Ingram Blog

Floating Collections: How It Can Work in a Public Library

By Tricia Racke Bengel, Library Sales & Services Manager, Ingram Library Services
I’m sure, like many of you, I watch a lot of education webinars. They are a great way to learn things in a cheap, convenient way. You always think: I can duck out of the topic if it doesn’t end up being interesting or pertinent to me, or listen with half an ear while multi-tasking three different things. Occasionally, I put everything else away and listen with both ears. A few weeks ago, I did the latter. I closed my email, laid my pen down, and listened for an hour and 15 minutes to a really great library webinar.

The webinar was on the subject of floating collections in public libraries, something for which there is not a great amount of helpful literature or journal data for library collection development services.

The Reality of Floating Collections

With four panelists, ranging from a 6 branch library system serving about 300,000 residents in Orange County Florida serving 1.3 million and circulating over 15 million items a year, there was a lot of ground covered. The panelists all listed the reasons to start floating:

  • increase efficiencies, reduce delivery times of books to shelves
  • improve holds turnover
  • freshen collections across the county while getting books to where they need to be for the patrons who want them

Two of the libraries are very pleased with the results, one turned off floating and the other is tweaking their process for improvements. With the range from extremely displeased with floating collection drawbacks to extremely pleased with floating collections, it was surprising just how many of the experiences were the same between the librarians.

All reported that pooling of materials happens in branches that are easy drop off points and entire collections get lost in some branches, i.e. all books about frogs end up at one branch. They also report that patrons don’t seem to comment all that much which is not really surprising since folks tend to be more vocal about negatives rather than a positive. What I did not expect was just how much impact there is on staffing and how it keeps branch staff constantly managing a collection that is always in flux.

When I was a page and then circ. assistant back in the late 80’s, I knew the Dewey ranges much better than I do now, but I also knew where every commonly requested book was on my branch’s shelves. I could quickly grab that science experiment book that was popular two weeks out of the year, the Native American book that every kid wanted because it had the best pictures and the co-dependent no more books that the “Co-Dependent No More Lady” came into get every 3 months after losing another boyfriend. I felt like I served my patrons well by being so efficient.

I am trying to think how I would have felt if my small branch location suddenly became a moving target and instead of the four dinosaur books I could rely upon, I suddenly had none, but instead I had 15 copies of the six month old James Patterson book. In hindsight, I think I would have been better at my job. I would not rely on the four dinosaur books and would instead have compiled the best list for the student using the OPAC, my knowledge of the collection, and then fit the needs of the kid with the best books. I would have looked at the system’s collection and gotten the best books. I would have not just relied on what was in my branch collection.

What did the experts say?

The panelists shared how they came up with some very smart ways to make sure their library services team could shift and reallocate materials to keep materials moving around the system, thus ensuring that individual branches don’t have stagnating collections or very uneven collections. Practices such as knowing which locations tend to need rebalancing because they are in a more isolated area of the county or who gets overstocked with bestsellers because their patrons are very sophisticated holds users, ensures that each location maintains balanced subject areas and well represented fiction collections throughout the system. While all of the panelists acknowledged that floating collection problems were caused by an increase in different workloads for the branches, none viewed this as a bad thing. The staff has to go straight to the OPAC a lot more and teach patrons how to place holds. They also have to figure out where to send pooled items or when to get rid of them. Making sure entire collections aren’t depleted is a top priority– again, to prevent all the frog books ending up at one place.

It became apparent that all of the panelists initially hoped that patrons would take care of redistributions and the collection would somehow manage to be in the branches where folks needed for it to be. I think we are all on that elusive trail but, what happened instead is they have a collection that is constantly moving and refreshing, but the library services staff is managing the movement caused by patron demand, and sometimes with the help of patrons. With combinations of Google Docs for branches to know where and what can be sent, analytics software reports, lots of spreadsheets, steady communication between staff, and dedicated courier staff, floating collections, or not floating collections, can keep things moving. But, in all of the example libraries, the resulting outcomes ended up aligning with the hypothetical outcomes, just not in the manner predicted. 

Whether the end decision of the floating experiment is to keep it on, tweak it, or turn it off – some of the same conclusions can be made. It comes back to staff. It takes good library staff who know their audience and the knowledge to curate the collections our patrons need. We may all take different paths but for the most part, we end up in the same place.

Libraries are amazing places and I am proud to be part of a profession that is willing to experiment and then step back and tweak as long as necessary to make our libraries the best they can be, in the least expensive way, while keeping the staff from mutinying when administration changes things once again….


Special thanks to the moderators and panelists of this great library webinar. Check them out on twitter:

Watch and listen to the full webinar hosted by Library Journal and Ingram Library Services- The Ebb and Flow of Floating Collections!

Feel free to email me about what you found helpful from the webinar or what questions you would still like answered about floating library collections.

We can also continue the discussion online about how floating collections affects #TheLibraryLife! Friend us on Facebook and follow us on twitter @IngramContent.