Floating collections Library Media on Tour

Rotation of media
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Library collections in big cities rotate freely from one branch to another. Hamburg’s Bücherhallen are trialling the “floating collections”, the first library in Germany to do so.

Floating collections make good sense, especially in big city libraries with several branches: rather than being allocated to one particular branch library, part of the collection belongs to the library as a whole. The advantage of this is that media automatically end up in the branches where they are most in demand thanks to the borrowing and return patterns of library users. Public libraries in the US have long been using floating collections. Hamburg’s Bücherhallen began trialling the system too, the first library in Germany to do so.

In 2008, Petra Meier-Ehlers, the director of the Hamburg Bücherhallen central library, was invited to be Librarian in Residence programme of the Goethe-Institut in New York. During her time there, she became aware of the Floating Rotation project run by Brooklyn Library, which allowed customers to return borrowed books to any of the network’s 60 branches. Instead of being sent back to their original location, media remained at the library to which they had been returned. Media ordered from other libraries for internal lending purposes were no longer sent back either, likewise remaining where they were. After a while, the preferences of the local population began to shape the collection of their own branch, which gave the libraries insights into significant customer behaviour patterns. They were able to identify changes and migration flows within Brooklyn at an earlier stage and react to them. The floating collections also reduced the workload on staff considerably, giving them more time to devote to customers. And last but not least, costs of transporting media between branches were reduced.

Test Phase in Hamburg

Petra Meier-Ehlers found the floating collections principle convincing and brought the idea back with her from New York to Hamburg. By the autumn of 2014, the 32 branches of Bücherhallen Hamburg were ready to “float” two segments of their collection – Russian and English media – on a trial basis. The objective of this test phase was to find out how the collections would be redistributed as a result of customer borrowing patterns.

Rotation of the Russian media was intended to better pinpoint and target Russian-speaking communities in Hamburg. At the end of the floating phase, it was evident that the Russian collections were used most in ten libraries – these branches were then supplied with new media to update their collections.

Popular English novels were supposed to reach English native speakers and customers who like to read in English. Rotation in this case was designed to ensure broad availability of English-language media. This trial also proved a success, as Frauke Untiedt from the Hamburg Bücherhallen reports: lending numbers were good, collections were well-distributed throughout the system thanks to the return and order patterns of the readers, and no additional intervention was required. In response to requests from readers, books of higher literary quality were also added to the collection.

Following in the footsteps of Russian- and English-language fiction, films on DVD are now also floating between the branches of Bücherhallen Hamburg. Children’s books and crime fiction would also be suitable candidates for floating collections. Whereas rotation of foreign-language collections is focused on improving services for particular user groups, popular media are floated above all with a view to pepping up existing collections – driven by the usage habits of readers.

Significance for libraries

So far, the Bücherhallen libraries in Hamburg are Germany’s trailblazers, but the idea is catching on: public library networks such as the Büchereien in Vienna with their 39 branches and the Städtische Bibliotheken Dresden with their 23 branches have already asked their Hamburg colleagues about their experience of floating collections. After all, the advantages that rotating collections have for libraries and users are obvious. The Hamburg Bücherhallen as well as libraries in the US have also found that rotation increases media turnover and reduces the time and money spent on logistics. Floating means that collections of an individual library branch to some extend are renewed “almost automatically”, become more diverse and thus offer customers greater variety. Having a media collection that is increasingly controlled by a library’s users also entails certain imponderables, however. Up until now, it was up to individual branches in Hamburg how they chose to build up their collections – to some extent this task has now been transferred to the user. Media automatically end up in the branches where they are most in demand thanks to the borrowing and return patterns of the users. This means that librarians lose “sovereignty” over their own collections. In the US many librarians fear that it could become more difficult to advise users because they are no longer able to keep tabs on a constantly changing collection.

On the other hand, the floating collections allow librarians to get to know their customers’ needs better. Suddenly new books appear in the collection. It is now possible to experience at first hand something that in the past could only be discovered by conducting time-consuming surveys: which parts of the collection are extended by the reading patterns of the local users, without any intervention from library staff? And what do my customers really like to read?