This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

April 24, 2008 - more use, less space

You probably didn't know this: some libraries aren't big enough to hold their own stuff.

Several years ago, I got it into my head to look at what percentage of our materials were checked out at any given moment. I was impressed to discover -- at least about five years ago -- that the answer was "around 25%."

Then I realized something else: if those materials came back, we had nowhere to put them. We depended on at least that level of use to allow us to buy anything new.

As everyone who uses the library is surely now aware, we've made some changes over the past couple of years. We've studied up on the merchandising used by successful bookstores. We've gotten a lot more ruthless about the materials we keep. If they're not used, they don't last. We don't have room for them.

At a couple of our neighborhood libraries -- our laboratories for defining the 21st century library -- we set very aggressive goals. If we do a really good job of matching our materials to public demand, we thought, we ought to be able to check out fully half of our collection.

And guess what? Last week, our Neighborhood Library in Lone Tree hit 60%. It is the first of our libraries ever to hit that mark.

For most libraries, 20% of the inventory drives 80% of the business. If you look at a library's most popular items (of which some 80% might be checked out), they tend to be what's new. The bestsellers. The Oprah choices. DVDs and music.

But not only just what's new. There are also perennial classics, particularly in the children's areas. Series. A few beloved authors who find new generations of fans.

The question of the Neighborhood Library was: what if we made the 80% of hot items a full 80% of the stock?

Answer: then you check out 60% of the whole collection. (And who knows if we've hit the top?)

I've been checking around with my library colleagues, and this is mighty unusual. Most of the libraries in the United States never rise above approximately 25% of their collection in use. Some are in the 10% range -- or under.

So do I judge this experiment a success? I do.

It seems sensible that a heavily used library is of more value to the public than one that isn't.

It is also the case that a library with lots more of its items in motion, can provide more items overall. Why? Because there's more room to display them, at least until they get snatched up again (and they get snatched a lot quicker from displays than they do from spine-out bookshelves).

This percentage of use is not as high in our regional libraries. Why is that? Because we're not quite as ruthless in our inventory control.

At Roxborough and Lone Tree, a book has to go out at least 7 times a year to earn its space. But at our other libraries, we've tried to hold sufficient space for items that might be called definitive in some non-fiction field, or classics (such as the gloomy "Ethan Frome," or, and don't ask me why, the maddening and incomprehensible works of Faulkner).

It does seem a reasonable expectation that a library should also preserve "the best" of our culture's intellectual works. Libraries serve not only the function of popular entertainment, but also of education and lifelong learning.

But I'm left with a curious mix of emotions. On the one hand, I am very proud of our staff (and it takes the whole staff) for reaching this impressive new level of service, wringing ever more use out of every square foot we've got. That's a victory worth celebrating.

On the other hand, all of this innovation put off, but didn't solve, our core problem. We have more patrons, with higher expectations and demands. But our facilities are maxed out.

Bottom line: We have less library space per patron this year than we did last year. That means less "stuff" for everybody, whether those items are popular or not.

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