I volunteer at my local public library. I’ve been there for about a year and would stay indefinitely if I weren’t moving to LA for school in September.
One of the reasons that I like my volunteer work is that it exposes me to the differences between public and academic libraries. My main points of comparison are, of course, the libraries at the academic institution where I’m a registered student and the local library where I volunteer. As these are two measly data points, I wouldn’t stake a vampire’s heart on the observations that follow as being representative of either public or academic libraries in general. That said, I’ve noticed that
- The local public library gets new materials onto its shelves much faster than the academic library. Is this because the ratio of staff to volume of materials acquired is much more favorable at the public library? This is counter intuitive, at least to me, since I think of academic libraries as being much richer than their public counterparts. Even after allowing for the fact that my local public library probably has more resources than most of the public libraries in the United States, its budget is nonetheless dwarfed by the academic library’s. (The public library sits in an area with large, expensive, but tasteful houses that generate a lot of local property taxes. Alas, I’m not in one of these houses.) For sure, the public library’s scope is also much smaller, but I find it a bit implausible that it expends more resources per volume acquired than the academic libraries. However, if not resources, what explains the quicker turnaround that the local library is able to effect? Is it a matter of priorities? Do academic users not care if they don’t get new materials as close to their publication dates as possible? I’d love to see some numbers, or pick a few librarians’ brains about this matter.
- The local public library seems to put more weight on efficiency. It has automatic checkout and a security gate that beeps should the books you bring out its door not have been properly demagnetized. In contrast, in the academic library, all check-outs are done face-to-face and there is a person who checks your bags when you leave the library. Again, what is it that dictates the different choices that these two institutions make? I once asked somebody who works at the library why they don’t just put in a security gate instead of hiring people to sit there and check people’s bags and was told it’s probably due to cost. Is labor, on a continuing basis, that much cheaper than a one-time capital expense? Amazing!
- The local public library probably has much higher circulation per volume than the academic library’s. This, I know, is due to the different missions of the two institutions. The public library, simply put, is there to make available materials that its patrons want to read. The academic library, in addition to doing that, has aims to put together thematically whole collections, to acquire and preserve for not just current use but for the sake of piecing together a complete picture of human thought (given constraints). In other words, the academic library does a lot more just-in-case acquisition. (Just in case somebody somewhere at an indeterminate time needs the materials? Just in case aliens land on earth and demand that we present to them all available materials ever printed, written, filmed, drew, or else they’d pulverize us into smithereens?) Lest my parenthetical remarks make me sound unsympathetic and a philistine, I do recognize the fact that availability may drive need in the first place. Academic libraries, due to their nature, probably need to acquire a lot more obscure, less-used materials because people can learn about the latest James Patterson novel from other sources, but they wouldn’t necessarily know about the Polish St. Hyacinth collection from the early 1900s unless their library curators tell them that the collection is sitting in the library’s cold storage. However (and you know a “however” was coming up), I’m also of the opinion that librarians want to put a dollar amount on these “aha!” moments. Just because something has a potential benefit does not mean it necessarily justifies its (often-unspoken) cost. What is the minimum probability that a collection of materials will ever be used are librarians willing to tolerate and defend spending money acquiring? How transparent is this probability? I’m not advocating an actuary table, but it’s not crazy to say “Given research value of this material, and the fact that I expect it to be used at least once in the next five years, I’m willing to spend no more than X dollars on it.” If at the end of that 5, 10, 15, year period, the librarian was proven wrong and nobody has used his materials, and if he’s wrong a lot, doesn’t he need to rethink his strategy? Of course, the upside of that is if people has requested materials that he’s rejected acquiring based on cost and expected use, he can afford be more generous in acquisitions and have the data to back up his increased generosity.
Given these differences between public and academic libraries, may collaboration between the two types of institutions not yield substantial benefits? While there are public libraries that band together in consortia with other public libraries, and academic libraries that do the same, I’m not aware of any crossing of the divide. Possibly there are barriers that I’m not aware of, but this is a topic to which I’d like to return. Stay tuned (and preferably clued to the seat of your chair out of excitement)!