Sustainability is about managing your collection, in the short, medium & long term. The scramble to meet customer demand in the short-term can sometimes overshadow the medium-term & long-term aspirations of a sustainable, quirky, deep, balanced collection.
In 2012, the customer demand for Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James caught most public libraries by surprise. Holds lists grew exponentially, and almost everyone I knew in Collections was scrambling for stock to meet demand. The debates about holds ratios (the numbers of customer holds : the number of copies) raged in library back rooms across New Zealand, and no doubt the rest of the world.
At what point do we accept that we can’t keep buying copies just to meet our agreed standards of service, for example, 1 book : 5 customer requests. If there are 2000 people on the holds list, do we actually want to buy 400 copies just to meet demand?
What will meeting that immediate need now mean in five years time? Where the heck do we put those 400 no-longer wanted copies of Fifty Shades of Grey?
How sustainable are our current decisions for our future collections?
Yes, I know that this book is an exception to the usual rule. There’s always demand for certain books, certain authors, certain topics, and for the most part, we manage our requests lists effectively, but sometimes we don’t stop to think about the future impact.
I heard some bookstores cleverly leveraged off public library demand by offering a discount on the book for any customer who showed their library card, and they also offered discounts on bundles of the Shades trilogy. These are our “competitors” and they got more creative than most libraries did, as most just went into “buy more copies” mode instead of taking a deep breath and looking for some alternatives.
Some libraries did get creative to proactively manage their holds list. They contacted all customers to offer format alternatives (audio books, ebooks, bestseller and large print copies), and they encouraged staff to offer these same alternatives to customers. Spreading demand across all formats therefore balances out the holds ratio to meet agreed service levels. This is proactive customer service.
Other libraries contacted customers to say “we’ve got 40 print copies of [title] in the system, and we will not be purchasing any more copies, therefore as #256 on the holds list, you may face a wait of up to 20 weeks for this title”, and then offered them alternative titles to read while waiting. This is proactive customer service.
Meanwhile other libraries asked customers to remove themselves from the holds list if they have managed to get hold of a book elsewhere. This proactive approach to customer service does two things, it gives a clearer picture of actual demand (enough holds might be removed so that you can meet your agreed customer service levels) and it also shows that you do give a damn about your customers experience.
And at some point, make a point of saying ” no more”. It isn’t sustainable to throw a large chunk of your budget at a narrow & immediate demand if it will create significant & subsequent issues further down the line.
So, when you look at your weekly or monthly holds reports and decide how to manage them, keep sustainability to the front of your decision.
What if … you had a shared document called “annual to-do collections list” for each of the upcoming 10 years, and current staff put in comments for future staff about topics & decisions to action?
For example, in the page for 2014, you could write, “cull copies of Fifty Shades of Grey – based on 400 copies purchased in 2012 to meet demand” and in the page for 2015, you could write “review popularity of cupcakes & macaroons”.
What if … each month, you reviewed your recent collection additions, and seriously answered these questions:
- what “hot” topics have been bought for an immediate need that we *should* no longer hold on the shelves in five years time? Is there a way to use your system to mark those titles for review/withdrawing in 24-48 months?
- how much of the budget was spent on purchasing additional copies to meet unexpected holds demand? Is there are way to improve our predictions on what is going to be be in hot demand?
- what computer topics will be obsolete in five years time? Is there another way to provide content access for now?
- have we included our bestseller copies into our holds ratio figures? Is there a clear date when we’ll add those copies into the general circulation collection to support the holds ratio?
What if … you imagined what you wished the collections staff had done five or ten years ago to make your life easier now? Could you do that for your future Collections staff?