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Monograph Deselection Project

What is this project about?

The Davis Family Library is facing a space shortage, especially in the areas designated for circulating books. The Library needs to reduce the size of the circulating collection in order to provide adequate space for updating and keeping the collection current.

When the building was designed, it was planned for 20 years’ growth in its print collections. However, since the building opened in 2004, space has been claimed for uses other than the collection; partly as a result of those space reassignments, including creating new classrooms and meeting rooms, the collection space was reduced to the point that it was functionally full in about 10 years. You may see empty shelves in places and wonder why we consider the space full: It's because a library needs to keep 20-25% of its shelf space clear in order to accommodate reshelving and shifting, which happens continually as new materials are added to the collection.

The library is reviewing circulating books only; it is not reviewing the following:

  • Journals or other periodicals
  • The Faculty Authors collection
  • Separately shelved language collections (Arabic, Japanese, Chinese)
  • Reference books
  • CDs, DVDs, VHS cassettes, or LPs
  • Government documents
  • Maps
  • Microfilm or microfiche
  • Anything in Special Collections & Archives
  • Equipment available for loan at the Circulation Desk
  • Anything digital/online
  • Any other materials at all. 

The project is fundamentally about proper, responsible stewardship of Middlebury’s intellectual resources in support of the academic work we do here. Reviewing collections and withdrawing materials is sometimes called "weeding," but a more appropriate description is pruning and thinning, in order to make space for and encourage further growth, with continued vitality in our collections as the goal. It’s something academic libraries should do on a regular basis, if not continually.

For more information, please contact your liaison librarian or Terry Simpkins.

How we developed the project

The starting point for the project was data from the Eastern Academic Scholars' Trust (EAST), which is designed to assure that scholars in the eastern US have access to the scholarly record of print monographs and print journals and serials, ensuring that copies of even infrequently used materials are retained in sufficient number to be readily available. The project analyzed collections among ~45 libraries to identify overlap and assign title-retention commitments according to usage, so enough copies would be available to meet demand across the group. Libraries initially committed to retain their assigned titles for 15 years and to lend them to other libraries. Libraries holding a title not assigned to them for retention on behalf of the group are free but not required to withdraw it according to their own needs and practices. If they do withdraw it, it is assured to be available from other libraries via interlibrary loan.

The EAST data provided us with information on our own collections, including usage data, but more important, data on how many other libraries hold each item. That information helps identify what we can afford to let go from our shelves in the knowledge that we will be able to borrow it from another library. 

With that data in hand, we added data from our own cataloging/acquisitions/circulation system in order to identify titles that had been specifically requested and those used for reserves. We then created shelf lists for the entire circulating collection--some 483,000 volumes--divided into subject lists according to the Library of Congress Classification System. Access to the lists is located in the menu on the left side of this page; from those lists, you can select titles for us to retain or withdraw, and to request that titles, if withdrawn, be sent to you for your private use.

To learn about the next steps in the process, including how you can be involved, please see “How to give input” and the FAQs.

For more information, please contact your liaison librarian or Terry Simpkins.

Some philosophical and historical context

Something that often surprises library users is that most libraries don’t serve as a cumulative repository of the human record. Some large research university libraries can aspire to building truly comprehensive collections, but given the mushrooming rate of advance in human knowledge since the Industrial Revolution--magnified exponentially by the online world of the last 25 years or so--small college libraries in particular can’t even pretend to do it. We don’t have the space, staff, or other resources to collect everything, so we focus on making sure we have the materials most relevant to the scholarly work currently happening on campus.

Because the state of scholarly knowledge isn’t static, neither is our library collection; it’s a body of material representing knowledge that constantly shifts and realigns over time, reflecting growth, development, and changes in the College’s curriculum, which recursively reflects and contributes to the current and developing state of scholarly knowledge. Since these changes happen over long periods of time, they’re rarely apparent during anyone’s four-year (or 20-year) career on campus, but a snapshot of our collection foci and methods from ten years ago would look different from one taken today--not radically, but different nonetheless. A snapshot taken 50 years ago would look very different.

With that constant motion in mind, it becomes easier to understand that any academic library not attempting to be a comprehensive repository of human knowledge needs to keep its collections under constant review, to ensure that it continues to serve its institution’s active needs for information. In turn, that means we should be constantly reviewing what we’ve added in the past, reassessing its ongoing relevance as we select new materials to support new needs. Like many other small, selective liberal-arts schools, Middlebury hasn’t systematically reviewed our collection in decades, if ever, and we have on our shelves materials that are outdated, superseded, and/or no longer relevant to the scholarly work we do at Middlebury. At various times over the years, Middlebury library staff have reviewed discrete sections of the collection, but no one currently on staff can recall any comprehensive review taking place.

The reasons academic libraries in the United States have rarely reviewed their collections comprehensively lie in twentieth-century academic history: After World War II, the GI Bill allowed large numbers of returning military personnel to go to college, resulting in rapid growth in higher-education institutions. As part of that expansion, academic libraries collected more and more print materials to support new programs. Further fueling the growth in library collections was the increasing pace of advance in scholarly knowledge as a result of the increasing number of professors, researchers, and other scholars working in higher education. During the Cold War and its associated technological development, the US government poured even more money into academic research, even further driving library collection activities. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the measure of a library's quality was the size of its collection, which discouraged collection review and the removal of outdated materials. 

The concept of a library as the repository of human knowledge first arose when written knowledge was scarce, as at first every copy of a given work had to be produced manually, written out in longhand from a manuscript or a previous copy. For most of recorded human history, we’ve assumed and cherished the concept of a permanent, comprehensive repository, and to those living the life of the mind, the idea of preserving the human record is of fundamental importance, a bedrock assurance that ideas will always matter.

Even after the printing press revolutionized publishing and made written knowledge more broadly available—accompanied by a rise in literacy—it was still assumed that the sum of human knowledge would be limited enough that it would be possible to collect and preserve everything published, perceived at the time as a natural function of libraries. But nineteenth-century industrialization and then the electronic age changed the physical reality of collecting human knowledge. Even in the online era, with predictions of paperless offices and the death of print books now 30 years old, print publishing has continued to mushroom, and at Middlebury, the demand for print books remains high. In academic year 2018-2019, Middlebury students, faculty, and staff checked out print books 48,282 times (not including renewals), averaging 132 times each day if the library were open 365 days/year. During the academic year, more than 10,000 print books are checked out at any given time.

As print publishing has increased and small college libraries in particular face space shortages, these libraries have had to focus more on providing access to books of lesser importance, as opposed to owning them, while actually owning the more important materials. As noted above, some large university libraries have the space and resources to build comprehensive collections, which are often needed in order to support multiple graduate programs and professional-level research. We do some advanced work here at Middlebury, but we can’t even pretend to maintain and continue building a truly comprehensive collection. Instead of librarians purchasing books we think are needed or might be needed in the future, we've come to rely more on our users telling us what they need at the time they need it, in the form of purchase requests. Other materials we obtain through Interlibrary Loan, and as described above, we participate in a large project to ensure that print materials we don’t own will still be available via that route. We do still collect materials on our own through a variety of methods, but much of what we purchase is on user request, in order to maximize the collection's ability to meet our users' needs.

What we now face is the need to manage our space to continue keeping the circulating print collection updated and relevant. That’s what this project is about.

For more information, please contact Terry Simpkins. He’ll be happy to meet with anyone or any group to talk more about library collections and/or this particular project.