Posted by: Steven Harris | February 28, 2010

Getting Rid of Stuff

Apparently, AULs like to get rid of stuff. I’ve read the Taiga ForumProvocative Statements” (PDF) before but recently read a response from the Music Library Association (PDF). One issue I have with the provocative statements is the negative fashion in which they are formed: “libraries will have abandoned” or “will no longer” or “cease to exist…” I guess that’s what makes them provocative. This kind of “what should we give up” thinking has become a very common part of library strategic planning. I suppose it’s understandable. It’s  hard to envision how you can add new duties and responsibilities without giving up something. I, however, don’t think it’s a very productive way to plan. I think you can plan more effectively by deciding what is important, whether it is currently done or not. The things at the top of the list are where the discussion should happen. Why spend so much time on the bottom of the list?

Two negatively posed statements from Taiga suggest that “collection development as we know it will cease to exist” (#2) and “libraries will have given up on the ‘outreach librarian’ model” (#5). I think these are both pretty far from the truth. Certainly, purchase-on-demand will become more and more important. But it is primarily useful as a means of augmenting the collection by rapid (or immediate) purchasing to meet needs that weren’t already anticipated in other collection activities. I don’t see any of the ARL libraries (especially those in the upper echelon) giving up the selection of materials. And, of course, that selection is going to be done by “outreach librarians” or subject specialists.

Part of why I think Taiga is off the mark on this issue is that the statements fail to recognize all the reasons collection development has been done in the past. One of the best summaries of these reasons is Ross Atkinson’s introduction* to the Janus Conference several years ago (the OA version available on eCommons@Cornell).

Atkinson identifies three main reasons for library collections: political/economic (collections are a cultural capital that attracts scholars, faculty, students, and more capital), preservation (collections are a way of ensuring the survival of information and artifacts), and contextualizing/privileging (of all the vast amounts of information available in the world, this is what is important for our institution or organization).

This last reason is what I think especially survives even in an all-electronic, purchase-on-demand world. And Atkinson gets this exactly right. In a world where all information is discoverable and retrievable, the context of my organization is still more important than everything else in the world. That, I think, is a function that outreach librarians will continue to perform, even in the on-demand, electronic world: Pre-selecting and filtering the world of information into a package that is more manageable and useful to the library’s users. This is always what selection and collection development did, but where that function was especially useful because it once took a long time to acquire and provide access to materials, it is still valuable because having everything a click away doesn’t mean that it will be discovered at the right time.

Certainly, libraries will want to make as much information available to library users on demand and in an unmediated way. They should get whatever they want, but in many circumstances, they won’t know what they want until they see it in a meaningful context. I think this will be especially true for undergraduate students, but it applies none the less to graduate students and faculty as well.

I think the AULs will have to get rid of something else besides collection development and the librarians who do it. There are also a lot of economic reasons why I think the “collection development will cease” statement is off the mark. I’ll get to those in another post, perhaps.

*Atkinson, Ross. “Six Key Challenges for the Future of Collection Development.” Library Resources & Technical Services 50.4 (2006): 244-251.

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