ERIC Identifier: ED470035
Publication Date: 2002-12-00
Author: Parry, Norm
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
Format Proliferation in Public Libraries. ERIC Digest.
Libraries are all about choice. That is why there is more than one book in a
library, more than one point of view, genre, subject, age level, edition, and
format. At the core of their work, librarians may have to choose among the tens
of thousands of new works published every year. Making those kinds of choices
under the constraint of limited finances is not new to librarians. What is
unprecedented is the number and kinds of choices librarians must make in
response to the greater number of formats demanded by their customers. A list of
the available formats for a particular work might include hardcover, paperback,
large print, foreign language edition, audiocassette tape, book on CD, eBook,
videocassette, and DVD.
A new John Grisham title may be produced in all of these formats in a
relatively short period of time. Bestsellers and blockbusters are frequently
released in several formats simultaneously: hardcover, large type, audiocassette
tape (abridged and unabridged editions), CD, and eBook. By the time the movie is
released--in videocassette and DVD--the book is typically available in
paperback. Even the smallest public library will consider buying at least two
copies of the book as soon as it is available to meet certain high demand. The
total investment for just this one title in all of the formats listed would be
More choice in formats for library customers may mean more constraints on
choices in materials acquisition. An increase in the number of formats libraries
provide may, over time, substantially alter the quality and diversity of library
collections. This ERIC Digest examines some of the costs and challenges
presented by format proliferation and some strategies for addressing those
challenges, particularly when an increase in the total budget for acquisitions
is not a possibility.
THE SILENT AV INCURSION
According to a 1998 Library
Journal/Cahners Research survey of 486 public Libraries (Oder), audiovisual
budgets had grown an average of 53% during the prior five years, while materials
budgets had grown only 36%. In addition, some 96% of libraries buy audio books
and 97% buy videos.
Sale and rental of audio books is a two billion-dollar-a-year business
growing 30% annually, according to U.S. News & World Report (1998). At least
three formats are represented in this market: audiocassette, CD and eBook.
While these numbers virtually shout to be heard over the cacophony of 80,000
print titles published each year, borrowing of videos and other AV materials may
be at least partially responsible for increased circulation and library visits.
AV materials circulate faster than print materials, due to shorter loan periods,
higher turnover and their increasing popularity among library users.
In his excellent article in Library Journal, Oder quotes one respondent who
noted, "For a time, AV was 40% of adult circulation." Much more study of current
lending patterns is needed to establish a clear mandate for unashamed purchase
of AV materials by traditionally print-oriented librarians. Until we have that
information, librarians need to understand that it's really okay to buy
entertainment in new formats. A new blockbuster video might not make an enduring
cultural statement, but romance novels have had a place in public libraries for
decades, and nobody feels guilty about their "mainly entertainment" status.
CHOICE IS GOOD--AND EXPENSIVE
viewpoint, subject, and access--is one of the essential functions of public
libraries in a democratic society, where all inquiry not illegal is encouraged
on the fundamental belief that informed citizens make informed social,
political, economic and personal choices. By and large, most Americans generally
accept choice and access as being in the public's best interest. But they are
not without cost.
For every successful new format option in the entertainment/literary/cinema
market, libraries must decide whether or not to support that format in addition
to those currently supported. With any given level of acquisitions resources,
any addition of choice for customers places additional constraints on library
collection development. If you buy both the hardcover and the large type edition
of a novel, can you also afford to buy the same novel on audiocassette, compact
disk and eBook? Can you also continue to buy as many different titles?
Librarians must ask questions such as "Is this title going to be popular
enough to justify purchasing the audiocassette (AC) version?" "Will it appeal to
our known audiocassette using customers?" "Do they want abridged or unabridged?"
And so on. In addition, the question of CD versus AC arises more urgently as the
number of those people who own CD and AC players changes. For example, which
media player are auto manufacturers installing as standard equipment in new
models? Which format are truck drivers and fitness walkers asking for?
The addition of new formats may result in substitution for older, more
traditional formats. The library may buy more AV titles, including video titles
that don't have a print title analog, shifting budget allocations away from
print titles. Budget increases, if any, may be allocated disproportionately to
AV materials. The effect may be compounded during transitional periods of
"upgrades" to new media: videocassette tape to DVD, for example. At the height
of the transition, there is an indefinite period of time when it is necessary to
buy both formats, even though it is very likely that one of them is on the way
Librarians have not stopped purchasing the hardcover edition in order to
purchase the audiocassette tape. The effect of greater customer choice of format
is to increase costs and to redistribute them. Greater choice in format may mean
less selection of titles (and other library services, incidentally). You can
slice the budget pie into more pieces, but you can't slice the pie bigger.
The effects of this format proliferation can occur in subtle and unexpected
ways, radically changing the depth and diversity of a collection. As more funds
go toward the acquisition of fewer titles, the collection becomes
bibliographically narrower, shallower, and arguably duller. As format choice
increases, title choice decreases.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
What can public libraries do to meet the
challenges and seize the opportunities for improved service offered by greater
1. Continuously acknowledge and respond to customer demands, or the customer
will go elsewhere. Library customers today expect a choice of format as well as
title. In addition to closely monitoring customer preferences, librarians must
watch for trends in technology and publishing. Unless libraries pay careful
attention to current trends in related industries, they risk becoming the Edsels
of the modern entertainment, culture and information marketplace.
2. Revisit the library's mission statement. Accelerating information
technology advances made in the past twenty years represent a paradigm shift in
library and information science. The library's mission, focus and goals may need
to be modified to reflect a new and continuously changing information services
3. Share and share again. Interlibrary loan (ILL) of materials is the most
powerful answer librarians have to combat budget devouring, format
proliferation. Public libraries must take advantage of the benefits of regional
and cooperative library systems: unified public access catalogs, fast ILL
transport systems, and coordinated central purchasing. Libraries have to be
willing to share their holdings and contribute to the development of a
system-wide core collection.
Public libraries face a crisis of choice.
Increased choice of format for customers may mean decreased selection and
diversity in collection development. Innocent as the increased choice of format
may seem, with its allure and promise of offering greater benefits to customers,
it may also diminish the quality and depth of the intellectual content that
libraries strive to achieve. To avoid sacrificing quality and depth, libraries
must be acutely aware of customer needs, be sure that the library has a clear
and fiscally realistic focus of purpose, and cooperate with other libraries to
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Oder, N. (1998). AV rising:
Demand, budgets and circulation are all up. Library Journal, 123 (19), 30.
Mulrine, A. (1998). The tale of the tapes. U.S. News and World Report, 125
Kipnis, J. (2002). 2002 DVD sales soaring. Billboard, 114 (30), 6.