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The WEST Project: The First Shoe Drops for the Big Shift



Centralized mass storage for legacy print materials (paper-based books and journals) is by far the most under-observed trend in libraries today, so I was delighted to receive a memo from SCELC, the innovative consortium my library belongs to, outlining SCELC’s work with the WEST regional storage project and adding, “please also feel free to share this information with any colleagues you think might be interested.”

The memo itself is below, and states the big-picture rationale for the WEST quite succinctly. The phrase I want to emphasize is “reallocate space to meet local needs.” The first shoe dropping is space for print journals. I can hear our shelves sighing in relief as I write this. The second shoe dropping, of course, is for print books.

My library is a small, handsome midcentury facility with infrastructure challenges: heating, cooling, electricity, plumbing, networking, and a bodacious asbestos issue on the main floor, which partially explains why half the shelving isn’t bolted down, as we discovered when we began removing shelving last spring after weeding the reference collection to a fair-thee-well.

But the most significant infrastructure issue faced by the library facility is that the bulk of the space is occupied by very-low-use materials: books and journals.

In the mid-1950s, it made sense that the bulk of the library’s space needs were occupied by then-state-of-the-art information tools. But the only way our library can maintain relevance is to reclaim the bulk of this space for 21st-century services such as information literacy instruction, faculty technology development, group study, and cultural events. We are not a museum for obsolete information technologies; to again quote our beloved Ranganathan, “The library is a living organism.”

I deliberately use the phrase “very-low-use” to emphasize the persistence of print scholarship, since in some quarters the assumption is that books and journals can simply be sent off to recycling (and of course, this is the right place for some of this material). Use of legacy print materials will continue to wane, but as much as Google would like us to think otherwise, print materials will continue to be part of our scholarly workflow for a long time to come, and some valuable materials will never be digitized.

As I was suggesting a year or two back in my Bristlecone idea posts, true preservation of the print artifacts within our scholarly record requires centralized curation in mass storage facilities. Six copies of a hard-to-find book held in six small space-challenged libraries is not a preservation strategy. As needs arise, we would each weed that book until it no longer exists, or the books would be lost to theft or damage.

Those of us working close to fault lines are even more acutely aware that all we can really  do at the local level is maintain working collections, with no promise of actual “preservation.” We’re just a Big One away from destruction of our legacy materials. To truly preserve the scholarly record, those six copies need to be curated intentionally at a  level far above the local library, each in a geographically separate facility.

Note that one reason I am so interested in OCLC’s web-scale catalog and its Navigator inter-ILS sharing system is that a web-scale catalog is such a good fit for centralized mass storage.

I had been trying to write about the “difference factor” — the unique characteristics of OCLC’s Web Management System and its Navigator product — but the WEST memo helps me explain it. Very soon (which at my age means ten to fifteen years), resource-sharing for legacy print materials will shift from a primarily local activity to a primarily regional activity. Request fulfillment will happen efficiently and quickly; we won’t be retrieving books from local shelves, but we will be retrieving more legacy materials that anyone every thought possible, faster and more efficiently. The scholarly expectation will shift to the understanding that print materials take a couple of days to arrive–slower than pulling a book from a shelf, but faster than traditional interlibrary loan.

Web-scale library data management is another reclamation project–not of space, but of time. We are finally on the brink of killing the quaint but frustrating idea that a library needs a mirrored database of its OCLC holdings (and must spend ridiculous amounts of resources ensuring its local database corresponds with its central database). This is a holdover idea from our card-catalog days that will finally be put to rest (violently, if I have my way).

Additionally, the Navigator resource-sharing software allows libraries to create regional sharing systems that allow discovery to ripple out from the local, regional, and global level. What I expect–which no one has said out loud so far–is that it is the local level of discovery that will soon die.

In other words, we’ll be using Navigator to find and move legacy materials from the regional-trust level into the scholars’ hands, and then back again. Navigator can do this because it is web-scale from the ground up and leverages the WorldCat database we have all been building lo these forty-odd years. Other existing inter-ILS software products are anachronistic in design, based on a feudal resource-sharing structure where the software creates weak temporary links between local library database holdings, all tied within a closed system.

It doesn’t matter how cheap or expensive these older products are (though it does matter a little to me that the money gets plowed back into for-profit companies, not a collective). The point is they are dying technologies, based on the same midcentury assumptions that devoted 90% of our library to a technology that is now 10% of its services (or much less, if you subtract traditional print reserves). These systems may look fine right now to their participants, but it will hit home as soon as a library director receives a memo like I received and seriously contemplates the structural reorganization of request fulfillment that centralized mass storage will bring.

Anyway, this memo is the best news I’ve received about the future of libraries in a long time. I have been asked if I think we should replace or renovate our library. My answer is that I have no cards up my sleeve; without further information from an expert library space planner, I’m neutral on that point–but that I feel very strongly that our space planning needs to revolve around the assumption that services will largely replace storage (and that “flexibility is the key to air superiority,” as we said in the USAF).

Oh, and to bring up Bristlecone again, it’s always nice to hear that an idea dismissed as “impractical” and “lofty” will be coming soon to a regional trust facility near you. Not subject-specific, but good enough to fit. (A decade ago I was scoffed at for suggesting the legacy print book would become an anachronism in my lifetime; who’s scoffing now?)


From the memo:

For the last few months SCELC has been working with the University of California and others on a Mellon Funded project called “WEST: Toward a Western Regional Storage Trust.”  … WEST is applying to the Mellon Foundation for implementation funding, and is interested in learning if SCELC members wish to participate in this program going forward.

WEST offers these benefits to participating libraries:

1. Reclaim and reallocate library space. Availability of a trusted regional archive will allow participating libraries to de-accession journal holdings with confidence and reallocate space to meet local needs. WEST has identified over 8,000 journals for priority archiving, which would result in over 300,000 volumes to be archived. This would enable deselection of over 1 million corresponding volumes in the original 20+ planning libraries alone, for an aggregate savings of over 200,000 linear shelf feet in those libraries.

2. Preserve the scholarly record. Development of a coordinated persistent archive will aid national and international efforts to protect important research resources as libraries adapt to a more fully digital environment.

This project has made great progress in a short time and it seems highly likely that many academic libraries will join WEST and that additional funding from Mellon is a strong possibility. Although some might see this effort as primarily aimed at serving large research libraries, we are seeing a much broader interest and the hope/intent is that many libraries will want to join at a low price via consortial membership.  SCELC is willing to serve as such a collecting point.

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