One book can cost more than $4 a year to shelve. So what's a library to do?

The age of endless storage is over, says one librarian

As schools revamp their libraries to be less book-centric, storage space is becoming an issue. Writing in The Conversation, Donald Barclay, Deputy University Librarian at the University of California-Merced, breaks down how colleges and universities are responding.

Libraries are evolving quickly. In 2011 the University of Chicago (UChicago) completed its $81-million effort to bring all its volumes under one roof. The idea was novel: Put the books under one roof—by putting some of them underground. "The renovation included a subterranean automated system that can store and retrieve up to 3.5 million books," Barclay writes.

But the UChicago project could also signal the "end of an era," he says. For instance, the University of Michigan's newly renovated Taubman Health Sciences Library doesn't even have any books, opting instead for collaborative spaces and exam rooms where medical students can simulate patient care.

Barclay, it seems, sees the writing on the wall. "While I believe there will always be a place for the book in the hearts of academics, it is far less likely there will be a place for the book, or at least for every book, on the academic campus," he writes.

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Cost is a major factor driving the trend. A 2009 study by the Council on Library and Information Resources estimated the annual cost (in 2009 dollars) of keeping a book in the stacks was $4.26. High-density shelving lowers the price to $0.86 per year, but with millions of volumes in storage, things can get expensive quickly.

As a result, "academic financial officers blanch at proposals to build new on-campus storage capacity for thousands, in some cases millions, of books," Barclay writes.

Managing change

But some schools are finding ways to cut storage costs and hold onto their collections while still rethinking the role of their libraries. One common tactic is to remove books from the collection, although that can lead to future costs and unhappy professors.

High-density, low-cost, off-campus storage is an increasingly popular strategy, too. Books at such facilities remain in the library's catalogue and can be retrieved as needed. In 2014, there were about 75 facilities of this type in the United States.

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In some cases, a group of schools will for partner on a storage facility to cut costs even further. For instance, Columbia University, The New York Public Library, and Princeton University jointly store over 12 million volumes as part of the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium.

In Texas, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University even overcame their fierce rivalry to jointly store over one million books.

Multi-library agreements also offer a way for schools to use their catalogues more efficiently. "A member library agrees to hold an archival print copy of a bound journal or monograph so that other members of the consortia can dispose of their copies," Barclay explains.

While none of these strategies are perfect, Barclay concludes, "the inescapable calculus of more print books and less on-campus space to house them will, in the end, overwhelm resistance" (Barclay, The Conversation, 8/19).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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