I’m torn on my feelings about floating collections. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a floating collection can only occur within a library system with multiple branches. Rather than each branch “owning” the books that “live” in their building, the books belong to the system as a whole. So, let’s say your library system does not have a floating collection, but does have multiple branches. One day, you pick up a book from the Dog Branch Library. When you’re finished, you have some errands near the Cat Branch Library, so you return it to the Cat Branch, who then has it delivered to the Dog Branch. With a floating collection, you may pick up a book from the Dog Branch and return it to the Cat Branch, but the Cat Branch keeps it. The books, rather than being anchored to a particular location, float among the various branches, hence the term.

Within the last year, the Arlington Public Library in Virginia switched some specific collections from static to floating. Children’s board books (you know, those chunky-paged things, usually for infants and toddlers?), DVDs, and audiobooks are already floating. The young adult collection will begin floating on May 1. Systematically, branches worked through those subcollections and stuck blank labels over the existing branch labels. As items with branch labels were checked in, staff members did the same. No longer did the board books, DVDs, or audiobooks live at any particular branch. The same will soon be true for (most of) the young adult items.

The benefit (or, the goal) of floating collections is to create greater variety. This is especially important for smaller branches. According to the public catalog, there are a little over 28,000 items available at the Aurora Hills Branch. (A quick note — Aurora Hills does not have the smallest collection by any stretch; I’m most frequently present at this branch so I’m using it as opposed to Plaza, which only has 2,557 items [and it is a special case in and of itself in that it’s not a traditional branch is primarily used as a place for patrons to pick up holds on their way to and from work as it’s located just above a Metro subway station. Though a few items do “live” at the Plaza Branch, my understanding is these are newer or really popular items and weeding* occurs more regularly there or items are shipped off to live at other branches actually permanently after a while.] or Glencarlyn or Cherrydale, both of which have smaller collections than does Aurora Hills. I’m also omitting the special Local History and eMaterial collections for obvious reasons — a scientific study this is not.)

Libraries, of course, have their regulars. This may not be more or especially true in smaller branches, but it’s often more apparent. Patrons who do visit regularly and are at the mercy of a static or non-floating collection are faced with the same old options to browse, unless they wander over to the new book collection (which, at Aurora Hills, includes materials up to a year old**) or happen upon the small percentage of items that have become too old to sit on the new shelf any longer and have migrated to the general collection. Due to a number of factors, including building size and the general interests of the specific customer base at any given branch, it’s not practical to buy one or more new copy of every book, just because one branch decides their collection needs it.*** So, with a static collection, if patrons are the kind of people who prefer to browse to look for something to read, especially in small libraries and especially if the patron prefers a specific genre (am I the only one who doesn’t understand the popularity of the mystery genre? It’s a mystery to me!****), their options will be limited.

But what about patrons who prefer to go in to a library knowing what they want to get? As someone with a lengthy to-be-read list, this is often my strategy. I’m also not someone who plans what I’m going to read ahead of finishing what I’m currently reading most of the time. As soon as I finish something, I pick out the next thing and dive right into that. Floating collections make this challenging. I can check the online catalog, of course, before I leave for the library to go pick it up. But if the book is currently living at a library that’s a bit distant, I only have the options of going to that distant library, putting it on hold and waiting two or three days for it to reach me, or going with something else. It’s not the greatest hardship in the world, but I can see how it might annoy patrons who prefer to go into a library with a plan of what to get rather than a plan to browse.

There’s also the issue of duplicate copies at branches. If an immediate community for a library has a particular interest in a certain topic, author, or book, the library in that community may end up with a fairly homogeneous collection. Of course, this means that the library is doing a great job of meeting the conscious needs and interests of their community, but it can be really limiting. If users like to browse, the browse-able options will be much smaller and the opportunity to grow in knowledge and reading interest shrinks. I can’t say how severe the possibility of this is — I certainly haven’t run any detailed research studies on this, but I do see it as a possible consequence of floating collections. In fact, there are libraries that disagree with me here (and I admit it’s entirely possible that they’re right — after all, they have more access to real time, real life statistics on this than I do at the moment). In their document detailing their decision to switch to a floating collection, the Fairfax County Public Library notes, “Browsing at individual branch collections is enhanced by increasing the availability and diversity of items available on the shelves for customers” as one of the benefits of floating collections. You can read the rest of that document here. It more succinctly articulates some of what I’m discussing and offers an alternative and much more solid opinion than what I’m giving here.

Another challenge I’ve seen with the floating collection, particularly when it comes to things in a series, and even more especially when it comes to TV show DVDs is having duplicates of the same season and none of other seasons. It’s not uncommon for a patron to checkout an entire TV show to binge watch (hey, Netflix adds up and the library is free!). So when a patron brings up seasons one and three of House and asks me where season two is, the best I can tell them is that they can put it on hold and maybe get it in a few days. Is it good enough to encourage customers to plan ahead and place holds on all of a TV series if they want to check out the whole set?

So, this is why I don’t have a strong opinion either way about floating collections — or, rather, I have strong opinions both ways and they create this neutral space between them like the center of a rope in tug-of-war. As some libraries adopt digital-only environments, this becomes a non-issue: the library and its collections are everywhere you (or your phone, desktop, tablet, eReader, what-have-you) are. Maybe the solution — though impractical, if I’m being honest — is to give each library branch a core collection (added to, slowly) with the old standards and especially popular new items with a larger floating collection.

Or maybe we’ll go with a more science fiction approach with drone deliveries of books from online browsing endeavors, eliminating the need to go to the library for the purpose of picking up books (though I’ll maintain that in-person reference services, programs, and other in-person offerings at libraries will necessitate the physical manifestation of the library). Who knows what the future will bring to us bibliophiles and browsing addicts.

Does your library have a floating collection? Do you wish it did? What are your feelings on floating collections? Partially floating collections? I want to hear from you.

*Weeding is the process of physically removing items from the collection and digitally removing them from the catalog. This usually occurs when an item has not circulated in some time, is out of date, or is damaged and the library does not intend to replace it.

**This may mean items that were published up to a year ago and the library purchased as they were released or it may mean items that had been published more than a year ago but are new to the library. It’s up to the discretion of the staff and/or the folks at HQ (in the case of Arlington Public Library, the staff at the Central Branch) — or a combination of the staffs of multiple branches.

***There are exceptions to this, particularly when it comes to highly anticipated books. When Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published (my personal feelings on the ethical issues surrounding the publication of the manuscript aside), Arlington Public Library ordered at least seventy-five print copies to be divided among the eight branches (though not evenly, as the demand at each branch would differ); this does not include large print copies, eBook copies, audiobook or eAudiobook renderings. Despite this huge number, the holds went on for months (and continue, now, though there are plenty of copies for individuals who are on hold — at the time of writing, nine people had requested the book: enough for each to have eight copies each! Though, at the moment, 124 people are on hold for the ten available eBooks and thirty-nine have requested the ten eAudiobook copies; interestingly, physical copies of both are immediately available for pickup, but it would appear these patrons either would prefer the digital copies or don’t realize the availability of the physical. But that’s a whole other topic.)

****No, I didn’t just say I don’t understand the popularity of mystery to make that joke. Yes, I absolutely took advantage of it anyway. Yes, I’ll see myself out now.