Removal of Collections Causes Concern Among Library Patrons

A new study on the changing role of libraries sponsored by McGraw-Hill Education reveals frustration among library patrons with losing access to physical copies of books. Whether access is restricted over concerns of theft, lack of space, or as part of a trend toward digital collections, the study shows this trend definitely affects how patrons feel about using the library. Faculty rated access to information as the primary function of the library, yet many complain they don’t have print references for public anymore; they are all behind the shelf.

Beyond inconvenience, removing books raises other questions. If research is exclusively digital, are physical library buildings obsolete? Limiting physical collections can certainly make it easier for administrations to re-assign or take away library space, which appears to be a growing trend. Several librarians expressed concerns that space is being removed for other functions. Less space makes it difficult for libraries to fulfill their mission, and is noted as a key concern by both librarians and faculty. So what should library space be used for?

If you ask the general public, they are warming to the idea of stocking fewer books to make more room for community and technology spaces. In a 2015 study by Pew Research entitled Libraries at the Crossroads, a full 30% polled said libraries “definitely” should be doing this (up from 20% back in 2012) while only 25% of those polled felt strongly against reducing book collections (down from 36% in 2012). Yet, while general public opinion seems to be slowly softening toward stocking fewer hard copy volumes, patrons of academic libraries don’t necessarily agree.

Most faculty and teachers are aware that having a library is fundamental to the educational success of students and is reflected in student performance. Some faculty even go so far as to say that removing volumes from the library should be libraries’ top concern. Even if educational settings were completely on board with a total digital transition, it doesn’t follow that library patrons prefer reading online or prefer switching to digital collections.

Consider recent research from American University’s linguistics professor Naomi Baron. In 2010 and 2013 she polled university students worldwide to determine reading preferences of Millennials. More than 80% said they preferred print books, in spite of the cost savings and convenience of eBooks. The main reasons cited for using digital texts were budget constraints and saving the environment. So while library patrons support using digital for financial and environmental reasons, they still strongly prefer hard copy volumes to study, and with good reason: Recall and comprehension seem to suffer when students use only digital texts to study. Students need help discerning credible sources of information and need help with academic research—help that can only come from a library and librarian.

For an in-depth look at the survey results, please download our white paper The Changing Role of Libraries.

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