February 16, 2018

Practice Makes Perfect | Collections

Formats proliferate while budgets fluctuate. Patrons want access to public library materials but may never physically enter a library building. Collection development librarians work to ensure that their holdings include the items patrons want at the time they require access. We talked to collection development professionals nationwide to discover their best practices for selecting and maintaining print and electronic materials.

Collection development requires librarians to combine their knowledge of a field or subject area with an understanding of the interests of patrons, keeping in mind the available budget. Many small and medium-sized public libraries don’t have the budget or staff to have full-time librarians devoted to collection development. Turnover also may lead to new or inexperienced staffers being asked to choose materials for the first time.

Figuring out what to order often means tracking books that have just been or are about to be published. Librarians can sign up for publisher newsletters and the LibraryReads recommendation tool to keep up-to-date on upcoming releases. Those interviewed also suggested registering with Edelweiss to access publisher catalogs; visting www.earlyword.com; tracking early buzz with Barbara Hoffert’s Prepub Alert blog; and keeping track of authors featured at NPR Books. Netgalley lets reviewers apply for access to books prior to publication, and genre-specific author associations often send out notifications about forthcoming titles as well. According to Robin Bradford, Timberland Regional Library, WA, “Any place where I can see what’s happening in books and what’s upcoming…is my favorite place.”

Selection decisions at most public libraries are made collaboratively, by librarians who communicate regularly with both patrons and other staff. As Miriam Tuliao, of the New York Public Library (NYPL)/Brooklyn Public Library’s joint technical services organization BookOps, says, “It takes a village.” Patrons want to find items that meet their needs at whatever point of service they choose to access. The librarian’s job is to help patrons articulate what those needs are. Bradford says libraries should ensure there is some method of accepting requests: “You need a way for patrons to be able to communicate what they feel is missing from the collection.” Library holdings driven by patron requests are directly meeting the needs of their local community.

However, many patrons will never make a request. To find out how to buy what interests them, new selectors should get out of the library and interact with patrons and other local organizations. “Visit an independent bookstore!” says Leah White of Ela Area Public Library (EAPL), IL. “Indie booksellers have a wealth of information and a whole lot of knowledge that is useful for collection managers.” Librarians can also keep track of authors who visit local bookstores via their websites and meet with representatives of neighborhood businesses.

Sometimes collection development librarians guess wrong, even though a purchased item might have been glowingly recommended by multiple reviewers. “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” says Thérèse Purcell Nielsen of Huntington Public Library, NY. “You won’t know that something great doesn’t circulate till it doesn’t circulate. It does not mean it’s not great, just that it is not great for your community.” Even then, there are methods for promoting underperforming materials, such as “Second Look” displays and readers’ advisory interactions. Collection development takes practice, and public librarians are key pieces in the discovery and promotion of titles in all formats. The most important thing to remember, according to Baltimore County Public Library’s (BCPL) Todd Krueger, echoing the late Charlie Robinson, is that “we should always stick to what the public wants rather than what we think they want.”

Budgets and formats

Responsible collection development means choosing among a sometimes overwhelming array of format and material options using what is usually a very restrictive budget. In the last year, materials budgets for public libraries essentially remained the same (see Trend Turnaround, LJ’s 2016 Materials Survey), with libraries continuing to shift their allocations among formats. “The big challenge is spreading the money thinner and thinner over multiple formats and platforms,” says Wendy Bartlett, Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), OH. Print books are falling as a percentage of the materials budget, while e-materials budgets continue to increase. Some libraries report that their ebook usage has been leveling off, but most are still seeing an increase. Krueger notes a “rapid increase in use of downloadable audiobooks” at BCPL, adding that “spending has increased notably.” Budgets for formats such as large print and physical audiobooks may end up being shifted in response to these trends.

With DVD circulation down—likely as a result of the rise of streaming options—libraries may consider allocating some of the physical DVD budget to increasingly popular subscription services. At EAPL, patrons have access to OverDrive, hoopla, Freegal, and Zinio. “OverDrive and hoopla are the most popular platforms,” says White. Other platforms mentioned were Bibliotheca’s cloudLibrary, Flipster, Indieflix, and access to digital resources through EBSCOhost and Gale Virtual Reference Library. Some public libraries have available county or statewide electronic resources as well. In Huntington, NY, “Through a countywide shared collection of digital resources and our own local collection of ebooks, e-audio, e-reference titles and streaming media, our patrons get access to a wide variety of titles,” says Nielsen. While deciding which streaming services to subscribe to, librarians should consider patrons’ ability to access the Internet and the technology that would be required to use them.

In addition to providing access to ebooks, downloadable audio, streaming video, and electronic periodicals through purchased platforms, some libraries are moving beyond subscription and into creation and collaboration. NYPL has launched its own ereader app: SimplyE. The Timberland Regional Library uses the SELF-e platform, offered by BiblioBoard in partnership with LJ, to encourage local, self-published authors to generate ebooks in collaboration with the library. The Los Angeles Public Library has recently launched a similar service. Despite these innovations, digital collections are still considered a complement to the print in many areas, rather than a replacement.

Tech tools and the human touch

A host of collection analysis and statistical tools now exist to help librarians with collection development work. Beyond typical review sources (e.g., LJ, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews), the most frequently mentioned evaluation and selection tools were Edelweiss, which provides access to publisher catalogs and advance review copies, as well as hosting an analytics module; collectionHQ, which has statistics for collection use within libraries; and vendors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which most libraries use to create carts for ordering materials. Tuliao of BookOps says their selection team “uses jobber and vendor sites daily to order English- and world-language print, nonprint, and digital materials. The group also regularly runs performance management reports from collectionHQ to track circulation patterns locally and systemwide.” Others prefer to rely on ILS (integrated library system)–generated reports. Most feel that vendor tools have streamlined the simpler parts of the selection process, allowing libraries to focus their resources more efficiently. Usage data can also assist librarians trying to concentrate budgets on high-use items.

Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that human selectors (rather than externally generated lists, standing orders, or similar algorithmic assistance) are the preferred choice for getting the right numbers of items to patrons in specific communities in a timely fashion. “I don’t find most selection tools accommodate a community like ours, which contains a broad range of disparate readers,” says Huntington PL’s Nielsen. Statistics can only provide one kind of perspective on a collection. “The risk one runs by relying solely on data-driven solutions is that critical, vibrant pieces of the library’s story aren’t reflected there,” says CCPL’s Bartlett, noting that in-house use is an important piece of the collection development puzzle. According to Timberland’s Bradford, “You need humans to make rules and know when to throw them out the window. Collection development is an art within library science.” Mindful collection development takes “a great deal of ‘high touch’ heart,” says Bartlett, “that only librarians who are passionate about the library’s mission can bring.”

Donations and self-publishing

Some libraries accept donated materials, but those items must be in very good or mint condition in order to be incorporated into the collection. As Bradford says, “Donations aren’t free. They take staff time to process and catalog, so if they are already looking worn, it doesn’t make sense to add them.” Many libraries pass donations along to be sold at Friends of the Library book sales, which will support the greater mission of the organization. EAPL’s policy is not to accept donated materials except to fill out the Local Authors collection, which is built through contributions.

According to LJ’s recent self-publishing survey, very few public libraries have dedicated budget lines for self-published works beyond those donated by local authors. Many librarians surveyed felt that they didn’t have the time to find reliable reviews for self-published work, which they suspect may be of inferior quality. Collection development librarians can find some reviews in sources such as LJ, Kirkus, and PW’s BookLife but shouldn’t hesitate to go farther afield. Bradford uses Goodreads, Amazon, and Twitter for reviews: “When I find them in traditional journals that’s great, but if I wait for them to review things, my patrons will be missing out on books they might enjoy.” She emphasizes the need for librarians to recognize that “self-published” does not necessarily equal poor quality.

In fact, self-published works often provide opportunities for libraries to collect materials written by diverse and under­represented creators who are overlooked by traditional publishing houses. This is important because public libraries are making an active effort to collect diverse materials. At CCPL, Bartlett and her colleagues work a public-facing service desk as often as possible: “We see face-to-face how our collection needs to be diverse to serve our customers.” At BookOps, Tuliao and her colleagues “study demographics and circulation and work collaboratively with branch staff to identify reading, viewing, and listening trends across age groups.” At EAPL, “Several collectors make trips into Chicago to visit independent bookstores that have specialty books we generally cannot find through resources like Ingram,” says White. Diverse and self-published collections don’t need to be separated from the traditional collection, argues Bradford. “Diverse books are for everyone, not just people in certain categories; African American is not a genre. Put those books with the other books of the genre they do share,” she states.

Weeding and maintenance

Collection development goes beyond the initial selection of items to their maintenance, replacement, and eventual deletion—even for digital copies. Most libraries either weed constantly or have a regular schedule. At BCPL, Krueger says, “We do a rotating schedule of areas of the collection that get weeded annually. Two of our busiest branches also see weed lists every six months.” In Cuyahoga County, librarians “do a big weed every December based on low/no circulation system­wide, but otherwise the branch staff stay on top of it,” says Bartlett. Because patrons see staff weeding constantly, they “are used to it as a daily part of library life.” Patron feedback in response to weeding has generally been limited to requests for items that are no longer in the collection or new requests for purchase.

While library materials still get challenged, most of the collection development librarians interviewed reported very few recent requests for reconsideration, which might be a reflection of what Krueger describes as “a reasonably good job of selecting widely from as many viewpoints as possible.” According to White, conditions at EAPL benefit from the “library board, administration, and community [being] extremely supportive of the freedom to read.”

When it comes to weeded items, Bartlett uses selection tools to determine what, if anything, needs to be purchased again: “Because we have good resources for looking at the collection, we can determine what needs to be repurchased on our core collection list.” At Huntington PL, “We weed what we need to, and we acquire what we need to, and a certain equilibrium is reached,” says Nielsen. Most reported having policies for weeding that prioritized keeping space available in the physical building while removing outdated materials.

Challenges and opportunities

Collection development librarians describe a variety of challenges facing them. BCPL’s Krueger describes the difficulty of “making colleagues understand that book culture is vibrant and that our customers still associate the library primarily with materials to borrow.” Several surveyed here mentioned the strain of stretching the budget to cover multiple formats. Nielsen’s library expects to “get everything we need in every way our patrons need us to get it…conventionally, digitally, in large print, on a CD, or even a Playaway.” According to White, a major challenge at EAPL is “hold list mitigation, i.e., finding ways to get our patrons access to books and resources now instead of having to wait long periods of time.”

Collection development is often a question of balance; librarians must decide how many copies of one very popular item to buy without sacrificing diversity in the collection as a whole. According to Tuliao, a selection librarian’s job at BookOps is to ensure “that the recreational, informational, and educational interests of all library users are supported by on-site and online collections while balancing real-time local and systemwide needs.” Bradford wishes she had more “money and time.” That’s probably true of us all.

Anna Mickelsen is a Reference Librarian at the Springfield City Library, MA. When she isn’t creating spreadsheets, ordering paperbacks and graphic novels, or weeding materials, she shares her #librarylife experiences on Twitter (@helgagrace)

This article was published in Library Journal's September 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. I’m not surprised that budgets didn’t change much from the previous year; what I would like to know is how they changed, both year to year and overall, from 2008 to now. In other words, if libraries had cuts in 2008/9, were they recouped since 2010?