Posted by: Steven Harris | July 20, 2008

How to fund on-demand collecting

I am very big on the idea of on-demand buying of library materials…getting whatever library users want. This is not a particularly common practice in academic libraries. I think public libraries are probably more responsive to particular requests from patrons. In the past, academic libraries often allocated funds to faculty to spend as they wanted. To be clear, I don’t support that particular model. I think the general experience was that faculty were not very conscientious about spending their funds, or, feeling pressured to buy, would buy a lot of materials that they didn’t necessarily need. It wasn’t really on-demand buying because there WAS no real demand. I think that situation fairly accurately describes the nature of purchasing done by librarians. The greatest pressure felt is to simply SPEND THE MONEY. The immediate usefulness of items purchased is not necessarily the top priority.

We often call this model “just in case” collecting: developing a large and diverse library to serve any hypothetical need in the future. For most libraries, this is a losing proposition for two main reasons. 1) Libraries can’t afford to buy the size and diversity necessary to serve all possible demands. 2) It is difficult [impossible] to know with certainty what the demands will be and match them precisely with your collection. Only the largest mega-libraries can begin to make the just-in-case model work, but even those libraries make interlibrary loan requests.

What this means in many libraries is that a large percentage of the collection rarely or never circulates. We are spending money on materials for which there is no demand in our user population. [I’ll leave aside for now the idea that libraries should be striving to preserve and archive all human knowledge, regardless of short-term demands. Maybe a later post.] This is a potential source of funds to finance an on-demand plan. I don’t have a good plan to implement this, other than to say that librarians should consider some part of their allocated funds to be designated for user requests. I know some librarians operate in this manner anyway. Some do not. Once you give folks money, they tend to be a little stingy with it. Perhaps it would be best to set aside a certain amount of all allocations. I can hear the howls now.  “Taking away my money?”

The way, I think, to accurately identify user needs is to simply let them tell you at point of need what they want. We should create mechanisms to enable user input. This is an outreach, workflow, and technological problem. We really need to communicate the message to library users that we will really buy whatever they want. We also need to assure that our acquisitions processes make this happen quickly and efficiently. The demand may have passed, if we don’t meet it quickly. Technology can be used to aid that speed and efficiency, whether it is online request mechanisms, rush order procedures, or patron-driven acquisition of electronic resources (instantaneous buying: “I want it—I got it”).

I realize there are plenty of arguments against this kind of collection development. For one thing, we may be sacrificing something to meet short-term demands. But I think a lot is also sacrificed when we develop collections in a just-in-case manner. I think it is possible to preserve important parts of our culture, develop diverse collections, and still serve whatever the immediate demands of our clientele might be.

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