Thursday, January 30, 2014

Academic Library Nightmares [part one of a very irregular series]

Contrary to popular belief (well, at least as reported by CNN), life is not all beer and skittles for those who work in the library world. Every type of library has its own set of issues, of course; some of these issues overlap (like ebooks and declining demand for print resources, and demonstrating the library's continued relevance in times when competition for funding is anywhere from difficult to cut-throat), and some of them are unique to certain types of libraries.

Take your academic library, for example. Many larger academic libraries across the country (and the world) have serious space issues - specifically, they have collections that are really too large for them to house while simultaneously making new spaces for learning commons, instructional spaces, meeting and study rooms, computer support services, and other services and/or features that are desirable for students and faculty. Some libraries have gotten VERY creative in the attempt to keep their collections handy. Some libraries (including my undergrad alma mater) have installed robotic storage units where materials can be stored in a climate-controlled environment that can be quite compact and housed onsite to add to the convenience factor. But this is pretty expensive, and most universities don't have that kind of money laying around for such a purpose.

The solution increasing adopted by a number of these libraries is off-site storage - a location owned by the university or perhaps rented or leased where excess collections can be stored. These sites are accessible by library staff so that the volumes can be retrieved when patrons need them, but they are not always facilities that are really designed for the purpose. Most are quite well done, but there are always concerns about what might happen to the library's resources if there is a problem with the space. Since the Library, much less the College/University may not own the space, then everyone involved is hoping that nothing goes wrong, and is thinking about what could go wrong and how they would deal with it.

Unfortunately, the University of Missouri has had one of the nightmare scenarios come to pass. While the exact cause has not been announced, one of the storage facilities that the Library uses has been infested with mold that has affected some 600,000 volumes in storage. Anyone who has had to deal with a mold infestation can tell you just how insidious mold can be, and mold really does not play well with books. The good news is that there are processes that can remove mold from print material, the bad news is that it is not always possible (depending on the condition of the item) and that it is certainly not free. While an estimated cleanup cost of $3 per volume sounds pretty reasonable to you and me, it means that MU would have to come up with $1.8 MILLION dollars to try to treat all of the volumes - and as just about any library director will tell you, most of us don't just happen to have that money lying around in case of such contingencies. So they will have the completely unenviable choice of deciding what portion of the collection they want to try to salvage and which will have to be written off (barring an influx of funds to address the situation). My deepest sympathies go out to the Director and staff at MU; no matter what they do, chances are pretty good that SOMEONE in the long list of stakeholders is not going to be happy with the choices that get made.

OK, I can sense that Gentle Reader is not exactly quaking in their boots and nervously eyeing the walls right now. Go ahead, be complacent. Just hope that someone else has been thinking of what to do if disaster strikes, whether it is a very large insurance policy or a commitment from their institution to invest in climate-controlled space to house one of the largest single investments that any academic institution makes over its ongoing existence. And no, I don't mean the football team.

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