Print collections in math

Ever heard the library is the mathematician’s laboratory? (cited many places including here, pdf) Mathematicians do use the library and they do use older literature more than some fields. Specialized math librarians often work quite closely with the researchers to develop the collection. Being a specialized math librarian is a dying breed as branch libraries are being closed to save money and math collections are being migrated to big general science libraries. Also in most research collections, there’s a huge push to go electronic only and to move the print collections off site (or to weed them) to provide more space for group work and studying.

So how do you balance the needs of this special group of users with the push from administration?  I actually don’t know*, but there has been a fascinating thread on the mailing list of the Physics-Astronomy-Math division of SLA.

It started with Debra asking if anyone had committed to maintaining a set number of linear feet of math collection. Here are some points pulled from the answers:

  • no way- we’re trying to go online all the way!
  • younger math researchers are actually ok with electronic access, and the things we have off site we’ll scan for them and deliver, so it’s actually quite convenient
  • math needs more monographs than other fields and it’s very common to chain using citations so a big browsing collection is important
  • one institution doesn’t send any math offsite, but this was part of an agreement when the math branch library was closed
  • Nan from Penn State did a study so they could keep 90% of what their mathematicians cited. The first time she did the study she needed to keep 40 years and the second time she needed to keep 45 years of the collection on site. (there’s more to it, I’m looking forward to seeing her article whenever the next issue of Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship comes out.)
  • it’s only pure math that is particular about print – other math areas are not as concerned. There’s a lot of serendipity and a lot of browsing.
  • some departments want to approve what items are sent off or weeded on an item by item basis.
  • current library catalogs are not adequate replacement for browsing full shelves, so that’s one reason to keep the print on site.
  • don’t forget that information needs are cyclical so to set the used in x years too short, you’ll have big problems. Also don’t forget the grad students and outliers.
  • keep early, classic textbooks that have good explanations
  • if the only equipment the mathematicians get is pencil and paper, give them some slack for wanting books!
  • no one reads math on the computer, they might want it online, but then they print to read
  • requesting something from another location or offsite adds a delay and slows the whole process
  • if things really aren’t being used when they are close by, then they won’t be missed off site!
  • some users are fine with electronic access, it really might depend on your users!

I wonder if checkouts are ever a good metric since a lot of this stuff might be used within the library, some photocopies made, and then returned to the shelf. We had a very helpful mathematician who always just looked stuff up standing in the reference section. Consequently, no circulation and no proof of usage!**

These math librarians are great mentors with lots of awesome advice. I highly recommend this list for any librarians in physics, astro, math or cs.

Update: Nan's article is out (open access)
Butkovich,N.J. (2010) How Much Space Does a Library Need? Justifying Collections Space in an Electronic Age. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 62

* Our mathematicians are not into “pure math” – but applied and statistics. They often publish in SIAM, IEEE, and public health publications and do use online tools.

** No, I don’t blame him for us losing our entire print collection… always a sore point.

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