The 80/20 Rule Takes a Beating

It’s hard to say whether this is the last nail in the coffin of libraries, there have been so many of late.  Whatever it is, it isn’t exactly the best news libraries have had of late.  What with dwindling budgets all over the world, the saturation of technology, the ebook rave, and web-accessible devices run amok, libraries have been treading water, only to remain a palimpsest of their former selves.  Now comes word in a new report that the infamous 80/20 rule no longer obtains. 

The 80/20 rule for libraries generally ran this way: 80% of  library’s circulating materials are driven by about 20% of its collection.  This made some sense because libraries purchased for “just in time” as well as “just in case.”  Libraries purchased materials for those needed soon, but also purchased for future needs, those needed next week, next month, or even next year.  The 80/20 rule, something not talked about much outside librarians sequestered in the bowels of library basements, meant that a lot of material purchased sat on shelves, never to be opened, examined, glanced at.  In an age when the library was the only information game in town, this approach made sense.  Besides, there was no other way around it.  Where else could you go, fifteen years ago, for information found in a library if not a library?   “Just in case” materials made library users quite happy (they didn’t have to wait) and made librarians appear as so many bibliophilic scryers.

The OCLC Collection and Circulation Analysis 2011 gathered 2007-2008 data from ninety institutions–16 universities, 23 community and/or technical colleges, and 50 private colleges–from the state of Ohio and found that 20% figure to be closer to 6%!  Of course there is much more in this report than just this finding.  Still, it is one of the more flamboyant findings.  Hand-wringing anyone?

Before everyone hyperventilates, this is a report of libraries only in Ohio.  While it is the most comprehensive report to date, it is only one report, and one report doth not yon trend make.  User needs are different everywhere, and data collected is only a snapshot.  Still, it means something but what, exactly, isn’t easy to say. 

We can say with some certainty that reader habits are changing, and changing dramatically.  With those changes come dramatic changes in libraries.  No longer are libraries the only information game in town, the only  access point; they are one among many.  Furthermore, they are also no longer the main access point for many information-seekers.  It means that libraries will need to adapt, to reach out to where users are, and provide them with the materials they need in the formats they say they want.   It’s one of the reasons we’re repurposing Dacus, expanding our technology, subscribing to ebook databases, and offering iPads, Kindles, Nooks,  and laptops for checkout.  It means that what libraries used to do may not be done to the same extent.  Further, it means that other, different approaches must be tried in the future.   It will mean some of the new attempts will not work  while others doubtless will.  And it will likely mean that some new attempts will even crowd out services we in libraries once thought staple offerings.

Whatever else it means, it’s one more data-point telling us that the once-conservative, almost unchanging library landscape is now among the most volatile, protean one in what will surely be our roller-coaster future.

One thought on “The 80/20 Rule Takes a Beating

  1. Several years ago, Dacus Library studied the use made of its acquisition and found that a very high percentage of books purchased were checked out at some point. i can’t remember the exact number but 60%-70% sticks in my mind. I expect this statistic varies widely depending upon the type of library, whether, like a research library, it attempts to buy most scholarly books, or whether it has a more focused selection policy.

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