Monday, 16 November 2009

Universal Borrowing Across Cambridge University Libraries?

A couple of news stories relating to the public library sector here and in the US caught my eye recently which might have some loose relevance to the fragmented (or should that be federated?!) academic library system that students are presented with in Cambridge.

To set the scene, and as I understand it, students, researchers and academics in Cambridge may be members of the University Library, their College Library, their Department Library, maybe another Department or college's Library, maybe a special collection, etc etc, each with their own user policies and terminology, none, all acting (as far as I know), independently of each other.

First up, universal borrowing - a few weeks ago now, it was announced that public library users with a valid library card would be able to borrow books from anywhere and return them anywhere (SCL [Society of Chief Librarians Announces Universal Membership).
From 28 September, more than 4000 public libraries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are open for borrowing by any member of the public regardless of where they live. Customers will be able to borrow books from any library, and in some cases use other services such as DVD rental, online resources and classes. Library users simply need to show their existing library card, or proof of address, to join or access the library they are visiting.

The same is true for Cambridge's University, College, Department and specialist libraries, right? Erm, I think not...

Second up, a Netflix like subscription model from the US to get round the problem of fines. Subscribers to a variety of different monthly fee plans get to borrow a set number of books for an unlimited period of time - no fees attached (Hayward, CA Public Library Will Launch “Fines Free” Borrowing Packages Beginning at $2.99/Month). If a book that is unavailable because it's out an an extended/who knows when it'll come back sort of loan is requested by enough other users, the Library will buy another copy (seems like a reasonable collection policy heuristic to me!;-)

So I wonder, maybe there's a combined model here for academic libraries, either within the confines of Cambridge itself, or more widely across the UK. Imagine it: a 'Cambridge University libraries' subscription card that lets you borrow freely from any of the Cambridge University libraries, and return books to any of them, potentially for an indefinite period. Shocking thought...

I can already imagine the screams of indignation, of course, ("you can't do that - we need to make sure we can provide our students with the books they need at the times they need them"), to which I'd reply: maybe a bit of MOSAIC like usage data analysis could model - and thence predict - how the books might flow around the system? Maybe we need to start working loans data, or at least start looking at how whether supply and demand are optimally matched across the university libraries at the current time, and then question whether there is room for improvement? (See also: Lorcan Dempsey on availability and Libraries and the long tail: intro.)

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