Counting books is boring

At SUNYLA this year, someone asked me about collection measures, and I think that’s when I said “I don’t care” and made several people very happy. Even if that’s not when I said it, I still don’t care.

I said it again today, when a friend innocently asked a bunch of us what our staff FTE and collection size are. I answered the FTE question (22), but … I still don’t care about the size of our collection. Here’s why.

Collection sizes are measuring sticks that tell you something about the relative wealth of an institution over time. They also used to be the way to assess the value an institution put on information resources, a way to assess the volume of information available to its community, and a way to justifiably say “my library is among the top 10 libraries for research into the origins of space monkeys”.

But here are my objections:

  1. Collection counts are print-era measures, and I don’t run a print-era library.
  2. Collection counts are input measures, and I’m more interested in output successes.
  3. Collection counts are an irresponsible way to evaluate the health of a collection.

Lemme elaborate.

I don’t run a print-era library. How many books I buy no longer tells you how much money I put into information resources — not by a long shot. Our book budget is routinely about 35-45% of the materials budget; the rest is online information and print periodicals. That online information encompasses resources we couldn’t even have begun to describe when we started counting how many books a library owned — online journals, full-text indexes, search and discovery tools, streaming audio sites, repositories of data sets for research, image collections, online encyclopedias, ebooks, and more. What on earth could the count of books in the libraries tell you about the wealth of information resources in my library, and what I spend on them?

Input does not equal output (and input is boring). What we buy is one thing, and I can tell you about it. What we produce with those resources is another, and I’d much rather tell you about that.  Information literacy outcomes, number of students served in our study spaces, type and volume of traffic at our help desks, attendance at and content of and discussion sparked by public events, and number and type of collaborative instruction sessions taught. Research consultations conducted, microfilm borrowed and lent, chess games played, and  reams of paper run through the printers. Use of our computers, databases, online resources, and print collections. Feedback received, internships sponsored, guest lectures given. I want to tell you about the impact we have on our community, impact we are able to make real because we have resources. The resources on their own are pretty uninteresting compared to the other stories I can tell you about what we do and why it has value.

Healthy collections aren’t always big collections. Let’s say I decided to tell you that I have 2 million books in my two libraries. (I don’t.)  How would you feel about that number if I then said that they were all bought before 1982? Or after 1963?  Or let’s say we are currently buying books; I tell you we buy 5000 books a year. Now what if you learn that all 5000 are best-selling fiction? Or that none are best-selling fiction? Or that we only buy top-reviewed academic titles in the major conspectus areas identified by the libraries’ collection team during our strategic planning review? What if that strategic planning review was done in 1976? Or how about if the faculty select all 5000 books, with minimal support from librarians? Or if the faculty select none of the books, and it’s all done by librarians? Or if it’s neither, but all Purchase on Demand through what was once ILL? Or 20% PoD? 40%? 60%? What if I told you that the collection was growing in a healthy way, with strong community involvement, but that it hadn’t been weeded … ever? Or if I told you that it was growing in smart ways, and had been weeded dramatically to support strategic goals three years ago? Or it was weeded, but we’ve stopped buying new books to augment what’s there? Weeded, with 90% PoD? All of these pieces of the puzzle, in concert with each other and informed by local identity, mission, and needs, impact how we evaluate the health, utility, efficiency, and impressiveness of a collection. The raw number means nothing without contextualization.

Well, that’s not true. How many books we have tells you how many books we have. I just don’t think that data point, on its own, is very useful.  So when someone real and official asks me, I can answer. But I often choose not to because I don’t think it’s at all interesting.


  1. This post makes me happy. I’m glad I’m not the only one who realizes collection size numbers mean nothing if there’s no context. The numbers are easy enough to come by, but what’s the point when they don’t actually say anything useful?


  2. I really enjoyed this post, particularly the last paragraph. Context is so important!

    Also, I was wondering if you perhaps have any advice on applying to graduate programs in library science/information? Just as you’re someone who’s been through all that. It’s that time of year…


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