Posted by: Steven Harris | April 1, 2008

What does it take [to be good at collection development]

…or how NOT to be a “legacy” librarian!

David Lee King has a couple of interesting posts summarizing sessions he went to at PLA:

Title: What Does it Take to be Good at Reference in the Age of Google?
Speaker: Joseph Janes

Title: It Ain’t Necessarily So: Challenging the Assumptions of Legacy Librarianship
Speakers: George Needham and Joan Frye Williams

OK, so I’ve already said how much I dislike that confrontational, know it all, 2-pointier-than-thou kind of tone. Legacy Librarianship, indeed. Why not just say, “out of the way, old fart!” But, in truth, there wasn’t much in the presentation (as David summarized it) that was really a challenge to the assumptions of librarianship per se. Mostly it challenged the notion that libraries are very high on anybody’s radar. That’s not really a principle of librarianship. I’ll accept the notion, however, that if libraries did a better job, they WOULD be on people’s radar.

I’ve known, however, some pretty cool “legacy librarians” in my day. People who could look at any call number and tell you what the subject area was…precisely. Book folks who knew encyclopedias of information about publishing and book history. People who read hundreds of books in a year and could talk intelligently about them. Librarians who always seemed to develop a rapport with any patron who walked in the door. I’ll take that kind of legacy any day.

My point is that 2.0-ness is about combining “legacy” skills in librarianship with new technology and a user-empowerment attitude. But if your library is nothing but a blog, it’s not a library. There has to be some information delivery there. That’s what a librarian is, an enhancer of information delivery. Collection, organization, discovery…those are all adjuncts of information delivery to humans.

So, I got off on a rant there, when I meant to talk about what it takes to be good at collection development in this age of Google. Part of the rant was born of the notion that collection development as a library function will soon die (if it hasn’t already). I don’t accept that view. What will it take to do collection development well in the future?

The legacy stuff:

Know your environment. I work in an academic library, so that’s where I’ll focus. You have to know the curriculum for areas in which you collect. Look at the course catalog. Browse the required texts in the bookstore each semester. Learn about the research agendas of departments as well. Where is the strength (and power)?

Know your audience. Communicate with faculty in a variety of ways. Email is fine for some things, but running into somebody in the hallway and chatting is more likely to get you remembered. Treat students like they are humans, not a chore. Performing reference and instruction are going to teach you a lot about them (and teach them a lot about you).

Know the discipline. It’s hard to select materials in a vacuum. Read some handbooks and encyclopedia entries about the disciplines you serve. Dip your toe in the scholarly literature. Learn about the characteristics of many publishers. Who is strong in various areas of the discipline?

The [maybe] not legacy stuff:

Be bold! Make selection decisions based on what you know about the environment, the people, and the discipline. You’re probably right, but it’s not worth sweating every decision.

Be random! Sometimes you have to accept that your collection will be a sampling or cross section of the available literature on the topic. A little randomness can give the collection greater depth and keep bias at bay. Throw in a couple of authors you don’t know. Pick some materials on a sub-topic you normally stay away from. We work in a probabilistic world. We’re trying to guess about what the user needs. Sometimes we’re wrong.

Let the user pick what they want. Obviously, you may not be able to serve every need, but think of ways you can say, “yes.” Employ patron-driven selection when you can. Forward announcements to faculty. Send them catalogs (legacy, I guess).

Use technology to gather and save information that might help your selection activities. Have a blog where you announce things to your users. Allow them to make comments. Use Open WorldCat, Google Books, LibraryThing, or Amazon to create lists of interesting books you come across. Use a feed reader and subscribe to feeds from publishers and vendors. Create a short SurveyMonkey survey for your departments.

Think about things that aren’t obviously collection development. What impact will federated searching have on patron needs, patron success? If your OPAC were capable of doing anything you wanted, what would that to be? What kind of information might a patron find useful to have delivered to a cell phone?

Learn about technology. Technological changes will likely have many unforeseen impacts on collections. Play with web-based tools and software. Think about how you can use them to help yourself or to help your customers. Read an ebook.

Capture free stuff (or stuff you’ve already paid for). Does your library provide access to open access journals? Do you have individual title entries for all those ebook collections you bought? Many reputable free online collections offer MARC records.

Let users contribute to the collection. Do you have an institutional repository? Are people in the departments you serve depositing? Can you help them deposit? Let the public contribute to a library wiki. Let them contribute to a Flickr collection about your library, campus, or community. Encourage other sorts of gifts in kind. Some of it will not be worth much, but you might get your hands on something of lasting value.

Be a book person AND a technology person.

[Phew! Randomness! Might need to flesh some of those out a bit more.]



  1. I like your take on intergrating technology. It goes without saying, though, that the insitution one works for, sadly, will determine what you can and can’t do. Nice to see someone put in writing what I would like to do, but others can’t vision.

  2. Indeed, most of my talk about implementing technology in collection development is rather…hypothetical. I do a lot of it myself, in terms of identifying and compiling selection information, but it’s tough to get implemented as an institutional practice.

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