UNC-Asheville library shelves
Books line the shelves at the UNC-Asheville library. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Libraries at state universities in North Carolina have received a major grant that will help them each carry fewer books.

The purpose isn’t to reduce holdings or availability but to reduce redundancy, freeing up space. The University of North Carolina system libraries plan to create a process that will allow them to assign specific schools to keep rarely used books and share them with the other campuses if needed.

The UNC system received a $100,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to begin working toward this goal, which will initially involve analyzing the libraries’ estimated 5 million books to determine how many of the same books the libraries have, according to Leah Dunn, the UNC Asheville librarian who applied for the grant.

The new process will also alert librarians to any at-risk books, titles the libraries have few copies of in the university system.

The plan is to eventually have a method of eliminating overlap in the 13 universities’ libraries. Dunn said the librarians will have the option of designating a specific library to keep a book that the other libraries then remove from their collections.

But the book will still be available to all the library communities upon request. This process “could mean I hang onto a book that others don’t need to keep anymore,” said Dennis Swanson, the dean of library services at UNC Pembroke.

Old periodicals at UNC-Asheville.
Volumes like these century-old periodicals at the UNC Asheville library could be digitized, with hard-copy originals housed at only one or two of the UNC system libraries, freeing up space at the other locations. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

‘Space is a valuable commodity’

“A reason for this is that right now there is a lot of pressure on libraries to free up spaces,” Dunn said.

A study from the Pew Research Center shows that 60 percent of people ages 16 to 29 use libraries to sit, read, study and watch and listen to media, making the space to do these activities a valuable part of a library.

“I think we’re all in the same boat,” said Wanda Brown, the director of library services for Winston-Salem State University.

Martin Halbert, the dean of library services at UNC Greensboro, recently moved to the school, from North Texas University, where the library was working on a similar project. Nationwide, libraries are pursuing these types of projects, Halbert said.

With this system, the UNC-system libraries will be able to save books and provide extra space for students to study in the library, Dunn said.

“Space is a valuable commodity on university property,” Swanson said.

The grant will be for a year, and the bulk of the $100,000 will go toward analyzing the books using GreenGlass data analytics to automatically sort through the books within the school system.

This process will take the majority of the year, but Dunn said the hope is that the libraries will obtain an additional grant next year to continue the collaboration.

“It lays the groundwork for us to save space in our university without losing access to our material,” Halbert said.

Next year, Dunn said, the libraries will meet to determine which books specific libraries will keep, and the librarians could look at expanding the collaboration to include additional universities and libraries.

“This shows what we can accomplish collectively when sharing our thoughts and ideas,” said Juanita Midgette Spence, the director of library services at Elizabeth City State University.

Halbert said he estimates that people use about a third of a library’s books heavily and a third occasionally, while a third rarely circulate. To counteract this, the UNC libraries will be able to keep the books that rarely circulate without having them take up space at all the libraries.

One challenge in academia is that people may not check out books for years, but when the titles have resurgences in popularity and are in high demand again, determining which books to weed out of a collection can be difficult, Brown said. With this model, the libraries can keep those books in the UNC system, just not at every location.

German-language art history books at UNC-Asheville library.
Specialized and rarely circulating collections like these German art history volumes at the UNC Asheville library, could be made available to all of the system libraries digitally, without taking up space at every location. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Access, specialization and free space

In creating this shared library base, the librarians are considering digitizing their collections, said Theodosia Shields, the director of library services at North Carolina Central University in Durham. Shields said she thinks this could be a great opportunity to share collections with the public that have never been available before.

The libraries have some books that are first editions or very old and, because they could be easily damaged, were not available for everyday use, Shields said. This could be especially beneficial for history departments within the universities.

“To know that we have these materials and that people can get to them,” Shields said, “I think the public will be delighted to know that.”

This system will also allow libraries to focus on their own unique collections, Swanson said. For UNC Pembroke, which was established as a Native American institute in 1887, it will allow its librarians to focus further on Native American studies and will give the rest of the schools access to its collections.

“Ultimately, I’m going to have more space with which I can do more things,” Brown said.

At Winston-Salem, the library even has mobile shelves containing books because of space constraints. With this system, Brown said. she might be able to remove the mobile shelves and provide more space in the library for student collaboration.

Having more space might also allow the city of Winston-Salem to utilize the library meeting rooms more, Brown said.

“You know this is a win-win all the way around,” Halbert said.

Coordination between UNC system libraries could help protect older works, such as this historical tome at the UNC Asheville library, from further deterioration. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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Alex Gladden is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press.

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