By Paul Duckworth, MLS
The concept of floating collections is one that tends to polarize librarians. Many of us either love or loathe the idea. Toss that topic out at a conference social hour and listen to the reactions.
“Floating collections—what a neat idea!”
“Floating collections—I don’t want that to happen in my library.”
“Our library has been using floating collections for several years. We wouldn’t think of going back to static collections.”
“Well… yes, I can see some benefits. But what about …?”
The idea of floating collections is fairly new, wouldn’t you think? Surprisingly, the concept has been around longer than I realized. Floating collections began in a regional library system in Western Canada in the 1930s. The concept was later adopted by a district in Colorado in 1984 (a 50-year delay!). You have to hand it to those Westerners: they are free-thinking pioneers in many areas, including library practices.
I remember first reading about floating collections in 2003. The article I read intrigued me, but triggered several questions as well. It wasn’t until several years later that I found myself working in a library district that had been using floating collections for several years. After reading much more about it in the literature, visiting with librarians, and experiencing it firsthand as both a staffer and patron in a multi-branch system, I have developed my own observations and opinions.
There are some strong and clear positives. Floating collections make books available for patrons more quickly, while reducing staff time and delivery vehicle expenses. Collections get refreshed continuously, meaning branch collections better reflect what their patrons are using. Furthermore, there’s less wear-and-tear on materials, and centralized selectors don’t need to make branch-by-branch decisions on who receives a copy. The Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio found that floating led to budget savings of 10-15 percent and greater patron satisfaction. Another library’s experience was that floating collections brought the staff together in communication and collaboration through the bond of joint ownership between branches.
Springfield-Greene County Library (Missouri) began floating collections in 2007, and Lisa Sampley, Collection Services Manager, says she cannot imagine not using floating collections now. Her experience has been that the librarians buy fewer copies of some titles now and use the saved funds to purchase additional titles that they would otherwise not be able to afford. Another plus has been greater circulation. As Sampley put it, “Because materials are more readily available, they check out more.”
How could one argue against these advantages? Looking more closely, however, there are some drawbacks — or at least perceived drawbacks. Redistribution becomes a major issue: “We don’t have any room on the shelves for these items! How do we get them to another branch where there’s shelf space?” Branch collections can no longer be tailored to meet the needs of specific population groups, staff at branch libraries have little or no input as to what is in their collection, and portions of the collection can become unbalanced: “What happened to all the picture books?” “How did we get so much science fiction on the shelves?” Weeding can fall into the hands of busy front line staff, who may not recognize the value of individual items. Finally, patrons have a tendency to return items to a branch near a major road they travel or close to work, out of convenience, rather than to their usual library.
One library’s experience is that branches with high circulation become inundated with materials while those with low checkouts tend to notice their collection getting smaller and smaller. Another issue is with staff time. Much is made of saved staff time after implementing floating collections, but a survey1 revealed that several libraries were unhappy with the amount of time spent on managing collections, especially redistribution efforts. Overall, the redistribution issue is widely accepted as the most significant drawback.
What about circulation statistics? It is generally accepted that floating collections lead to an increase in checkouts—and the experience of many libraries tends to bear this out. However, the facts are inconclusive. Noel Rutherford, Collection Development Manager at Nashville Public Library, found that yes, checkouts went up—for some portions of the collection. However, for other areas or types of material, circulation decreased. Rutherford reported that following their late 2012 implementation of floating collections, some branches in her system experienced a more than 50% drop in circulation of large-type materials and more than 40% decrease in checkouts of AV materials.2 After much analysis and consideration, Nashville Public Library discontinued floating collections in late 2014.
The survey mentioned above, of over 100 library respondents, found that there is an almost equal divide between the pro and con camps on the concept of floating collections.3 So, what’s a library to do? Should we float collections or give them a permanent home? The answer isn’t simple. Prepare to take a good look at your library: its needs, user makeup, and objectives. Your answers to the following questions will help you determine whether your library is a good candidate for floating collections.
- Is your district suburban, with branches that serve similar types of patrons? Many librarians suggest that floating fits best in districts that have fairly similar clientele from branch to branch.
- Do you have a main library or central resource center, along with branches that all serve a somewhat distinct demographic group? If so, floating may lead to mixed results — working well for some branches and not well for others.
- What collections do you have that would not be desirable to float?
- Is participation from branch staff valuable in shaping collections? How important are tailored collections and branch-specific selections of materials?
- Is your district prepared to undertake a vigorous weeding program prior to implementing floating collections? Many librarians report that a thorough weeding effort prior to starting leads to greater satisfaction.
- Do one or more branches serve a geographic area and/or population that would benefit from a collection targeted at specific interests, needs, and usage patterns that are distinct from the remainder of your district?
- What place is there for low-circulating types of materials in your district? Does it matter where they are housed?
- Do you perhaps want to test the waters by initially floating small or specific portions of your materials?
- Can you develop a plan prior to implementation so that you can be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with the challenges of floating collections? Lisa Sampley at Springfield-Greene County Library wishes she had done more investigation and planning to deal with likely issues.
- Last but not least, what are other districts similar to yours doing? Why reinvent the wheel when you can tap into the rich experience of colleagues at other libraries? Sometimes the best flow of information starts during a library conference social hour.
Abby Hargreaves is a recent MLIS graduate and blogger who formerly worked at a large suburban library district with floating collections. She summed up the issue nicely with these comments from her library blog, 24 Hour Library:
The goal of floating collections is to create greater variety. This is especially important for smaller branches. So, with a static collection, if patrons are the kind of people who prefer to browse to look for something to read, especially in small libraries and especially if the patron prefers a specific genre, their options will be limited.
But what about patrons who prefer to visit a library knowing what they want to get? As someone with a lengthy to-be-read list, this is often my strategy. Floating collections make this challenging. I can check the online catalog, of course, before I leave for the library to go pick it up. But if the book is currently living at a library that’s a bit distant, I have three options: going to that distant library, putting it on hold and waiting two or three days for it to reach me, or going with something else.
So, this is why I don’t have a strong opinion either way about floating collections — or, rather, I have strong opinions both ways and they create this neutral space between them like the center of a rope in tug-of-war.
A Zen librarian might wonder, “What is the sound of one collection floating?” The Buddha would respond, “Be awake. Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” And so we shall!
1 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 27
2 Rutherford, Noel. “To float or not to float?” Library Journal, April 1, 2016, p. 47
3 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 43
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