Do Islanders still read books?

Posted: October 11, 2019 9:00:00 AM CDT

The question

In a recent librarians’ meeting, a question came up about the way the library buys books. The Bell Library, like many academic libraries, has traditionally purchased books through two main methods—title-by-title selection, and auto-shipments from a book vendor, based on a profile we set up with them. This second method, called an “approval plan,” would be sort of like setting up your Amazon account to automatically send you any new books that match your interests.

The question that came up in our meeting was whether books sent via the approval plan get checked out as much as books selected title by title. We all kind of shrugged and said “good question!” So I started digging through the data to find an answer.

The exploration

I looked at data for all the books purchased over the last 10 years or so. It turned out that only 25% of the books bought on the approval plan have ever been checked out; those that did get checked out were checked out an average of 1.6 times. The title-by-title selections haven’t done much better—only a third of those books have ever been checked out.

table showing check outs title by title selection vs approval plan
Figure 1: Number and percentage of checkouts for books selected title by title and books sent on approval.

Figure 1: Number and percentage of checkouts for books selected title by title and books sent on approval.

As is often the case with good questions, the answer led to more questions. So I looked at more data, crashed Excel a few times, and tried to find more answers.

table showing percentage of books checked out by library of congress subject letter
Figure 2 percentage of books checked out within each Library of Congress class

First, I increased the data set by looking at 23 years’ worth of checkouts—more than 214,000 books and 407,000 checkouts (see previous comment about crashing Excel). About 120,000 of those books (56%) have been checked out at least once. So that’s a little better, but still not great.

What about from discipline to discipline—Do books in the social sciences get checked out more than, say, medical books? With a few exceptions, the differences were not as great as I had expected. Looking at checkouts for the past 20 years, most disciplines were fairly close to the library’s overall average of 56% (see Figure 2).

With the 20-year data showing a higher percentage of checkouts than the 10-year data, you might wonder (as I did) whether that means checkouts have declined in recent years. So I looked at the total number of checkouts per year:

Line chart showing checkouts from 1995 - 2019. Checkouts peaked in 2011 and 2014.

As the graph shows, the number of checkouts has dropped off a bit in the last few years, but the overall trend has been upward. So since the books purchased more recently are getting checked out less than the 20-year average, does that mean Islanders are checking out the older books more than the newer ones? Sometimes it might just take a while for a book to find someone to read it.

Next steps

Once again the answers raise more questions. The Bell Library has significantly increased the number of e-books available to TAMU-CC users in recent years—could e-books account for some of the change in print book checkouts? Does the usage of e-books follow the same patters as the print collection? What about the age of books getting checked out? Do some disciplines gravitate toward older books, while others prefer newer ones?

Do Islanders still read books? The answer appears to be yes, just not necessarily the books we’ve been buying in recent years. We aren’t sure what the solution is, but we are pretty sure we need to make some changes to the way we acquire books for the library. We are continuing to examine usage patterns—for both the print book collection and e-books—and we are looking for ways the library can better acquire the books you need.

By: Derrik Hiatt

Category: Services for You, Behind the Scenes, Books & More