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Let's talk about library books

This post had two inspirations: First, I was scrolling around the IPEDS data center one night, looking for something to visualize that I hadn't before that I thought would be interesting. I scrolled through all the variables, and found the Academic Libraries section.  I was certain that I had never even looked at the data, so put it in the back of my mind.

The second thing that led me to this data was thinking about my discussions with high school counselors after they come back from campus tours: Just how often they've heard the same things from tour guides who are quite convinced the counselors have never heard it before (the blue safety lights comes to mind, along with the perfunctory mention of the number of books in the library.)

The latter is not an unimportant statistic, of course, as the library has long been at the heart of the intellectual life of an institution dedicated to intellectual pursuits.  But what do those numbers mean?  Are comparisons between institutions different?  And, as I've been asked more than once, "How many books can you read in four years?'

So, this.

There are three views here, all interactive and accessible via the tabs across the top.  The first shows library volumes from 2006 to 2018 (not every year has data for "physical books" as IPEDS calls them), along with three measures of change over time. Look at it by single institution, Carnegie Types, or Control to see what's happened since 2006.  As you can see, overall the number of volumes has fallen by almost 25%; but America's colleges and universities collectively still own about two books for every person in the US.

The second view shows every institution in the US and its number of books in 2006 (gray bar) and 2018 (purple bar).  Hover over the bar to see the values and the change over time.

And the third view, while the simplest, is the most intriguing to me, as it may go to institutional strategy.  Note that UCLA has added just under 5 million volumes in 12 years, which works out to just over 1,100 volumes every day over twelve years, including weekends and holidays. At the other end of the spectrum, look at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: It's gone in the exact opposite direction and has reduced its collection by almost that same amount.

There are probably stories there, or maybe reminders about anchoring fallacies, or bad assumptions that the two libraries were both appropriately sized in 2006.  Or it could be a definitional one, although IPEDS makes it pretty clear what a "book" is.  It may be a shift to electronic media; or it could be that they're acquiring the same number of books, but UIUC is disposing of older books more rapidly.

What I don't know about running a library would fill a library.  So, as always, don't make any rash decisions about your university based on what you see here.  Higher Ed Data Stories is for fun and entertainment only.

Dig in, click around, and enjoy.  And as always, let me know what you come up with.


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