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Collaborative Collection Management: Accessioning, De-accessioning, and Decision Making with a World View

When libraries communicate and collaborate on collection decisions, unique historical materials can be preserved for the common good in the location most in need or most capable of managing those materials.

Published onApr 27, 2022
Collaborative Collection Management: Accessioning, De-accessioning, and Decision Making with a World View


Scientific and astronomical libraries often manage their collections in siloes, with limited coordination or communication when making collection decisions. These proceedings offer an alternative — making collection management decisions with a world view — and describe the benefits of this approach toward the collective stewardship of the scientific body of knowledge. We share two divergent, real life views of distinct library collections at the Space Telescope Science Institute and the U.S. Naval Observatory. The practical differences it has made to have a formal collection development policy in place, the evolution of those policies, and shared processes for developing a more collaborative mindset, such as worldwide assessment and transfer, are explored. Throughout, our aim is to increase cross-institutional communication and collaboration on collection decisions in order to ensure that unique historical materials are preserved for the common good in the location most in need or most capable of managing those materials.

1 Introduction

Collaborative collection management is an approach to decision making for library collections. It looks at the retention of resources through the lens of libraries’ overall stance toward preservation — both at the individual library performing collection management, and at other libraries in the astronomical community. This approach was developed in partnership between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) Library in Baltimore, Maryland USA and the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) Library in Washington, DC USA. As librarians at USNO and STScI discussed each other’s policies and collections, we became aware of both vast differences between our collection goals, and opportunities for mutual aid in accomplishing our respective missions. Fleshing out this complementarity brings us to our premise: increasing cross-institutional communication and collaboration on collection decisions ensures that unique and historical materials which hold value for the science community at large are preserved for the common good. The dynamics of STScI’s deaccessioning processes, and the role that USNO has played throughout support the methodology we propose for collaboration: seeking to understand each other’s missions and positions vis-à-vis long-term retention enables historical materials to be retained in the location most in need and most capable of managing those materials.

In discussing collaborative decision-making between libraries in the astronomical community, we are not suggesting that libraries need to create formal consortia or that astronomical libraries are beholden to follow the practices of other institutions. Each library is responsible to its own community, with all of the associated priorities and constraints. In effect, when each library is fulfilling its own purposes, the interplay between the missions of various institutions becomes easier to see. The role of content creators such as publishers and societies will also be included in this discussion.

2 The Preservation Landscape

In 2019, STScI began to coordinate some of its collection decisions and discussions with USNO. Prior to that, STScI would post lists of materials the library was deaccessioning to the astronomy library listservs, but did not coordinate collection decisions otherwise. Working with USNO, STScI came to see astronomy libraries on a continuum.

There are large-scale libraries, like USNO, which partly exist to satisfy a mandate and are budgeted (sometimes adequately, sometimes not) to provide preservation, retention, and access to historic content. More broadly, this category encompasses most national libraries like the British Library, the National Library of India, and the Library of Congress in the U.S.

Next are mid-scale libraries, which are often academic, and part of a larger university consortium. Examples are the French university system and Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP)1 in the U.S., which includes Princeton University, Columbia University, Harvard University, and the New York Public Library [1].

Then we move to small scale. These libraries have the authority to make decisions at their local library level, but are not expected to retain much outside their own current or relevant needs. STScI falls into this category. Many astronomy, and especially observatory, libraries may identify as small-scale. It is these small-scale libraries that can do more to connect their content to mid-scale and large libraries for preservation and access if that content is no longer relevant to their missions.

3 Embracing a Collaborative Collection Development Mindset

3.1 Introduction to Collaborative Collection Development

The library field’s embrace of collegiality is well-documented [2] [3]. Interlibrary loan has long supported efforts to divide and conquer acquisitions so each institution can use their resources to best support their patrons. To an extent, most institutions make collection decisions based on broader availability, but it was not until meeting the STScI librarians that USNO became aware of their reliance on its holdings in making retention decisions. That awareness led to conversations with Navy administrators about the USNO Library’s role in the broader astronomical community. USNO is committed to continuing to be a reliable resource for external colleagues.

The library at USNO anticipates that libraries will use USNO holdings to make critical collection decisions, while at the same time allowing USNO to rely on more agile libraries for the latest publications. For USNO, internal collection decisions have implications not just for its own local constituents, but also for library colleagues around the world.

3.2 Collection Development at USNO

The library at USNO was intentionally built over time since the Observatory’s founding in the mid-19th century. Now amounting to over 80,000 items, its collection was incrementally built based on the needs of its scientific staff as they performed their daily duties. As its scientific mission evolved, so too did the library’s approach to collection development.

The USNO Library collection was begun partially with books and journals solicited from European observatories by Lt. James M. Gilliss, sent by the Navy to Europe to purchase books and instruments for the new observatory in 1842/1843. These books now form the foundation of the rare book collection. Over time, the roles have occasionally reversed, with other collections growing from USNO Library duplicates and triplicates. More commonly, collection managers are shedding their print collections, and turning to USNO as a repository to support research in the broader astronomical community. Between intentional staff collecting, exchange agreements with international partners, and transfers from institutions slimming their print holdings, the Library at USNO has amassed a niche but exhaustive collection of physical materials. While the physical collection slowly grows, the primary focus at this time is ensuring the physical collections are well-maintained and that holdings information can be relied upon by internal staff and external colleagues.

To ensure the longevity of USNO’s physical collections, investment in appropriate environmental control is being prioritized. Librarians are cataloging un-accessioned material so it is clear what the library at USNO retains. Space constraints factor into USNO’s collection management decisions, forcing critical choices to ensure the library can continue to grow the collection while maintaining scarce materials for the broader astronomical community. The USNO Library is managing its collection with an eye towards both current scientific research and work on the history of science.

3.3 Collection Development at STScI

The STScI Library’s origins are more recent than USNO’s. The Space Telescope Science Institute was created in 1981 to manage the scientific operations of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and now also the science and flight operations of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In addition, the institute hosts the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which houses astronomical data and develops interfaces, data platforms, and products to enable the use of current and historical observations from over a dozen missions.

When current library staff took responsibility for the STScI Library in 2016-2017, there was some documentation and understanding of the provenance of the collection, but little information on why the STScI Library had originally collected it, why it was retained, and how it related to staff’s work currently and in the past, and therefore, whether it was still relevant. The current library did not have the framework to decide what to keep or discard, and certainly did not know the astronomy library community well enough to make connections and transfer material where they might be more useful or better preserved.

The STScI Library had an outdated order plan with its main vendor but little other documentation on planned collection development. This is not to say the previous librarians did not have a plan, only that the plan was not known to new staff, which points to the importance of documentation. Current staff had to sift through the collection, observe collection use in current research, and look at historical circulation statistics before beginning to piece together collection priorities and plan for the future.

Library staff needed to address and define the collection it inherited, including its deficiencies and extraneous content, before decisions could be made about what STScI would retain, add, update, or remove.

While there is no immediate need to free space, the library operates as an informal meeting area with open seating, and is used for teleconferences and scientific talks. Library staff recognized the need for more informal meeting space and less unused and seldom used print in a rapidly growing institute.

After almost two years, the librarians had a better understanding of how rare historic content was used by other libraries via interlibrary loan and its own staff doing research, as well as the landscape of preservation options.

Only then were STScI Library staff ready to draft a comprehensive collection development policy. The need for a collection development policy was self-imposed by library staff, but informed by institute activities.

4 Approaches for Collaborative Collection Development in Action

4.1 Assessing Online Equivalents

As a small-scale library, the STScI Library does not have the funding or space to retain historic materials that do not directly support the institute’s present missions and activities. Collection priorities have changed over time, and as a result the collection contains print items that are no longer relevant and thus are not appropriate for the library to continue to maintain. Library staff are systematically assessing items for retention or removal.

When print materials are found to be of unique and historic value, STScI Librarians consider several factors in this assessment. Library staff begin by assessing the formats in which the resources are currently available. A first step is determining if the same content is available online. A publicly and freely available electronic version of the resource is sought after first. This could be content offered through publisher and society websites, through the Astrophysical Data System’s (ADS’s) many historic backfiles, or through major online collaboratives such as Google Books, JSTOR, and HathiTrust. The library also considers whether the resource is available for purchase commercially through a large publishing house. No matter what entity or organization is making the resource available online, we evaluate the longevity of that institution in an effort to secure STScI’s online assets.

At Space Telescope, library staff use their understanding of online access to decide if they are comfortable relying on a digital version2 instead of, not in addition to, a print version [4]. Where there is free online access through a well-established society or collaborative, or where there is paid access available from a major publisher, the STScI Library deaccessions print copies and relies on electronic access to the resource in accordance with our mission and collection management plans. This solely reflects STScI’s practice; each library will have its own stance on the issue of retaining print copies when an equivalent is available online, in accordance with its own missions and plans. For instance, the policy of the USNO Library is to selectively retain print copies, even when online equivalents are available, per the USNO’s Library’s role as a de-facto print repository for the astronomical community.

4.2 Assessing Worldwide Print Availability

Another factor in the STScI Library’s assessment of historically valuable print materials is the number of copies available in collections across the world. Here, the STScI Library checks how rare the resource is according to the holdings listed in OCLC and lets the relative scarcity of a resource inform its approach. For example, when evaluating a print resource with 50 holdings in OCLC, the library looks at the institutions that hold the item and where those institutions fall on the historical preservation continuum. When a solid number of large-scale institutions hold the material in print, the STScI Library moves forward with deaccessioning its print copy, confident that the resource will be maintained by those institutions with a mission to do so.

However, if only 15 libraries across the world hold the resource, the STScI Library’s method is completely different. It may be the case that this material does need to be consciously preserved —but the STScI Library does not have provisions for archival retention, so the library takes a more collaborative approach. Library staff move forward by confirming the institutions that created or published the material have access to it in their own collections. When it appears that publishers or creators have gaps in their own collections, the STScI Library contacts the institution and offers to return the material back to them for the preservation of their own heritage. Many societies and publishers have been receptive to these donations. As an example, the STScI Library contacted the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was able to return a nearly full run of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and similarly returned several documents to the International Astronomical Union headquarters in Paris, France.

If the creators of the material have comprehensive holdings, the library turns next to large-scale institutions with a clear mission for preservation. This allows STScI to see which institutions have gaps in their holdings which STScI might be able to fill by donating its print materials. Large-scale libraries are contacted and offered STScI materials as a way to round out or complement their collections. The STScI Library has sent print resources to Princeton University, the John G. Wolbach Library at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and NASA Langley among others. If none of the societies or repositories contacted express interest in the offered materials, the STScI Library re-evaluates the material for retention.

These are the general guidelines by which the STScI Library seeks to ensure that valuable and unique historical materials are maintained in the location most able to preserve those materials for the long term. Other libraries with different places and roles in the preservation continuum may have different understandings of how worldwide holdings impact their retention or deaccessioning decisions. A library with a strong preservation imperative may keep a print copy no matter how ubiquitous it is, while a very streamlined library may need to let go of any material not in line with its missions, no matter the rarity.

4.3 Redistribution and Transfers

When the redistribution and transfer of material is part of a library’s process, there are both pros and cons to consider. On the positive side, reuniting institutions with artifacts from their history can be tremendously rewarding and satisfying for all parties involved, underscoring the altruistic nature of library work and the intangible value of heritage recovery. In one particularly meaningful example, the USNO Library returned original observatory publications to the Hamburg Bergedorf Observatory, replacing their copies which had been lost during World War II. As a more practical benefit, libraries that transfer materials to other institutions save money on the ongoing, implicit costs on the maintenance of those materials — all the while maintaining confidence that the material will be accessible should a need for that material arise at their own library in the future.

Of course, this ongoing cost savings must be weighed against the one-time cost of shipping materials from one institution to another. For institutions where shipping poses a financial challenge, the receiving institution may be willing to cover the cost of shipping in full or in part. It helps to be as explicit as possible about shipping costs when contacting other institutions with redistribution and transfer offers. A final drawback to account for is the increase in labor and time required to carry out collection management in a collaborative manner. Performing research on the holdings of other institutions, reaching out to other librarians, waiting for their replies, and preparing items for shipping all add to the timeline required for completing a deaccessioning project compared to the time that would be spent if that library was not taking a collaborative approach.

5 Next Steps and Call to Action

In conclusion, how can we help each other help our researchers? We have a few recommendations we would like you to consider for your organization.

If you have a collection development policy or collection management guidelines in place, share them. We recommend posting your collection development plan to your public website3 [5]. If your library has also developed the following, we recommend you share these publicly as well:

  • Collection analyses

  • Currently accepting transfers/currently offering transfers

  • Shipping limitations

The STScI Library is considering hosting a community webpage for astronomy libraries where partners can post their development policies, collection analyses, transfer offers and requests, and shipping limitations. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on the upkeep and utility of this resource.

Another simple way to increase communication is via well-known listservs in the astronomy library community, such as astrolib and PAM-Net. Increased communication with publishers, societies, and preservation partners like HathiTrust and ADS are also part of a well-crafted collection management strategy, whereby non-library partners can help preserve the historical record when libraries determine it is no longer in their interest to maintain certain titles, series, or holdings.

Other collaborative options include offering contents to societies and publishers, especially if few known copies exist, and taking advantage of OCLC options like the custom holding library groups4 and shared print commitments56 [6], both of which enable faster, informed decision making for all of us.

6 Conclusion

A collaborative mindset creates symbiotic relationships across the preservation spectrum. It allows smaller libraries to transfer valuable materials that no longer fit their scientific mandate to more appropriate institutions, enabling broader and more long-term accessibility for the entire community. This approach also ensures larger institutions can rely on smaller, more agile libraries for access to more timely or specialized materials. All libraries and library users benefit when access to current and historic scientific material is opened to library users throughout the astronomical community.

Coherent plans and collection priorities should be widely shared with other libraries so that their collection development guidelines can be appropriately expanded or modified in return. In a collaborative collection development mindset, you will naturally open lines of communication with other libraries as you develop your plan. In short, formalizing your collection strategy enables clearer communication with your organization’s administration, your library customers, and other libraries with whom you collaborate.


We’d like to thank the LOC and SOC of LISA IX for planning the conference not once, but twice, and pulling off a fully remote conference that was still inspiring, educational, and full of networking opportunities to connect with colleagues worldwide. We thank the leadership of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the U.S. Naval Observatory for entrusting their library staff with making informed decisions to preserve the historical record for the worldwide astronomical community, while upholding their unique service, audience, and preservation mandates. The authors also thank OCLC for maintaining a worldwide network of thousands of libraries, thereby enabling decision making with a worldwide view. Our sincerest thanks to the Astrophysics Data System (ADS) for providing access to legacy documents of value to the entire astronomical research community, when permissible according to copyright.

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