ONLs are not everyone’s cup of tea


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Rule number 1 of blogging: don’t use weird abbreviations and don’t make headlines too enigmatic: well, I have broken that rule, but let’s spell out Over Night Loans quickly.

Like many other Faculty libraries, the Pendlebury Library uses ONLs in order to make sure that core texts are available at most times during the day (at the Pendlebury, in theory between 10:01 and 15:44: more information at Now, a lot of the librarians you meet have not only been students themselves, but are also usually people
with common sense. However, we are not kidding ourselves that this arrangement is as good as having, say, 10 copies of a core text for Module A, 10 copies for a core text for Module B …

Of course, most people will stress that we cannot buy multiple copies of a book due to lack of money, but that’s not really quite true. We could buy multiple copies of, say, a number of core texts for undergraduate courses – however, there are three problems with that for any library:

  1. Finite amount of money would mean that we could buy these multiple copies of academic books – but then not much (or anything) else. This would mean, for example, not considering any suggestions for purchase made by music students and staff. Surely that would be quite a restrictive policy to take.
  2. Should a library offer as many books on as wide a variety of topics as possible, or give access to a couple of books but provide access to these by having multiple copies on the shelves? I would hope most students and staff would say ‘more different books please’, and that this is better than several books with multiple copies.
  3. The final most important reason, however, is in my opinion that every library lacks enough space. Even with repeated vigorous weeding of stock, we are still in the lucky position of having more new books being acquired than what we have weeded, but we need to move more (mainly older and obscurer) materials to closed access. Some of the items weeded would definitely be better placed in a much bigger library, such as the University Library, as opposed to a small Faculty library which aims to provide resources for teaching more than research.

Okay, you might be convinced by this, but you might wonder why we don’t buy more ebooks then? There wouldn’t be a need for making a physical book an ONL if we had an ebook. I think I need to have a strong cup of tea, and postpone this to another blog post. Until then: please appreciate the need for ONLs more; oh, and have a cup of tea.

About cg474

Since August 2010 I have been working as a librarian at the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, UK). Since October 2015 I am the librarian at the Faculty of Divinity Library. Between August 2010 and November 2013 I was the Deputy Head of Music at Cambridge University Library and at the Pendlebury Library of Music. Between December 2013 and September 2015 I was the Librarian at the Marshall Library of Economics. Since October 2015 I have been the Librarian at the Divinity Library.
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10 Responses to ONLs are not everyone’s cup of tea

  1. I’m glad you have raised this issue, as it’s one I have often thought about, and achieving a balance in any collection between offering multiple copies of essential texts and sufficient coverage in all areas is going to become more difficult in the current financial climate.

    In the case of the Pendlebury library, consideration of this issue might bear in mind that the Colleges also support music students by also buying copies of texts which are most in demand. From the ebooks point of view, when ebooks@cambridge purchases a title in eformat it complements the print holdings of not only the Faculty but also those of the Colleges, which is why they have put so much money and effort into ebook purchasing.

    At the moment libraries don’t all have collection development policies which take account of each other, but the ebooks@cambridge Business Plan ( contains a provision to look at this issue.

    Some UK academic libraries are already implementing a policy of purchasing an ebook (if one is available) as first choice and only purchasing a print copy if e isn’t an option or if there is a justifiable argument for buying it. I don’t think we have reached this point here yet, and it raises a number of issues for further discussion, but perhaps it is something we should starting thinking about.


  2. Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    When a student borrows a book, he/she is not using it continuously for the loan period. Thus, ONL encourages people to borrow books when they are actually going to read them, and means that nobody should have to wait longer than 20 hours 16 minutes to access an ONL.

    I would be interested to know about the process for deciding what is ONL, and by what means students/supervisors/lecturers are able to recommend that such status be conferred on particular texts.

    Whilst it is true that College libraries also provide core music texts, the level of provision is not consistent. Whilst my College (Girton) does have a good provision, it uses ONL status very sparingly.

    As for the matter of e-books, one should not underestimate the number of people who actually prefer hard copies for a variety of reasons (for example, if reading about a specific piece, I like to have a musical score to hand to quickly see to what the author is referring – to have two books open at once is not possible in the limited area of my laptop screen). For that reason, I would hope that the obtaining of an e-book would not result in the rescinding of ONL status to the hard copy. If anything, the accessibility of such texts online only strengthens the argument for having the hard copy on ONL status.


  3. Dear Sasha,
    Thanks for your comments. I think you’ll find that the ONL status is usually set by each Library according to the advice they are given by their academic staff. As far as I know, ONLs are used by Faculty libraries to share out the limited copies they have to the numbers of students who need them. Colleges tend not to have short loan collections, but where books are in heavy demand will often purchase extra copies if requested.
    I quite appreciate the demand for print copies and your point about needing to retain one on ONL. Looking ahead I understand that publishers are working on incorporating music extracts (audio, video and print) into future ebooks, providing the necessary rights can be obtained.
    However, this is straying from the main point of the post, which is whether a library should be stocked with multiple copies of key texts, or go for wider coverage with fewer copies. What’s your view?


  4. musicb3 says:

    Dear Sasha,

    Many thanks for your comments and feedback – it’s good to know that you feel strongly enough about this to comment; and your comments are very useful.

    I share your concern about availability: making books (and other library items) as much available as possible to as many students and staff as we can, is of course a difficult task.

    Sorry, I might be misreading your comment, but just to reiterate, or maybe to emphasise: we are not going to stop buying printed items, and we are not going to stop using ONL as a way to having items as much available as possible. I wrote the post to clarify why we are using ONL, as in our recent student survey, 1 or 2 participants questioned our use of ONL, so this post is “for them”. As far as I can see it the Pendlebury Library will continue to use ONL as a “tool” to have at least 1 copy of core books in the library as often/much as possible.

    To answer your question about how it’s decided which item should be an ONL, or what should stay an ONL, Sarah has already stated that a lot of librarians follow the request or advice of academic teaching stuff. Additionally, we sometimes make an item an ONL if:
    – there is a clear high demand all of sudden (sometimes students hear an external lecture and suddenly everyone is after 1 copy of an item in the Pendlebury)
    – we have been asked to buy a book, and anticipate high demand, as we know that it’s currently the only copy in a library in Cambridge; sometimes the person requesting the item didn’t specify that the item should be ONL, but we believe that it would be a good idea (we recently bought a number of books on globalisation and quite a number are now/still unique copies, as far as Cambridge library provisions are concerned).

    Without wanting to tell a College (e.g. Girton) library what to do, if you were concerned about a library item’s availability you could talk to/contact your library/librarian and suggest a change of the items status. Whereas no library
    would like to make most of their holdings ONL, on a temporary basis and for 1 or 2 items this might be possible.

    Re e-books:
    I won’t reply now to your comments at length, as I’m about to write a blog post about this anyway. Just briefly:
    I had hopened that my “cliffhanger” line (see end of my blog post) already indicates that I don’t see that things are as e-asy as: “We want e-copies and nothing else”! They certainly don’t make any physical copies redundant, and I will explain in more details when sometimes “e” is not more, but less.

    Many thanks again for your thoughts and concerns – they are noted and will be taken into account in the future,
    Clemens (CG)


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