Expanding Access to Reserves
By Brian Greene, Columbia College
In fall 2016 I conducted a study with Elizabeth Horan at Coastline Community College that looked at the study habits of our respective students. The results provided a fascinating look at the busy lives our students lead and how they creatively fit studying into their schedules.1 One of the many notable findings was that the most common time to study was from 8pm to midnight. While this isn’t surprising, it is a time when many community college libraries are closed. This survey result forced me to think about how we can best serve our students after hours.
After we conducted the survey I transferred from Modesto Junior College to Columbia College, a much smaller school in the same district. Columbia has one full-time librarian - me - and three library specialists. This poses its own set of challenges, but one benefit is that it’s pretty easy to make significant policy changes. With the survey results - especially the info about study hours - fresh in my mind, I set about expanding access to our reserve collection of textbooks. The goal was to make our reserve items available during peak study periods at night while continuing to balance the desire to make reserves available to as many people as possible.
After several brainstorming and planning sessions we decided to implement two new circulation options for our reserve items: 1) when we had multiple copies of an item, all but one copy was changed to circulate overnight, due back before we close the following day. And 2) after 5pm, all of the single copy reserve items could be checked out until 9am the next morning. These new rules were immediately well-received by students. Both options were frequently used and the comments we received were appreciative. A short survey we conducted backed this up. In response to the question “Please describe how having access to textbooks overnight has impacted your education at Columbia College,” fully 100% of respondents (n=18) said something positive. As one respondent succinctly put it, “Being able to take textbooks home allows me to get a lot more studying in over weekends when the library is closed.”2
Our Institutional Research office conducted a more formal analysis of both of new practices, focusing on access (the amount of time a student can check out an item for) and utilization (how long a student has the item before returning it). By both measures the new practices were a resounding success. For example, access climbed from an average of 2 hours per transaction in the previous year (2016-17) to 2.51 hours the semester the new processes were implemented. In spring 2018, the first full semester with both new practices, access increased to an average of 3.87 hours per transaction. Clearly, students were taking advantage of the new policies to check out reserve materials overnight. Not surprisingly, utilization also increased substantially during this period. In fall 2016 the utilization rate was 1.98 hours, meaning that, on average, students kept materials for almost the entire time they had access to them. In spring 2017 the utilization rate dropped to 1.85 hours before rebounding in fall 2017 (when both new practices were implemented mid-semester) to 1.94 hours. The full impact of the new policies was felt in spring 2018 when the average utilization rate skyrocketed to 3.24 hours. Clearly, students wanted to keep reserve textbooks longer than two hours.
Before implementing the new policies we thought the biggest challenge would be that students wouldn’t return the textbooks. While this has happened more frequently than in the past, it hasn’t been a significant problem. Even so, we have done a couple of things to reduce the problem, such as increasing the maximum amount of fines for reserve items so that it’s not simply cheaper to keep our textbook for a few weeks rather than buy it. Another issue that we didn’t fully foresee were the different ways a small number of students would try to game the system. For example, initially some students would return an overnight book in the morning and check it out again shortly thereafter. We quickly implemented a 24 hour cooling off period to prevent this. We later modified the rule to give us some flexibility, adding that popular titles may require a longer waiting period and proof of enrollment in the course. The processes and rules are explained on our policies page.
We set out to make the textbooks in our heavily used reserve collection available overnight without limiting the overall number of students who have a chance to use a given book. While there have been a few hiccups, the qualitative and quantitative assessments we’ve done show that our new approach has been a success. While not a replacement for efforts to reduce textbook costs, I believe overnight reserves have a role to play in ensuring students have access to the materials when they study. For many of our students, that’s 8pm to midnight.