The Invisible Library, For Real…

Somewhen last year I started thinking about what the consequences of an “invisible library” might actually be (Joining the Flow – Invisible Library Tech Support and The Invisible Library (Presentation)) and it seems like one consequence might be – no books!

Following a series of workshops on Library futures, it seems as if the OU Library is going to get rid of it’s book stock… Now this isn’t actually as daft as it first might sound: the OU Library doesn’t loan out physical books to students as a rule (except maybe to local students) and the book stock is maintained for scholarly (course writing) purposes, as well as to support research.

It also turns out that maintaining the book stock is expensive: the cost of shelf space and overheads on top of the costs associated with issuing loans and returns, as well as restacking books, binding and cataloguing (i.e. the total cost of ownership of the book) means that the annual cost per book loan per year exceeds the cost of users just buying the equivalent books for themselves and reclaiming the costs.

So it seems that the Library will be ramping up its disposal policy and getting rid of its book stock over the next year, apart from a small collection of books donated to the University by the books’ authors (the “vanity collection”, apparently?!) and books authored by members of the university (the “repository collection”).

In place of the book stock, university members will be encouraged to purchase books themselves, and reclaim the costs via a faculty managed fund. Once the book has been finished with, it will place on the ‘virtual bookshelf’ (i.e. an ‘invisible’ bookshelf ;-), using one of the first devlab_alpha applications, a revamping of the old KMI bookshelf application. (This application allowed individuals to maintain a list of ISBNs of books they had in their office on a personal profile page, so that other people could see what books were available ‘down the corridor’ and then borrow them at a local/personal level.)

I’m hoping that a variant of my Library Traveller script will become part of this invisible library play, though rather than looking up books on the soon to be redundant OPAC, it’ll look books up on the Virtual Library shelves, as well as integrating with the expenses claims system (so when you buy a book on Amazon, for example, you can automatically file a claim at the same time).

I’m also hoping that the incredible Fran Thom, who’s managed to argue this initiative through, will be able to come up to the second Mashed Libraries event in July – Mash Oop North – and motivate some of the other HE libraries that will be gathered there to drop some of their collections too…

PS it seems that user surveys ranked the smell of books in the library higher than the actual book stock in terms of what people expected from the new library building when it was being designed, which maybe explains why we have the scented air in the library? At the moment, they pipe in an aroma somewhere between pine forests and olive groves, on top of the natural smell of the building, but whether this is to mask the disappearing smell of the book collection when it does go, or to allow the Library staff to pipe in a replacement “essence of books, number 23” scent when the book collection disappears, I don’t really know?)

PS Always check the date stamp of a post..;-) But it makes you think, doesn’t it…?!

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

13 thoughts on “The Invisible Library, For Real…”

  1. This is _really_ significant I think (where did you get it from?). This line is telling “the annual cost per book loan per year exceeds the cost of users just buying the equivalent books for themselves and reclaiming the costs”. If the virtual shelf thing can be made to work it would be a major shift. It needs to have that browsability that you get in a real library, ie not just for getting a specific book, but also finding others.
    What we gonna do with that shiny building then?

  2. “What we gonna do with that shiny building then?”

    I believe that the building will become a green workspace, literally.

    The power generation thing they’ve got running [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9grJ5fHoZ4 ] is only a part of it. One of the reasons the building is so light inside is because they’re going to replace the book area with a green floor – lots of hot desks arranged around a hydroponics system growing sustainable coffee beans for the Digilab [ http://digilab.open.ac.uk/ ] (the plant residue will be used in the biomass power generation plant in what was the incinerator).

    It’s absolutely incredible that they’re actually doing this?! :-)

  3. Why oh why don’t book publishers simply make the books smaller so that libraries can fit more of them onto their shelves? Each student could then be issued with a magnifying glass when they enrol.

    Alternatively, if authors didn’t use so many “big words” to make themselves look clever, books could be a lot shorter.

  4. I think Dave’s hit on something! Someone should do a research study on the environmental impact of verbosity. If we went through books and got an editor to trim them down, we’d probably halve most of them. Think of the trees we’d save! Except my books of course, no-one’s touching them.
    Re. green working space, sounds cool. Yes, I do think it’s amazing they’re doing this. I don’t suppose it would work in most conventional libraries, but it does make you realise the very obvious thing – libraries are essentially warehouses.

  5. Oh I see, forgot the date yesterday. Sorry, I skim read posts, so thought it was saying it would work for new books, following on from the virtual bookshelf trial. Sounds like a good plan really.

  6. Couple Dave’s microbooks idea with the benefits that randomised classification + RFID can bring (if there are 10 copies of a book each at a different shelf mark, chances are I’m within a short walk of at least ONE of them), and I confidently predict that within 12 months, libraries will be so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.

  7. Fiction seems to be ideally suited to being trimmed down. Think of all the spare time Jane Austin would have had on her hands if only she’d settled with just scribbling down “Lizzie married Darcy” on a bit of paper, instead of padding it out to 61 chapters. Perhaps this is a whole new retail opportunity — ultra short books for busy people?

    I agree with Paul’s prediction. Also, I don’t see why libraries needed to be so big in the first place — 640 books ought to be enough for anybody.

  8. I see the trend going the way of Kindle, totally cool the virtual access to what is becoming a huge library of books to read.

    Don’t get me wrong I love the feel of a book and to hold and read a great book is irreplaceable. But I love the Kindle also. Smart publishers will be including being part of the virtual library as main stream if they already aren’t.

    Thanks
    Brad West ~ onomoney

  9. “Why oh why don’t book publishers simply make the books smaller”

    As part of my Arcadia Fellowship with the University Library ion Cambridge, I hope to manage to get a day or two mulling over the consequences of their “classification according to book size” scheme…

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