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20,583 Feet of Shelving

May 10, 2004

Let’s get right to it. You’ve bypassed Mr. Coffee for instant this morning just to save time. The question has burned in your mind since last week’s column: Just how much shelf space did Interlibrary Loans save public libraries in 2002?

20,583 feet of shelving, give or take. That’s a library seven or eight times the size of ours, give or take.

You shrug. I don’t blame you. Such comparisons rarely help. Has it ever helped you grasp the universe to think about the earth being the size of a pea and the closest star being somewhere like Canon City?

Try this one: The average unit in our fiction section is three feet wide and seven shelves high. Imagine a thousand such units full of books. Line ‘em up down F Street from 9th to the light.

Such savings are not the raison d’etre for Interlibrary Loan service. Neither is borrowing a French dictionary so you can look up raison d’etre; your library should already own one.

Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is one way for a library to get you what you need as cheaply and quickly as possible. It is related to the thing librarians discuss called “collection development.”

Every year, 150,000 new print titles are published. Every year, some 2 million books remain “In Print” with publishers. How many of these does any library get to choose?

Here, it’s about 5,000, give or take, across all formats: books, video, audio. But not counting magazines and newspapers.

We could, theoretically and on average, probably buy all requested books. When I look at what it costs us to borrow or lend a book via ILL, which is about $5.66, and what it costs us to “lend” books from our own collection, which is about $4.28, and then at what it cost us for items that went unused after purchase, we come close.

If we were very conservative about buying urequested items, we might absorb the cost of all requests. This is an interesting exercise, but you’ve probably already seen some of the problems.

Price and availability are one. We borrowed a book for a teacher this year called “Spring Snowman,” a charming story by an author who remains in print, but this particular title is out of print. There are very few for sale on the used book market. The cheapest was $75.

We’d love to own it, but we’ll wait to see if it gets re-published.

Now you recall the other question left over from last week: Do we buy books for which there is no demand? I said, yes and no. There are 682 circulating items that were purchased in 2003 that still have not yet been checked out. Most are non-fiction books, spread between adult and children’s collections.

Given the size of our collection and the usage of our library, most items get checked out eventually. However, I know how I use a library, and circulation figures alone will never account for all of my “use.”

We build the collection around our users’s interests, which by itself brings us both breadth and depth, but also around the culture at large. We are blessed with library users who are interested in the world and who help us keep a fairly rich collection on the shelves.

Take note of a milestone: Last month was the first time that we lent as many as we borrowed via Interlibrary Loan: 81, give and take. Ideally, all libraries will reach this point.


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