Not a long ago, I joined a Zoom committee conference call with colleagues. I didn’t know anyone on the committee and our first task was to define how we would create change in an organization.  But first before we dived into the agenda, we had an icebreaker. For the icebreaker, we were to answer the following question:

How do you prepare for a new project, task, or goal you have to accomplish?

We responded “round-robin” style (  About 5 or 6 colleagues before me shared what they do, and, to my surprise, three of the five who responded, shared they prepared for new tasks, goals, or projects by reading articles from their libraries’ databases.  They read articles to share a common language with their colleagues.

When it was my turn I said,

“Me too!”  

It was probably not the most eloquent way for me to introduce myself.

But I was so amazed that my committee colleagues shared that they do what I have been doing: reading articles from colleagues who have published.  

Agile Project Management and Libraries

In this and the next post I share, I will describe for you a new project that Monica and I are working on with our library staff: Book Inventory, and how we are using scholarly literature and Agile Project Management principles to guide this project.

Why I read Scholarly Articles

While we didn’t get into why each person read journal articles, I know why I read journal articles and thought it might be helpful to share some of my reasoning with you. I read journal articles to:

  1. See how other library projects worked out – this is a similar experience for me as reading fiction
  2. Share what I learned with my staff; we can then discuss what they read in one-on-one meetings or staff meetings
  3. Learn how to replicate a process or methodology in a project or a survey

As we begin to plan for our first book inventory project since 2012, I read articles to prepare for the project. In 2012, I assigned one person (a library staff member who had always dreamed of becoming an accountant) to lead the entire inventory project by herself so she could share with interviewers at accounting firms what she learned from this project. It turns out library inventory project duties are very similar to accounting duties.

As I read articles about academic libraries and inventory processes, I noticed that the common themes rose to the top:

  • Library book inventories aren’t done on a regular basis due to cost, staffing, and size of collections
  • Replacement book cost can sometimes exceed the labor cost of inventory
  • Inventory was instrumental in identifying outdated and worn materials and revealed collection weaknesses

Three themes stood out for me and supported our need to conduct a current library inventory:

  1. The size of our collections is small (46,000 titles) so there is no reason to delay doing a book inventory project
  2. Customer feedback surfaced that a growing number of books could not be found so we had to replace the books
  3. After a review of the collection while many of our books are not worn or tattered, a systematic review of the collection could potentially reveal collection weaknesses

Informing Projects with Scholarly Articles

Since it has been six years since we last inventoried our books, I turned to our library’s databases to find content that would guide me and my team when planning our upcoming project. Typically, I search in our library’s databases instead of Google Scholar because 

  1. There is no pay wall
  2. Articles are not in pre-print; and,
  3. It helps me relate to our students’ research experiences. 

In addition, while I have found calling or emailing colleagues from other institutions in similar roles to be beneficial, the lessons shared in essays and journal articles decades ago can be the most impactful for me.

In particular, the essay I’ll discuss below caught my attention as I was searching because it shared business lessons I could potentially share with my staff.

Unlike most articles I have read about library inventory projects, James W. Marcum’s essay stood out to me because he shares lessons he learned when he owned a used car dealership in Texas.

As I read the article, I thought,

How can Marcum possibly compare used car dealerships to libraries?

– Rusty Michalak

But he did and it was very helpful!  

We both buy inventory for the library with the anticipation that if we have it on hand it will make our customers happy.  

At used car dealerships, most of their profit can be made from the service department so the parts manager purchases parts to have on hand with the anticipation that when a customers’ car break down their car can be repaired the day they bring the care to the service department. That makes customers happy. Libraries keep books with the intent that future generations of students, staff, or faculty will browse the stacks someday and find exactly what they are looking for or will discover a new book they never knew they were looking for serendipitously. 

Buying and storing car parts that might sit on a shelf for more than year before a customer needs it, puts extra strain on a used car dealership’s cash flow.  As Marcum looked to free up cash to invest in marketing, he decided to do an inventory of the car parts in stock. He discovered that many of the items had been sitting on the shelf for many years and not had been sold.  

The same is true for collection development librarians and stack managers in libraries.  Collection development librarians purchase books based on lists and recommendations, but not always with anticipation of who will use it now. According to Marcum, books have the highest chance of being checked out within the first two years of purchase, otherwise they sit on the shelf and collect dust. Books that are not checked out are hard to justify because it shows customers do not need those books now. Since librarians perform book inventory projects rarely, we don’t know what is on our shelves and that is making our customers frustrated when they can’t find the book.

In terms of our book inventory project, Marcum helped answer the main question I anticipate receiving from the student workers and the project manager, which is:

Why are we doing this?  

Marcum stated, like purchasing parts in a service department of a user car dealership, idle book inventory carries a high price. If libraries want to

Thrive in a challenging and fast-changing future

James W. Marcum

they must inventory their collection, so they know what they have. I can now tell my staff when they potentially lose steam and they look a bit deflated from the project: books will be checked out more often when 

  1. They (library staff) can help a customer find a book successfully
  2. A customer can find a book successfully in the stacks, and;
  3. Replacement costs of books costs more than doing than a inventory project in terms of labor.

Then, customers will be more likely to return to the library to ask our staff questions and to use a book in the collection again.

Reading articles about what others do is an important component of my planning process. Reading articles helps me learn from others, anticipate project costs, and assign the correct staff to a certain project.

Marcum has helped me explain this project to my staff (student workers) in a way that that will help them buy-in to the project. It is important to explain the importance of a project to the college not just the library.  By reading journal articles, you as a project manager or librarian on a team, will have a better sense of how the project will work and explain it more concisely to staff and your supervisor.

Let’s talk about you and your library…

  • Have you ever done agile project management for a project in your library?
  • What are your experiences with book inventory?
  • How do you prepare for new projects?  

Let us know in the comments!