When attempting to describe my current job, I usually distill my many responsibilities in this way: “I am a Reference Library Assistant who focuses on collection development and adult programming.” I often get more blank looks thanks to my use of two library terms that most of the public don’t understand: “collection development” and “programming.” So I usually further distill it in this way: “I buy books all day long and plan events that serve the community.” And, yet, that still doesn’t really encompass what the heck goes on during my job all day long. So I thought it would be useful to offer a much more in-depth explanation. For the first few posts I will focus on collection development, mostly because so few masters programs require or even offer collection development classes to the future librarians who will one day be tasked with those duties.
Collection development is the process by which a library builds a physical and digital collection of resources that meets the needs of its patrons. This involves purchasing, yes, but it also involves making the decision not to purchase, as well as the thoughtful removal of resources from the collection. Yes, that can even mean recycling those books that are not being used and are taking up space needed for resources that will be used. Did I lose you? Yeah, there is a lot there. But that’s why collection development can be a job unto itself – indeed there are plenty of collection development librarian positions out there. At my library, there is a librarian with final approval over purchases, but the collection is divvied up so that several people pick the books they think will most benefit their portion of the collection. She reviews the choices and passes them on to the purchaser, who does the actual purchasing.
For me, that means I am the “subject expert” in Dewey’s 300’s, 400’s and Biographies. For those layman out there, that means I purchase books on subjects ranging from biographies and language (400’s) to education, fairy tales, folk tales, social sciences, study guides (from SOL’s to the GED, as well as ASVAB and TEAS), law, politics, economics, government, and family life (300’s). I’ve taken to affectionately calling the 300’s the grab bag. None of that stuff really fits together, but that’s why it all got lumped into the same category. Don’t ask me why the “leftovers” is put into an early category. No one can know the mind of Dewey!
Upon my arrival at my job, I spent a lot of time in the stacks, learning my way around my section, seeing how many of the books looked old or damaged and just becoming “a subject expert,” or as much as library professionals can be. Would I have been more comfortable purchasing for the journalism section (070) or literary analysis (800’s)? Possibly, but I would have gone into those sections with preconceived notions about what should be included and what should be excluded. Starting from scratch – although not entirely, since my minor in undergrad was international affairs and journalists tend to have a strong grounding in current events – allowed me to see the collection with fresh eyes the way a patron might see it. Patrons at public libraries are not experts either, and have different needs than those served by academic or trade libraries.
Getting to know the collection also required playing with Horizon, the integrated library system which contains the full records of each item in the library, including the publication date, number of checkouts and the last time an item was checked out, among many other bits of information about this particular item. These particular pieces of data are key because it helps me better understand how patrons are using the collection. This can tell me what books are taking up space that shouldn’t (for example, a memoir published in 2004 that has zero checkouts can go), which books need to be replaced (a book on terrorism published in 1998 that has 65 checkouts, which means it is popular but is obviously out of date), or whether we need to add more titles on a subject that has widespread popularity. On top of that, I like to remember what sorts of reference questions I have so that I get a feel for what topics patrons are often requesting.
All of this is the research phase, which has taken me the better part of month, and that doesn’t even include reviewing our study guides, which have a whole other set of rules applied to them. But after all this I have a list of books that I need to look more closely at. If they are damaged, it’s a fairly easy question of either replacing or completely “weeding” them from the collection. Otherwise I just do a bit of skimming and comparing, seeing how many books we have on a subject and how in-depth they are. For example, these two nearly identical juvenile nonfiction books on biological and chemical warfare stood out to me when I browsed that section:
They both include similar information on the history of chemical and biological weapons, but one is 10 years newer, so it includes information about the anthrax scare, as well as other more recent developments in the field. It was an easy choice to weed the older, out-of-date (and frankly less graphically interesting) title. Here’s another example of an easy weeding choice:
This title had some up-to-date information, but all of the electronic forms were contained in a floppy disc. We don’t even have floppy disc drives on our public computers, nor do most current computers. Plus, we already had another book that had a compact disc in the back with the electronic forms. At the same time, I chose to keep a 1970’s book on abortion because it was the only one we had that traced the issue all the way through pre-colonial times. It also viewed the issue through a social lens, adding depth to other books that focuses only on political and legal developments.
But of course, thoughtful weeding is just one part of collection development. The fun part comes next: Buying books!