Indy library facing digital divide

library circulation

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – A new study shows more than a quarter of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library’s book collection hasn’t been checked out in at least a year.

It may signal a new “digital divide” that’s hitting libraries across the country, threatening to turn those that don’t adapt into book museums.

With an annual budget eclipsing $50 million, the IMCPL is the largest library system in the state. Last year, Indianapolis taxpayers spent more than $6.2 million to purchase new materials, adding nearly 300,000 new books to a system that’s now approaching 1.2 million total items, housed inside the central library downtown and the system’s 22 other branches across the city.

Using a new software program, librarians are closely analyzing that collection, trying to determine how to best serve both the borrowing public and taxpayers. That analysis could mark a shift in how the library operates as it moves into the 21st Century.

ANALYZING SPENDING

Circulation among the library’s 23 branches has essentially plateaued over the last five years, rising slightly in 2012 to 15.5 million after falling in each of the two previous years. Despite that, the library’s spending on new materials has held steady.

From classic children’s books by Shel Silverstein to SAT Test prep materials, hundreds of brand new books arrive at the Library Services Center just off Meridian Street every day.

Deciding what those materials are, and where they end up can be tricky.

“We have about 40 staff members in our division that select the materials, order the materials, receive them when they come in the back door and register them in our catalog,” said IMCPL’s Director of Circulation Management Debra Lambert. “We have about 250,000-300,000 items added to the system per year. And, those are physical items. We’re not even talking about e-books and downloadable audio books, which are an entirely different category.”

To accomplish that, the library employs five “selectors,” who specialize in deciding what the library should buy each year.

But, as borrowers shift their interest, knowing what to buy – and in what quantity – has become increasingly difficult.

So, last month, Lambert got a helping hand.

“We’re adding a new tool this year that allows us to really look at the data of how well certain parts of the collection are circulating. That helps guide our purchases to focus on what our patrons are most interested in, and focus less on things that are less interesting, or are not circulating among our patrons,” she said.

It’s called “collectionHQ,” and, for the first time in a decade, it’s telling librarians the story behind every book on the library’s shelves. The library’s last did a collection analysis when it switched to a “floating collection” among its many branches.

And, it’s already yielding dividends.

For example, librarians now know that the average book sits on the shelf for about two weeks before it’s checked out. But, the software has also uncovered something more troubling: last year, 26.4 percent of the library’s collection were never checked out.

More than a quarter of the library’s collection – 312,201 books – likely sat idle on the shelves.

A SHIFTING COLLECTION

It’s a critical question for librarians across the country: how many un-borrowed books are too many?

“That’s a shifting part of our collection development policy, of how much that percentage should be,” Lambert said. “If it hasn’t circulated in a year, we go to the shelf and we look at it and determine if it needs to be weeded. But, a lot of things like classics, you don’t want to weed after a year.”

Asked if that meant some copies of books in the library’s collection have never been checked out, Lambert said.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I can’t say we have a high percentage of that, but we do have some. We spend a lot of time making sure we have a good collection that does circulate to (avoid that).”

For IMPCL CEO Jackie Nytes, the bigger question is what’s behind the numbers.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

“That figure needs more study,” Nytes said. “They might not have circulated yet. It also could be that we made some bad purchases.”

Still, Nytes says the figure by itself isn’t alarming. Things like reference materials, periodicals, and foreign language books may be used inside the library, but not checked out. Patrons also may not be aware of other items recently added to the collection, she said.

“If 26 percent of what we bought never got used, I would be worried. But, that’s not what this says. And, even if it did, out of everything in the whole collection, 75 percent of it checked out in the last year? That’s pretty good,” Nytes said.

Just how good it is remains unclear.

BORROWING COMPARISONS

24-Hour News 8 surveyed library systems across Central Indiana, and nearly all said they don’t track statistics on the percentage of their collections that are not checked out. Johnson County’s Public Library system didn’t have exact numbers either, but estimated “about one-third” of its collection was likely un-borrowed by patrons last year.

Even larger cities like Columbus and Chicago said current software doesn’t enable them yet to calculate exact statistics on items that aren’t checked out.

But, recent reports from nearby Rockford, Ill. suggested as many as 65 percent of its library collection had not been checked out during the last five years. That library’s executive director told the Rockford Register Star the unused collection amounts to “bad practice.”

But, other cities similarly sized to Indianapolis did report lower average figures.

Jacksonville, Fla.’s library system houses a total collection of about 2.2 million items. It reported around 194,964 items that have not circulated in the last five years, about 11 percent.

The public library system in Austin, Tex. reported just 3 percent of its print book collection has not been checked out in more than five years, while e-Book circulation there has more than doubled in the last year alone.

IMCPL says it doesn’t keep historical data on un-circulated items past one year, thus, it’s  unable to compare with other systems long-term. But, it does share one trait: a shift toward digital demand.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

“Our society is transitioning, if you will,” Nytes, IMCPL’s CEO said. “There’s a continuum of where we’re at, with technology. I think our role will very much be to help people move down that technology continuum.”

Nytes says technology is already driving a change in the library’s mission.

“You used to go to the library if you had to find out information on almost anything. Now, you can look it up yourself (on the Internet). So, you don’t need us for that. But, there’s a whole lot of things that are not on the Internet in any sort of depth. And, frankly, sometimes there’s a million things on the internet and a person just gets overwhelmed just trying to figure out which ones are useful. People need assistance on how to navigate, and in some cases, how to even access. Many people getting tablets don’t have a clue how to use that tablet to get to something useful,” Nytes said.

That means a shift ahead in how the library purchases its new materials, she added.

“Whenever you’re providing a governmental service and you’re trying to do something for the common good, you have to be very sensitive to the return on that investment. So, we’re looking very hard at the materials we’re purchasing to make sure we’re buying the right ones, the ones that will meet the greatest demand, and if there are some things that are not going to be meeting high demand, we’re not going to be buying them,” Nytes said.

Still, IMCPL Board President Dorothy Crenshaw says that won’t immediately mean traditional books get abandoned.

“We want to have a balance. We want to have what our patrons need. And, a lot of people still need things in print,” she said.

Crenshaw said the un-borrowed rate also remains a moving target.

“I think (26 percent) is not an alarming number. Probably around 80/20 would be optimal, but we’ll take that. There’s some books that should be in the collection, and maybe there will be a point in time, even though they haven’t been used so far, where it will peak the interest of somebody or somebody will need it. And, it might be used,” she said.

Still, the library says “weeding” of unused materials is a regular practice.

Last year, its Library Foundation Bookstore brought in more than $257,000 selling nearly 184,000 old, low circulating books to people like teachers and low-income familes. That’s about $1.50 per book.

But, library administrators say profits are not the goal.

“The process really starts by asking: what’s the public need from the library these days? That’s the most fundamental question. We’re not here for our needs. We’re here to meet the needs of the community,” Nytes said.

Even if that means adapt to a new chapter, or be left behind.

“If it really hasn’t been used in years, we’re asking the question of why are we holding on to it,” Nytes said. “Just in case someone might come? I don’t think so. I think you will see a change very soon. We’re looking pretty hard at what is in our collection, and whether it is relevant.”

Click here for the new strategic plan.

Additional public input sessions are set to be held at each library branch over the next few weeks.

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