How Do Librarians Choose the Books?
Walking into a library, surrounding yourself with books, is a great comfort for many people. Ever stop to wonder how they get there? That task falls to the collection development librarian and/or department. They have the daunting task of deciding on what items will and will not mesh with their community, often areas with diverse populations and needs. Let us take a look behind the curtain at the process that fills those shelves.
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The Decision Matrix
Like every institution, librarians have written policies that govern their practices, and that includes Collection Development. They also have a budget to adhere to. These limiters mean that public libraries must make thoughtful, although not necessarily safe, choices. Worthwhile works can be controversial, and yet, if it does not violate this policy, it can find a home in your local library. And as libraries now stock movies (DVD’s and Blu-ray) and music (CD’s and some include vinyl) on their shelves, and whose purview can include databases and games on their computers, they need to assess and reassess what materials deserve what percentage of the budget.
There is an old library adage that there should be something in their collection to offend everyone. This reflects the goal of most library professionals, creating an unbiased collection that includes voices across political, socioeconomic, and racial lines. Many feel an increased responsibility in communities that lack diversity. However, serving these goals and their communities does not guarantee smooth interactions. Libraries understand that unbiased does not mean free from controversy or protest, most often seen in books written for children and teens, sections of the community that they feel does not have the maturity to handle certain ideas. Characters from Mary Poppins to Harry Potter have been on the receiving end of a complaint or a demand to remove it from the collection. Understanding they straddle this difficult line, the collection development policy includes a procedure for dealing with public complaints, but libraries will always fight to keep a book available, knowing that democracy requires open ideas and that freedom does not always equal safety.
Some of these decisions are easy. Large “tentpole” products, to borrow a term from the film industry, get purchased. An ex-President or major superstar releases an autobiography, the next book in a popular series or by a well-known author of fiction or non-fiction come out, or a piece of literary fiction that makes headlines because it causes publishing houses to engage in a bidding war will get on the order list. The same holds true for Oscar and Grammy winners; if Disney opens their vault and releases another film or a classic movie or album gets remastered and re-released. These have a guaranteed audience and make them obvious items to add.
The library’s mission, to provide free materials for all, is a democratic wonder. It’s also hard on materials. The collection development department also has to periodically look at the catalog and see the state of older, but still popular materials, and re-order them for the collection.
Making the Hard Decisions
Because popular items account for a significant part of the collection, their presence ensures some uniformity across every library. The individuality of a collection, whether a single small library serving a town or a huge urban district with many branches, comes down to the lesser-known works a librarian chooses. What processes do Collection Development professionals follow to create such unique offerings?
I spoke with Logan MacDonald, Head of Collection Development for the Anythink library district in Adams County, Colorado to explain the process. He uses publishers' catalogs to find new offerings. Reviews also provide good guides, and, of course, social media also plays a role with sites like Goodreads and Twitter providing the current information and lets him know what people are talking about. Another category they look for, items that have a local interest to the city, county, or state the library resides in. These instruments, plus their deep understanding of the communities they serve, what items move, and what ones sit on the shelf, determines the purchases of more obscure items that will appeal to their patrons. These choices matter. An item that never gets checked-out is a wasted investment, and with their limited budgets, librarians want their books to have interested readers. The end result, they hope, is a well-used collection that engages as much of their community as possible.
The above process works with works in English. However, like many other libraries, Anythink’s district includes a large number of people who do not speak English, or it is their second language. As inclusivity matters, this prompted them to include Spanish language materials in the collection. This decision is complicated by the fact that Latin American Spanish and European or Castilian Spanish are quite different, and their publishing industries have their own quirks to deal with. Other librarians have populations that speak Russian, Mandarin Chinese, or Farsi and want to provide them with a reason to come to the library as well with similar complications. Fortunately, there are several companies that help them ensure they can find quality materials for all patrons.
Many librarians find that the best recommendations come from patrons themselves. Most libraries have a process where patrons can request that the library purchase an item. Often these requests are eye-opening, showing an interest in topics that have not been addressed before now. Anythink, for example, set aside 5% of its budget for patron requests. Not every request can be purchased. A textbook, esoteric work with limited interest or a cost-prohibitive request, such as a full encyclopedia, all typically get a pass, although oftentimes they will try using Inter-Library Loan to try and fulfill this need.
Librarians know the power of art; books, movies, music, to entertain, to educate, to expand the mind. They want to give their patrons access to materials that meet immediate needs as well as access to voices they might not hear in their corner of the world. To accomplish this requires paying attention to their community as well as the trends in the publishing world. The Collection Development professionals work hard to create diverse collections that include the popular, the local, the requested, and the controversial that together add up to a library that meets the needs of the various patrons it serves.