The Other Eighty Percent: Dealing With Lesser-Used Items in a Library Collection

Librarians often use the rule that 20% of a library’s collection accounts for 80% of its use. However a recent OCLC study found that 80% of the circulation in a university library was driven by just 6% of the collection. Given that law libraries, whether academic, courthouse or private law firm, are constantly under space pressures, does this mean that we should be discarding the other 80-94% of the collection and using the space for something else? (Spoiler: my answer is “no”.)

Usage is not necessarily a good measure of the value of an item. There are items in my library that may get used once every two years. Does that make them less valuable? Not necessarily. “Grey literature” (non-commercial publications such as government publications) can be hard to track down. I am fortunate to have an excellent university library and courthouse library within easy reach, but they do not always own these ephemeral materials, and even if they do, they may not be available. (For example, the University of British Columbia’s law library underwent renovations recently, resulting in the collection being inaccessible.) When lawyers require these materials, they usually need them as soon as possible, so having them to hand saves lawyer time and stress.

So how do you know what lesser used materials in your library are valuable, and what aren’t? Well, why aren’t they high use materials? Do they belong to a niche area with a small number of potential users? Are they available in a different format that is preferable to users? (For example we have a set of the English Reports in print. Because of their age, it is much easier – and less dusty – to read them online.) Is it that users simply don’t know about them? (And why not?) Or are these materials no longer useful?

A collection development policy (as recently discussed on SLAW by Louis Mirando) is key; libraries – no matter what their size – need to have one, in addition to a weeding policy that formalizes what the criteria are for removing items from the library. (Karen Sawatzky wrote an great article on the subject of weeding one’s collection.) However one’s collection development policy cannot remain static: lawyers join the firm, bringing new clients and new practices; they develop new practice areas; new areas of law develop (for example, clean energy).

If libraries are facing space issues, one solution is to digitize these lesser used materials; while the “virtual” library space isn’t limitless, it does offer libraries a chance to archive materials that might not be deemed worthy of physical library space. The issue, of course, is that making electronic copies requires staff time and may run into copyright issues. If we don’t think an item is worthy of shelf space, why do we think it worthy of the staff time it would take to make a digital library?

How should librarians communicate the value of these items to their users? Wilma MacFarlane, former Library Manager at Farris LLP in Vancouver, handled the issue of lesser used but valuable items in an innovative way. She had one of her partners pull all the key texts for understanding the history of two specific subject areas (corporate law and railway law) and then had them bound in a distinctive binding to indicate their value. They may not have been the high use items, but they were incredibly valuable for historical research and this way their value could be made visible to library users.

While statistics about usage can be helpful, just knowing how often a book is borrowed is not, in itself, a useful measure of its value. Usage statistics need to be looked at in the context of the library’s clientele’s needs and the library’s collection policy. It is important for librarians to understand and to be able to articulate the value of such items in their collections, and what they add to the collection as a whole.

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