Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Arrested Collection Development

Inspired by the collection policies thoughts of Peter Zimmerman, I thought I would try to briefly summarize my largely antagonistic feelings towards collection development policies. That being said I should state that I have hostile feelings towards the policies I was taught in library school long ago.

From what I recall, a collection development policy can be summed up as several pages of call number ranges with words that essentially express: "we are trying to get lots of this", "we want some of this stuff", and "there's not much on this subject that we want".

Now I collect in the sciences for a middle-sized Canadian university and I am responsible for selecting books that support the research needs of our faculty and graduate students as well as learning resources for our undergraduate population. This means I collect for very specific research topics (e.g. apoptosis and nitric oxide ) and for very general areas (Chemical composition of everyday products). It is possible to describe what I collect using the above collection development method, but it is uninspiring, to say the very least.

And what does it mean to 'collect generally for the sciences' really mean, anyway? Does it mean I buy 'real science' for the faculty and 'popular science' for the undergraduates? Or does it mean I try to buy "the canon" for all the sciences and simply buy more books on local research interests? And how can I - a layperson - describe to my community what I consider 'the canon'?

And so over time I developed a one sentence description of my collection development goals: "I will collect the books necessary to follow the research of the university's faculty and to collect the books most cited by the research published in Nature, Science, and PNAS, supplemented with books dealing with local geography and ecology and well-received popular science". IMHO, I think this one sentence is more useful than a twenty page wish list of call number ranges.

Over the years, I have internalized a number of possible 'rule-based' collection development guidelines that I think could be appropriate for academic or public libraries:

"We strive to collect the books ...
- in Oprah's Book Club
- nominated for the Man Booker Prize in Literature
- published by faculty
- suggested by faculty and graduate students
- published by local authors and publishers
- on the topic of local history and geography (Windsor, Essex County, Detroit) and ecology (Tall Grass Prairie, Carolinian, Great Lakes Watershed)
- that were most frequently requested by Interlibrary Loan
- that make the New York Times 100 Most Notable Books of the Year
- are reviewed in Highly Important Journal in field in question"

Other than being clear and concise, an additional benefit of using 'rules' is that it gives you a means to measure whether you have achieved what you set yourself out to do. If you say that your library is going to have up-to-date dictionaries for the top ten languages spoken on campus, then you can measure your success at present and then again in five year's time. Your community can judge your efforts as easily as well.

I understand that there may be reticence to this form of collection development policies because it appears to hand over the collection making decisions away from the librarian to outside forces, some of them being commercial interests. While I am not in anyway trying to negate the role of the collections librarian, I do think it is about time that libraries try to align the way we decide to add material to our collections to the way that our communities decide what next book they want to read. They certainly aren't decided what to read next based on our collection development policies.


Anonymous said...

I just wrote a collection development policy because I needed call number ranges to obtain stats for my OCGS report. How do you get stats for your discipline without call number ranges? I admit that it was hugely time consuming and/or frustrating to create call number ranges for my subject because my department's research is so interdisciplinary. It was also useful because I made the time to see what new areas people were researching in and I learned the new LC subject headings. I wouldn't have made the time without the pressure of the OCGS. Now that I am leaving my institution- I can pass this document on to help the new librarian.

Mita said...

There was a time when library collections were assessed by how much linear feet of shelf space they took up. Providing a count of the books in each subject area isn't much different. Using these methods, a completely unused collection is worth just as much as one that was frequently used by its patrons.

I wrote up an OCGS report just before I went on maternity leave and I think that its telling that the guidelines explicitly state that they do not want libraries to provide title lists in their reports.