculty Use

The Planning Group conducted focus groups on each campus to gain a clearer understanding of how faculty and students use the collections and to elicit their reactions to some of the options being considered. The most strongly voiced concerns were as follows:

Browsing. Faculty and students place a high value on being able to browse the shelves and do not see current online browsing as a satisfactory substitute. Faculty members use browsing not just to identify books to read but also to locate references and background information. If the libraries reduce the amount of overlap among their collections, Tripod’s browsing capabilities will have to be significantly enhanced and the number of texts available in electronic form substantially increased. The libraries will also need to develop ways of measuring the on-site use of their collections.

Locally needed materials. Students and faculty agreed that print materials used in coursework are time-sensitive and need to be housed on the campus where the course is being taught. As the libraries consider the issue of overlap, they will need to find ways of distinguishing between books needed locally for course support and materials needed for research, which can be housed anywhere in the system.

Electronic resources. Electronic information sources are heavily used and appreciated, and in some disciplines they are changing the way research is done. Because of the nature of the research process and the widespread availability of electronic resources, the greatest changes are occurring in the sciences. Fewer changes have occurred in the humanities, where scholars continue to depend heavily on print materials. These variations in use patterns among the disciplines argue for a discipline-by-discipline approach to changing acquisitions patterns.

New types of spaces. Both faculty and students supported the creation of new spaces in the libraries, particularly comfortable informal spaces, group study areas, and places for using media.

Faculty involvement. Faculty members expressed concerns about the effects of moving to an integrated Tri-College collection. They believe that local ownership of books and journals in a faculty member’s discipline is an important indication of a good academic library; accessibility through a consortium is not the same. Faculty members were concerned that weeding will harm their students’ work as well as their own. Any changes in the way the collections are managed will require that the libraries work closely with the faculty members so that the libraries make the right collection decisions and the faculty members understand the trade-offs.

4. Space Planning Options

All three libraries are facing space crises and have few prospects for expansion. To resolve this dilemma, the Planning Group examined ways of making the existing space more satisfactory for the near term, or until the impact of electronic publishing on library space needs can be predicted more clearly. All constituents must be apprised of the costs, trade-offs, and opportunities associated with these options. The most promising options are discussed below.

Deaccessioning. Space for several years’ worth of growth may be gained by weeding duplicates and overlaps that have not circulated in the last 11 years. To realize significant space gains, the libraries will need to (1) expand the scope of materials considered for weeding and (2) implement routine weeding programs. Given the age of the collections and the low level of use of the older materials, both activities seem possible. Although weeding holds promise for recovering space, it may compromise the collections if it is not done carefully and in consultation with faculty.

Compact shelving. All three colleges use compact shelving in at least one of their libraries, and Swarthmore plans to install units in McCabe Library that will gain 10 years of expansion space. The gains to be made from compact shelving are limited, however; the floors in most of the libraries are not strong enough to support the additional weight. Moreover, this option is desirable only for low-use collections, since only a small part of the collection is accessible at any one time.

Off-site storage. A number of research institutions have created off-campus storage to house low-use books. Off-site storage has the advantage of keeping books in the system and making them available within 24 hours, the same response time promised by the rest of the Tri-College system. The disadvantage is the significant cost of building and maintaining the facility. Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr are looking into a proposed cooperative storage facility for Philadelphia-area cultural institutions.

Electronic resources. The growth in the space required to house the libraries’ journals collections is slowing at an estimated rate of 360 linear feet (LF) per year as a result of offering journals in electronic rather than print form. The space savings should continue to grow in the sciences and, at a slower rate, in the social sciences and humanities. Other significant space savings are being realized in reference and government documents. Space savings through purchase of electronic books is probably at least five years away.

5. Exploring New Models

As the Tri-College libraries work together to address their common space problems, they have the opportunity to move toward the creation of an integrated research collection-one capable of supporting a much broader range of student and faculty work than is possible at present. Building an integrated collection will require that the libraries expand the decision-making structures and communication tools that they have developed during the last few years. The libraries will have to continue to find new approaches to doing their work. The Planning Group identified the following approaches as most important:

Organization of collection development. Each of the libraries organizes its collection-development activities in a different way, resulting in different approaches to collections and different methods of decision making. To operate effectively in a collaborative environment, the libraries will need to adopt other models for organizing their work, including the model of the research university subject specialist. Tri-College approval plan. Reducing duplication in new acquisitions among the three libraries can free funds to spend on materials not currently being acquired. Since a major portion of the libraries’ book budgets is spent through approval plans, finding a way of coordinating these plans is critical.

Deaccessioning projects. Large-scale, coordinated weeding projects are an essential part of any long-term strategy for recovering library space. Undertaking such projects without weakening the overall quality of the collections will require careful communication among librarians and faculty and, at least for a time, a central project staff to manage the process.

Catalog enhancement. The greatest faculty and student concern about an integrated collection is the loss of the ability to browse the shelves. The libraries will need to find methods of making the shelf-browsing function in Tripod more usable and of enriching the cataloging records so that virtual browsing is an acceptable substitute.


1Freeman, Michael Stuart. 1997. Almost a unified library: Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore College library cooperation during the 1940s. Libraries & Culture 32 (Winter): 1-37.


Read more:

Skip to content