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Library Stewardship in a Networked Age

Daniel Greenstein

Author’s Note: This paper has benefited enormously from the work of Beverlee French, Cecily Johns, and Gary Lawrence.


Academic libraries are all about access-even where they claim a role preserving our cultural and scholarly heritage. In the traditional library, access and stewardship are served by the same strategy-assemble in a single place the books, journals, films, sound recordings, prints, photographs, and other artifacts that carry our society’s scholarship and knowledge and combine to shape and reflect its culture. Access requires physical proximity to and handling of the artifacts in question; so does stewardship. In their traditional setting, great academic libraries are great because of the breadth and depth of their holdings and the facilities they maintain to support their use and to manage them persistently (for example, conservation and preservation laboratories, appropriate storage facilities, and access controls). Use is measured in terms of gate counts, on-site use and circulation of library materials, and the number of interlibrary loans supplied and received. User satisfaction is closely associated with the size and scope of the holdings, and the services the library puts in place to support their discovery, location, and predominantly on-site or local use (Troll 2001).

With the proliferation in the late twentieth century of telecommunications networks and information technologies, the traditional academic library has been forced to evolve fundamentally new practices simply to retain its historic roles as gateway to and steward of the world’s scholarship and knowledge. After briefly reviewing some of the key drivers that compel libraries to change, this paper takes a detailed look at evolving collection-development strategies, focusing on opportunities and challenges in the development of shared print collections.

Drivers of Change

Academic libraries assemble and conserve the world’s scholarly knowledge and its societies’ cultural records and make it available in support of research, teaching, learning, and cultural and civic enrichment. Maintaining the breadth and depth of their collections is possibly the single greatest challenge confronting academic libraries today. The challenge stems in part from the runaway inflation in both the cost and volume of publication. As figures 1 and 2 show, library acquisition budgets are unable (or at least highly unlikely), even in good years, to keep up with the rising cost and volume of scholarly journals and monograph publications, respectively. Simply put, an academic library cannot continue to fulfill its access or its stewardship functions by relying solely upon the traditional “Buy it and put it here” approach to collection development.

Figure 1

Fig. 1. Periodical price increases in comparison with common inflation indexes, 1985-2000

Figure 2

Fig. 2. Growth in publishing and decline in library buying power, 1988-2001

The rapid increase in the volume of information is also problematic. Since its inception not much more than a decade ago, the World Wide Web has transformed the nature and precipitously increased the volume of cultural and scholarly expression. Figures 1 and 2 do not account for the vast proliferation of Web-based material, at least some of which is well within the libraries’ traditional collecting purview. Indeed, the World Wide Web is increasingly becoming the exclusive source of government, pamphlet, and other ephemeral publications that libraries have historically collected and preserved. If collections of print-based publications are beyond any single academic library’s financial reach, then those comprising both traditional and nontraditional formats are entirely out of the question.

Finally, change is forced upon the library by its patrons, who now use digital information intensively and sometimes in preference to print materials. A study conducted in 2002 by the Digital Library Federation (DLF) and Outsell Inc., looked at how faculty, graduates, and undergraduates at leading universities and colleges use information resources in their research, teaching, and learning (Friedlander 2002). On the basis of more than 3,000 telephone interviews, the study demonstrated that the academic library’s users are as comfortable with printed (95%) as with digital (94%) information, and that they prefer going online to find information for research, teaching, and learning.1 The study also demonstrated that users are finding more of the information they need online. Nearly half of all faculty in most disciplines reported that they use online information resources for their research “all” or “most” of the time (figure 3). They are also finding that a large proportion of the research information they require is actually available online (figure 4). Another study, conducted at the University of California (UC), demonstrates that where information is available in both printed and electronic forms (as is the case with scholarly journals that libraries make available in both printed and digital formats), users overwhelmingly prefer to use the digital (figure 5)(UCOP 2003).

Figure 3

Fig. 3. Frequency of faculty members’ use of online information resources for research, by discipline

Figure 4

Fig. 4. Percent of information that is required for research in different disciplines that is available online

Figure 5

Fig. 5. Journal usage by format. Study period: October 1, 2001-September 30, 2002

Given their growing acceptance of and selected preferences for digital information, it is not surprising to discover in the DLF/Outsell study that 42 percent of the faculty and students interviewed reported that they work and study off campus more than they did two years ago, and that 35 percent claimed they use the physical library less than they did two years ago. The study also demonstrated the extent to which these extensively networked populations (most claim an Internet connection at their residence, their office, or at both places) work outside the physical library. On average, faculty respondents to the DLF/Outsell survey, for example, reported that three-quarters of the time they spent each week working with scholarly information was spent in their offices. Eleven percent of that time was spent from home; only 10 percent was inside the physical library. For students, undergraduate students in particular, the library remains an important place to work with information. Thirty-four percent and thirty percent of the time that undergraduates and graduates, respectively, spend working with information is spent in the physical library.

These same trends are reflected in the data that libraries gather to determine how their collections, services, and building are used. Use of online journals and reference databases that the library licenses (but rarely manages) grows dramatically year on year (CDL 2002). Use of online public access catalogs (a measure of demand for the library’s physical holdings) declines, as if in inverse proportion. The number of searches tried on Melvyl-the union catalog of the UC’s 10 campus libraries-has declined by nearly 40 percent in the last eight years (figure 6). The number of online information sources grows more rapidly, the argument runs, than does the time available to scholars to use them. Accordingly, the market share of the online catalog, once the primary portal to a world of information, has declined precipitously. Data published by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) reveal a similar trend, documenting declines both in the in-house use and in the circulation of the library’s physical holdings. More materials are being accessed remotely and online (figure 7). Gate-count data are trickier because they are not systematically available; nonetheless, they also seem to indicate decline. (One exception to this trend is libraries that are renovating and repurposing spaces once occupied by card catalogs or by various print materials that are now available in digital formats.) This suggests that the shift toward the digital has diminished the library’s role as a physical place to come to find and obtain information, but it has possibly enhanced its civic functions as a congenial place to study, learn, and meet colleagues, teachers, and students.

Figure 6

Fig. 6. Melvyl catalog (CAT)search totals (includes Web and Telnet)

Figure 7

Fig. 7. ARL library trend data, 1991-2001

The Compelling Logic of Shared Collections

While rapid increases in both the cost and volume of “published” information compel libraries to consider collectivist strategies for maintaining broad and deep collections, changing patterns of information use may enable them to do so. In a networked age when access to so much information no longer requires physical proximity to it and when those who use information increasingly accept (even prefer) electronic access, the place-based and organizationally independent focus of the library collection development becomes inadequate and obsolete. Simply put, it makes little sense for libraries to redundantly acquire and locally manage some collections.

Academic libraries are not unused to cooperative effort. In the United States, they have worked together since the 1940s on a national level-often with other kinds of libraries-in building a comprehensive bibliographic record that is more or less consistent, and in managing low-use yet important materials (for example, in the Center for Research Libraries and in various regional repository initiatives). On the regional level, libraries have shared in the construction of highly specialized collections, often of non-English language materials (CPMG 2003). As scholarly information became available online in the 1990s, academic libraries extended cooperation to this new medium. Networked digital information does not need to be located anywhere in particular to be accessible. Accordingly, it enables library systems (for example, the 11 UC libraries, the 66 academic and public libraries of OhioLINK, and the 12 university libraries affiliated with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation) to coordinate the acquisition of substantial electronic collections that are served to and accessible by patrons of system members.

As the cost and volume of scholarly publications continue to escalate and as more publications become available in digital form, we are seeing a new interest in sharing more aggressively in the development of selected print as well as digital collections. The UC libraries have made considerable progress in this area but are certainly not alone. Their aims in developing shared print collections mirror those that underpinned efforts at sharing locally held printed materials through interlibrary loan and developing digital collections. These aims are as follows:

  • enhancing collections and services that each UC campus library makes available to its faculty and students;
  • expanding the breadth and depth of collections available systemwide to support the university’s teaching and research programs;
  • reducing unnecessary duplication of campus holdings; and
  • saving substantially in cost and effort.

Planning for shared print collections began in 2000 with a study into the use that faculty and students make of scholarly journals available in both printed and digital formats.2 The study suggests that faculty are entirely comfortable with, and even prefer, digital formats. At the same time, the study surfaced compelling reasons for retaining at least some print copies in the library system. Where journals are available in both print and digital formats, the digital editions are lacking in key respects. They do not systematically or comprehensively include ephemeral information that may be important to some scholarship (letters to the editor, notes and comments, and lists of editorial board members are notoriously absent from digital editions). Visual materials in some print editions do not always reproduce adequately. The question for the UC libraries is whether the desirability of having some print versions translates into the necessity that each campus library maintain a print version.

In 2002Ð2003, unprecedented cuts in state funding for the University of California jolted a research and planning initiative into a practical one and led to a partial answer to this question. As some campus libraries seek individually to save costs by canceling print subscriptions for selected journal titles that are available online (for example, as part of UC’s shared digital collection), they seek collectively to build a print archive so that print editions of these titles are not eliminated entirely from the system (at least not by accident or oversight). Initially, the print archive will be developed prospectively-that is, with new issues of those titles that are made available at no cost or at a deeply discounted rate to the UC system in respect of its site license for the digital editions. Another initiative is looking at how libraries can coordinate monograph acquisitions by harmonizing approval plans that they place with book vendors. The initiative is investigating the application and development of technologies that allow each campus library to know in real time what books other campus libraries are purchasing. It would also permit each library to compare its own planned acquisitions and those of other campuses with the universe of books available in a particular area.3

The libraries are also establishing mechanisms capable of dealing with retrospective print materials-that is, materials that are held by the campus libraries in greater redundancy than may be desirable or affordable. The retrospective collection is likely to concentrate on scholarly journals that are available in both print and digital formats. There are also a number of planning activities under way that look at high-volume, low-use collections (for example, at the seven campus libraries that, as members of the Federal Depository Library Program, have built highly redundant collections of printed government publications)(SOPAG 2004).

Key Challenges in the Development of Shared Print Collections

By planning for and beginning to implement a shared print archive, the UC libraries have uncovered a range of challenges that are likely to confront other libraries that seek to develop shared collections of print materials. Two of these challenges-building trust in the shared collection and overcoming resistance to and skepticism about the shared collection-are discussed in the paragraphs that follow.

Building trust in the shared collection. A shared print collection can meet its aims-minimizing redundancy and cost while maximizing access to printed information-only if it is trusted. Libraries that forgo the acquisition of or discard selected print materials because they know that those print materials will be available from the shared print collection in case they are needed, must trust that those materials truly will be accessible.

Issues of trust raise a number of implementation problems for the shared print collection.

  • A trusted shared print collection must be complete. Unfortunately, it is not always clear how (that is, against what master list) completeness can be measured. The problem is particularly complex with serial publications because the bibliographic record, though adequate at the title level, is rarely adequate at the issue level. This is as true for back issues as it is for new issues of journal titles that are being acquired. The latter (prospective) collections are complicated by the fact that journal titles change hands so frequently among publishers that some of the larger publishers themselves are hard pressed to document accurately what their current list comprises.
  • A trusted shared print collection’s completeness must be maintained so that it is always available in case of need. The best way to maintain a collection’s completeness is to prohibit access to it. Yet prohibiting access undermines a key component of a shared collection’s credibility. Items in inaccessible (“dark”) collections are unavailable in time of need. Alternatively, shared print collections may be “dim”; for example, access to certain items, such as photocopied or scanned images, may be restricted to readers in secure reading rooms. But if access to shared print collections is restricted, how restricted should it be? The level of access that a shared collection permits will clearly have a direct impact on its size, scope, and effectiveness. Where shared print collections are very dim, libraries will be unable to rely upon them for materials that occasionally need to be available on site or even for circulation. In these cases, libraries may retain materials locally and in so doing impinge on the shared print collection’s effectiveness in minimizing redundancy.

Overcoming resistance to and skepticism about shared print collections. Libraries and library users have an enormous stake in the “Buy it and place it here” model of collection development. It offers the comfort of the familiar. It is thoroughly tried, tested, and understood, even if it is unsustainable economically. Shared print collections are new, and their aims are easily misunderstood. Developing shared print collections, even if only modestly, requires extensive consultation and communication with library professionals and the communities they serve. The following are some of the key concerns that UC libraries have discovered among their staff and faculty patrons.

    • Shared print collections will eliminate books from local (in UC’s case, campus) libraries. This isn’t true at all. At least isn’t true at UC, where the shared print is one (easily the smallest one) of several strategies intended to enrich and enhance the collections that may be made available to UC faculty and students. The most important strategy for print materials is and will undoubtedly remain campus investment in locally held monographs and serials. What is interesting about UC’s work on shared collections is that it challenges the hypothesis that access and stewardship require local library acquisition and management of scholarly information. By asserting that not all print materials need to be available locally, libraries are able to explore a far more interesting question-notably, what print materials need to be available locally and for what reason.
    • Shared print collections are highly centralized libraries unavailable and unresponsive to the needs of participant libraries and their patrons. This is essentially an issue of organization and governance. While shared print collections may emerge as central and monolithic bureaucracies, they do not have to. Indeed, if they follow in the tradition of the shared repositories and compact storage facilities (at UC and elsewhere), they won’t.
    • Shared print collections will jeopardize the viability of university presses and scholarly societies upon which the academy depends. This is more a hypotheses than a misconception. Still, it reflects a very real concern. Three things are patently obvious. First, monographs continue to play an important role in the recruitment, retention, and reward of scholars in several disciplines. Second, library demand for monographs is declining. A publisher that 15 years ago could count on U.S. libraries buying 1,500 copies of a new monograph might sell only 200 or 300 copies of a new monograph that is published today. Third, scholarly publishers have responded to diminishing demand for monographs by drastically curtailing the number of new titles that they publish annually. The impact of this trend is particularly hard-felt on scholars in disciplines where monograph publication is a prerequisite for tenured (even tenure-track) jobs. The cycle, if unbroken, will become a vicious one; nonetheless, libraries, publishers, and faculty alike are uneasy (albeit for different reasons) about breaking out of the mold.

To deal with this challenge, the California Digital Library is looking to work with university presses to evaluate new business models for monograph publishing-models that enable libraries to reduce their dependence on redundant print acquisitions without undermining publisher revenues, the monograph publication process that is so critical to academic advancement, or patrons’ access. In one particularly compelling scenario, the UC libraries might acquire a limited number of print copies of selected monographs (for example, for the shared print collection) plus the right to distribute the monographs digitally within UC. The terms of digital distribution would need to be agreed on with the publisher but should be developed in order to help the publisher recoup revenues lost from substantially reduced hard-copy sales (to UC). For example, the digital edition might be made available

      • for reading online;
      • for downloading to a handheld device (with a Digital Rights Management record to prohibit additional copying);
      • for low-cost, perfect-bound printing at the point of use (e.g., the local library); and
      • for purchasing as a paperback or hard copy that may be ordered online from the publisher or from any bookseller that stocks its books.

In this scenario, the user has numerous access paths, some of which are free and others that are not. Further, the model does not require a new funding source-library patrons have always paid for convenient access (e.g., in campus bookstores and in-library and off-site photocopying services). The model has particular interest at UC, which will open a new campus, Merced, in September 2004, with very limited physical holdings in the library. It needs to be tried and tested collaboratively with monograph publishers (presumably on a time-limited basis and in a highly secure environment). If successfully developed, it may offer hope to

    • scholars who rely on the monograph’s continued existence (university presses could grow monograph lists without requiring equal or greater growth in hard-copy sales);
    • libraries that need to provide access to comprehensive collections but cannot do so by locally acquiring, owning, and managing all of the print and digital items in them; and
    • university presses and scholarly societies whose operations are vital to the scholarly communications process but are not easily sustained by the current model of monograph production and distribution.
  • Shared print collections will discourage local investment in participating libraries. This, too, is more a hypothesis than a misconception, and it reflects a serious concern about the so-called free-rider problem. Why should a university or college invest in its library’s acquisition of print materials, if print materials are going to be made available to local users from a shared print collection? One way to address the free-rider problem is to demonstrate the benefits that have accrued historically to libraries through their participation in resource-sharing activities (e.g., shared cataloging, interlibrary loan, development of shared digital collections) and to show that success in the past has been tied directly to a high level of sustained local library investment. Another strategy is to ensure that local investments are properly recognized. The Association of Research Libraries’ (ARL) membership index provides a means of recognizing library investments. Rankings are closely monitored and very significant. The rank order of a university’s library within the ARL membership index is used to recruit and retain faculty, appeal to donors, and justify, reward, and encourage local library investments. The problem is that the index gives disproportionate credit to the number of volumes that a library holds. It does not count materials that are shared (whether electronic or print). As such, the index may actually impede shared collection-development strategies that, to be effective, require participating libraries either to discard or forgo acquisition locally of holdings that are otherwise available to the group.4 In effect, the ARL’s membership index is calculated in a way that rewards campus libraries for outmoded practices that may curtail their ability to deliver access to collections that are broad as well as deep. At the same time, it actively discourages shared collection-development strategies that can counter this narrowing tendency. A number of solutions have been proposed to refashion the reward structure in a manner befitting local circumstances. One compelling solution suggests a tiered approach in which local investments are clearly identified. In this approach, libraries might keep three sets of books:
    • items to which their patrons have access (including items in local and shared print and digital collections as well as those that are readily available through interlibrary loan or other similar means);
    • items they have acquired (including items acquired for a local collection, those acquired by the libraries cooperatively with others, and those once acquired by a library for its local collection but then contributed to or discarded in light of the development of a shared collection); and
    • physical items that a library manages and for which it is responsible (for example, as required for insurance, space-planning, and other purposes).

Shared Print and Preservation

Shared collections of printed materials also suggest a rather new approach to preservation. Currently, cultural heritage organizations (a phrase that I use to refer broadly to libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums of every flavor) take responsibility for preserving the unique and distinctive materials that make up part of their collections. Some libraries additionally contribute to the preservation of non-unique printed materials. In many instances, their contributions are passive-the highly redundant holdings of research libraries have always been seen as an uncoordinated but nonetheless effective preservation strategy for print. More proactive efforts are also evident, for example, through reasonably widespread library involvement in national and regional microfilming programs (the National Endowment of the Humanities’ microfilming program for brittle books and serials is one example).

Despite these different approaches to the preservation of non-unique printed materials, research libraries seem to agree that they are rapidly losing ground. Moreover, as preservation resources that are available to libraries decline, they are spread more thinly. Forced to decide between the unique and the non-unique, libraries will choose what is distinctive, and rightly so. Accordingly, one wonders whether research libraries really do undertake the preservation of non-unique materials as a matter of mission. History suggests that libraries’ efforts to preserve non-unique materials are episodic, infrequent, and poorly supported. In this light, the crisis of library preservation that has received so much attention lately is less a crisis than it is a reflection of the status quo: Institutional investment in the preservation of non-unique materials is less a return to some historic mission than the creation of an entirely new one.5

In this regard, the shared print collection could enable the essential innovation necessary for libraries to undertake the preservation of non-unique materials as a matter of mission. Shared print collections will essentially contain non-unique materials (few if any incentives will exist to encourage libraries to submit unique holdings to some kind of shared governance). Libraries will pool investment in the selection, storage, and use of these materials. In theory, conservation of materials held in shared print collections may be achieved at marginal additional costs to the resources pool. Further, the utilities that are likely to grow up around shared print collections in order to facilitate access to them-notably, facilities able to scan holdings on demand and to deliver them to users online for screen-based browsing or for local print on demand-will support conservation efforts (e.g., by limiting physical handling of the material). Finally, by sharing in the conservation of the non-unique materials that become available in shared print collections, libraries may have more resources available for the conservation of the distinctive materials that they hold and feel less anxiety about expending those resources almost exclusively on such materials.

The model is compelling. It also suggests that shared print collections, to be an effective strategy in the preservation of non-unique materials, cannot and should not develop in isolation. Rather, they must exist as part of a global network of shared collections whose holdings are somehow registered and publicly notified. In order to undertake preservation outside such a network, a shared collection would require at least two copies of everything it sought to manage persistently-one inaccessible or dark (because inaccessible copies are less at risk of loss or damage through handling than accessible copies are), and one accessible or dim. Otherwise, few incentives would exist for participating libraries to contribute holdings to the shared collection or to withdraw holdings from a local collection where they existed redundantly in the shared one.

Finally, in a network, the economics of print collection and of print preservation may improve considerably. Shared collections may alternate responsibility for and, where appropriate, participate in the use of dim and dark collections, respectively. In a network, it may be possible to distribute the costs involved in selecting, acquiring, cataloging, and managing access to shared collections. Some libraries could participate on an in-kind basis, that is, by providing volumes, storage space, or personnel. Others might contribute in cash. The source of funding for shared collections could be distributed to any who benefit from it. Inevitably, the free-rider problem rears its head. Why should an institution contribute to the persistent management of print materials when it knows that others may pick up the tab? Since the benefits of the shared collection accrue only to those able to rely upon its contents, the problem may not be an obstacle. A library’s access to a dim collection or its ability to rely on a dark one for copies of last resort may be tied directly to its contribution.

In summary, the compelling logic of shared collections is at once a challenge to libraries to think in new ways about collection development-in part to help them confront difficult economic challenges, and in part to develop strategies that allow them to take seriously a role preserving non-unique print. It is also an invitation. This article has been based on the early experiences of the University of California libraries. Though very preliminary, those experiences suggest how much more may be achieved by a network of shared print collections than by a single repository based in a particular institutional setting. And there is no need in this case to RSVP.


California Digital Library. 2002. Key Indicators of Collections and Use, July 1, 2001ÐJune 30, 2002. Available at

Friedlander, Amy. 2002. Dimensions and Use of the Scholarly Information Environment. Introduction to a Data Set Assembled by the Digital Library Federation and Outsell, Inc. Washington, D.C.: Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources. Available at

Gammon, Julia, and Michael Zeoli. 2002 (August). Practical Cooperative Collecting for Consortia. Books not Bought in Ohio. Available at

Kenney, Anne R., and Deirdre C. Stam. 2002. The State of Preservation Programs in American College and Research Libraries: Building a Common Understanding and Action Agenda. A Joint Study by the Council on Library and Information Resources, Association of Research Libraries, University Libraries Group, and the Regional Alliance for Preservation. Available at

Report to the Collection Management Planning Group (CMPG) on Collection Management and Coordination: A Strategy for the UC Libraries. 2003. Prepared by the CMPG Steering Committee. April. Available at

Systemwide Operations Planning Advisory Group. Report of a Task Force on Government Information. Forthcoming at

Troll, Denise. 2001. How and Why Libraries Are Changing. Available at

University of California Office of the President. 2003 (April). Preliminary Results from the Collection Management Initiative’s Journal Use Study and User Preferences Survey. Available at


1 When asked where they go to find information, more scholars reported that they are going online to look for the information they need for their research and teaching, even where that information is ultimately available in a printed or analog format. When asked where they go to look for information, 83 percent of university and college faculty and students who were surveyed responded that they went online. By contrast, only 43 percent claimed to use printed sources (including card catalogs and printed reference works), while 23 percent claimed that they seek personal assistance (e.g., from a reference librarian, colleague, or friend).

2 For information on the study, see

3 The initiative is based on one being tried by OhioLink libraries with systems developed by YBP Library Services. See Gammon and Zeoli 2002.

4 There is some evidence of libraries maintaining in on-site compact storage items that are available to their patrons from shared repository facilities because those items are owned and counted by another library.

5 For a good assessment of the dimensions of this “crisis” see Kenney and Stam 2002.

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