The pluses and minuses of merging specialty branches or collections

Mar 05 2011 Published by under libraries

Many if not most or all large research institutions with distributed specialty branch libraries and collections are closing the branches and merging the collections into the general collection. While we all lament these actions, I wanted to post some pluses and minuses.

Branch libraries tend to focus on a specific research area. For example, chemistry branches have been quite common. The materials that are purchased for the branch are targeted specifically for the research interests of their users and the librarians from these branches typically specialize in searching that area of the literature – even more than liaison librarians do in general research libraries. Some branch libraries are funded in part from department money or have materials that were purchased or licensed by departmental funds. The branches are in or near the departments they serve. Over time the specialized expertise of the librarians working closely with the department and the tailored purchasing creates a collection that is quite efficient for finding information.

In previous years of poor funding and with the big deal packages, the branch libraries have aligned more closely with the dean of the libraries and the entire library system. Licenses for electronic materials are negotiated campus wide, even if the print copy (or archival print copy) remains in the branch. The librarians in general report to the libraries and not to the departments (although I know of one case where this isn’t true).

Some of the negatives of branch libraries. Every point of service costs money. Even if you just have student staffers in the evening, that’s more staff. There’s also the power and lighting. There’s the courier that has to go to a different location. There’s the space that the department is giving up that could be labs or offices or meeting rooms.

Also, what about all of the interdisciplinary work? If you do chemical physics you go to the physical sciences library, if you do physical chemistry you go to the chemistry library (at one point, a lot would be duplicated, but no one has the money for that anymore!). So there goes some of your serendipity, right? The things that would be housed together are now in two different buildings. If you’re an undergrad you have to hoof it. If you’re faculty you might be able to request something be sent over.

When branch libraries are closed, duplicate materials may be weeded, but the majority of the materials will be merged into the general collection. That might mean that they are spread far and wide. Most of them might go to off-site storage (in the case of one at Maryland, they were like, yeah only about 400 people are interested in this publication so we’ll put it off-site – of course, the entire population of the school was 400 people).

Library-as-place issue surfaces, too. Branch libraries are good places for students in that area to study – more so than going to the general branch because they’re with people who are struggling with the same issues.

At the same time, for research areas where electronic resources are most valued, monographs aren’t all that important, and references to historic documents is rare, it probably does make sense to get rid of the branch.

What happens to the librarian?  She’s moved to the general library, picks up a few more departments, and, unless she works pretty hard at it, loses touch a little with the old department as she learns about the new departments.

If you had to make the choice, would you pay to keep the same electronic access or to keep the branch? (don’t believe you’ll get more money for resources from this, because it’s expensive to close a branch and electronic resources get more and more expensive – this is only to tread water)

Comments are off for this post