Library physical and digital resource use continues to grow

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A student checks out materials from the help desk in the Harold B. Lee Library. Physical book circulation at the HBLL continues to increase. (Payton Pingree)

Contrary to trends found at other libraries, physical book circulation at the Harold B. Lee Library increased shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued to increase since then, according to data provided by the library.

In the years leading up to 2020, the circulation of physical books in most departments, including law, political science and geography, had steadily decreased. However, shortly before 2020, the circulation of books in those same departments increased.

“Research libraries everywhere have seen significant declines in the circulation of printed books over the last 20 years,” university librarian Rick Anderson said. “Interestingly, in our library, that curve looked like that until five or six years ago, and then it turned up again.”

Students study at the Harold B. Lee Library. Physical book circulation at the HBLL continues to increase. (Payton Pingree)

The library’s yearly budget of around 12 million dollars is partially used to pay for online research and scholarly journal subscriptions such as EBSCO or ProQuest, Anderson said. Starting in the 1990s, scholarly journal publishers began to offer reduced prices on online journals, and the library now has significantly fewer physical journals as opposed to what is available online.

“We still have a handful of print journal subscriptions, but for the most part, the journals are online and we have tens of thousands of journal subscriptions,” Anderson said.

As of the latest available data in 2022, the library had more 5 million volumes — including e-books — available for student use.

“Did being out of the library during COVID convince everybody that they don’t need physical books, or are they going, ‘Yay, we’re back. We can get physical books now?’” Anderson said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the library will not have an accurate read on the current trend for another two or three years, Anderson said.

While online books and journals are prevalent throughout other departments, resources found in the library’s Special Collections department remain mostly offline, Andy Spackman, associate university librarian for collection services, said.

“Just about everything in Special Collections is openly available,” he said. “It doesn’t circulate in the sense you can’t take it out of the building because it’s unique, it’s valuable, it needs to be protected. But anyone can access it.”

Special Collections resources, such as scriptural manuscripts, first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon and other documents relating to Church and Americana history have seen an uptick in student use in recent years, Spackman said. 

Students study at the Harold B. Lee Library. Physical book circulation at the HBLL continues to increase. (Payton Pingree)

The library has a philosophy similar to BYU, where undergraduates are given resources to have graduate-level research experiences, Spackman said.

“We want even our special collections to be in the hands of the undergraduate students and not, you know, just graduate students or faculty or whatever,” he said.

While most Special Collection resources are only available in person, the library has worked to digitize its collection in order to make it more accessible.

“Hopefully that will also inspire people to want to come and see the actual thing, to experience it more deeply,” Spackman said.

BYU student Courtney VanDerwerken has used library resources, such as academic journals and books, in her classes before but she said she mostly uses the library as a study spot.

“It helps me stay focused,” she said. “I feel like it’s a good place to come and get stuff done when I need to focus.”

The library saw almost 2.5 million patrons in 2022, which is the latest year information available, according to HBLL statistics. That number is a 35% increase from the previous year.

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