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Summary: Symposium on Sustainable Models for Print Storage in 21st-Century Libraries

November 4, 2014—Librarians and faculty from across Harvard, the United States and even across the pond gathered to share problems and brainstorm solutions around the long-term life of print materials in a digital age at the Harvard Library’s Symposium on Sustainable Models for Print Storage in 21st-Century Libraries.

Large themes and issues such as funding and institutional culture were tackled by the speakers and panelists. Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, likened the topic of print storage to a twisted ball of yarn—something actually comprising a knot of complex issues like collection policies, systemization, cultural shifts, user behavior change and collaboration. “Print storage gives us a lens through which we can consider and observe a variety of issues about access to and management of collections,” she said.

About half of Harvard’s collection of nearly 20 million volumes is housed in the Harvard Depository, which is nearing capacity. Supported by the generosity of the Bradley M. and Terrie F. Bloom Family Fund and the Arcadia Fund, the symposium was envisioned by Thomas as a way to explore innovative alternatives via technology and collaboration with peers before commissioning a new module for the high-density facility.

“Knowing there have been a lot of developments in collections storage and development that leverage the power of collaboration, I thought it would be good for us to undertake a survey of what was happening,” Thomas said in her welcome. “My interest lies in action, in doing things; let’s focus on the things we might actually be able to put into place going forward. What does it mean for Harvard at large; what does it mean for our region, and even internationally?”

Panels enumerated various business models and strategies, possibilities for collaboration in collection development and opportunities for print and shared print opportunities.

During the keynote event, speakers Sir Drummond Bone of the University of Oxford and Debby Shorley, a research consultant formerly of Imperial College, delved into the genesis of the United Kingdom Research Reserve (UKRR), a collaboration between 29 research institutions and the British Library to pool low-use journal collections, creating a networked library system. Three print copies are always kept in the UKRR—two in the dispersed universities, one at the government’s central British Library—and many are digitized. Patrons from across the network can borrow the print and digital copies.

“I don’t think libraries themselves are important, I think what they do is important,” said Shorley. “The point is that researchers should be able to do the best possible research with access to the best possible material in the easiest way, and that does not mean having very large collections. What makes good libraries is ensuring that researchers can have access to what they need.”

In the UKRR, duplicate copies beyond the three reserve issues were removed from the collections, a difficult step for many involved. “The idea of disposal is like Chernobyl to most academics,” explained Bone, who played a key role in founding the UKRR. Funding and communications were the hardest hurdles to overcome. “This was not about space, but guaranteeing availability long-term. We had to work carefully to persuade academics that de-duplication was just that.” Over 83 kilometers of shelving and £25 million have been saved, Bone said, and the organizers are now looking ahead to adaptation to other types of holdings, like books.

And while other speakers also shared their own approaches to managing their print collections, everyone acknowledged the uniqueness of Harvard. According to OCLC Research Program Officer Constance Malpas, more than half the books from 3,000 American research libraries are in the Northeast corridor, and Harvard holds a quarter of them, or about 15% of books in academic libraries in North America. Any action Harvard takes has a significant effect nationwide.

“The Harvard Library will be among those to uphold a stewardship mandate for the scholarly and cultural records,” Malpas said. “It’s not a question of if, but of how.”

In her closing remarks, Thomas recognized the inflection point libraries face, and emphasized the importance of collaboration—and its potential outcomes—moving forward.

“There is a tension between current use and future use, and we need to embrace both. We are in this ecosystem together,” she said. “As we move toward being more analytical, we’re beginning to knit together experiences, to come together into a union that will ultimately create a new environment to support scholars.”