The Practical Librarian’s Guide to Collection Development

Weeding and acquisition made easier

May 20, 2014

After years of practicing adult collection development skills in a medium-sized suburban public library, I have discovered that specific “shortcut” rules have become second nature to me. I present here an annotated rundown of my shortcuts that can help anyone create and maintain viable and successful collections for customers older than 10.

My guide begins with weeding because this process prompts us to think twice before making purchases that potentially have limited customer interest. It also points out subject categories in which collections are sparse or out of date.

Establish priorities. Determine the collections that are most important to your customers and your community. Review circulation statistics for individual collections and any available mission statements, collection development policies, and strategic plans for your institution.

Keep in mind that public libraries are not academic libraries. So unless your library specializes in a particular subject area, you may decide that scholarly tomes are not of value to your collection.

Weed with consideration. Use your statistics to identify laggards and evaluate their importance to your collections. Consider the significance of the specific title as well as the author. Use reference sources, print and electronic, to aid you in making these decisions.

Examine the physical condition of items and decide if they require replacement or deaccessioning. Perhaps reciprocal-borrowing libraries are filled to the brim with these items, enabling you to save replacement funds for a new title while your customer takes advantage of efficient interlibrary loan services.

Easy weeding

Quick-and-dirty weeding can be used for subject areas that change rapidly. This technique is also perfect for items that you cannot believe are still hidden on your shelves—titles like How to Succeed in Real Estate in the 1980s. When a title on employment law doesn’t mention the Family and Medical Leave Act, or a medical book expounds the benefits of hormone replacement therapy for all menopausal women, dunk that item right into the recycle bin.

Another easy weeding category is guidebooks. Whether it’s a guide on travel, product prices, or studying for the SAT II, these need to be continuously updated.

There are other easy weeding decisions you can make: Weigh whether a book is historical or political. Is that pundit speaking his personal opinion at the time (possibly 1989), or does this item have relevance today or provide a historical reference? If the former, it’s time to withdraw it from the collection.

Decide if the content consists of history or prediction. Has the fact that the prediction was made become a piece of history in itself? Do we need to keep every title that professed to prepare us for Y2K, for example, or is there a more current, relevant title discussing what the world’s concerns were at the time regarding Y2K?

Here’s what to consider when dealing with just plain old history, geography, and atlases. If an aged atlas describes a historical period, it can be of value. But if an item in this category is written in the present tense and the country is either no longer on the map or exists under a different name with different boundaries, recycle that book.

As for memoirs, understand their significance in relation to the history of the time they describe or their subject category. Also consider if anyone today will care that these words were ever written.

When it comes to technology and science, unless a book is historical or classic, it had better be current. Weed this area with abandon and don’t look back.

How do you handle politically incorrect works? Some items describe outmoded customs or expectations, and may describe gender, racial, or ethnic groups in an offensive manner, using terminology that was actually once the norm not too many years ago. These should be dumped.

Of course, there are also accepted norms in different time periods. Perhaps an old Greek play with pornographic illustrations or a book of lascivious limericks may have been acceptable in the 1920s or the 1970s, but today’s customers tend to find them distasteful. Recycle, or at the very least, store these items in case those norms make a comeback.

Check if replacements are available for deteriorating classic titles. New editions improve the attractiveness of your shelves, show your intellectual brilliance, and in some cases even increase circulation.

Bestsellers (and best circulators)

Since this is the practical librarian’s guide, let’s not mince words.

Know your budget for purchasing new materials and divide it by 12. This is your guideline for how much you can spend each month. Granted, there are months when you will spend more and others when you find you can spend less. And if you have trouble staying within your budget, look for grants, try to cajole your director into finding a pot of gold for you (show that director your great circ statistics), or excite your Friends group (if you have one) to raise funds for the collection you are hawking at the moment.

Again, know your customer. With your budget in mind, review those circulation statistics with attention to what authors, genres, or subject categories are popular.

When reviewing new titles, you may find one of interest that, as of yet, is unknown to the greater universe. By all means, add a few of these to your order if you are smitten, but it’s more likely that your customers are reading titles that are reviewed on television, radio, the internet, and in newspapers, or that someone’s book group or their friends are reading. Check those bestseller lists and listen to your customers. Personally, you may not want to spend one more penny on another copy of the 10th James Patterson title to come out in any given year, but your customers may want desperately to read it.

Bestsellers and bestselling authors give you the opportunity to breeze through some of the selection process. Whether it’s fiction (e.g., Baldacci, Connelly, Evanovich, Grisham, Silva, Sparks) or nonfiction (e.g., Bryson, Gladwell, Hillenbrand, Isaacson, McCullough, O’Reilly), your patrons will ask for it. These are no-brainers. No need to read a review or have a debate. The only question is how many copies your library should acquire. Order those future bestsellers early, and enter their records in your catalog right away. You don’t want to lose one reserve because you delayed making a decision to buy a bestseller.

Look at your library’s holds. ILS systems can create reports that show the titles in highest demand. Buy those immediately. Even if these items have a short shelf life, keep in mind that we are not just building collections; we are meeting customer needs.

Review vendor statistics. Some, such as Baker & Taylor, display in aggregate the demand for their firm’s inventory from all their library clients. When no one is ordering a new title, move on. If you see that other libraries are buying thousands of copies of a particular book, strongly consider that title for purchase unless it’s something that doesn’t fit your customer profile (e.g., vampires, erotica). None of us has time to do in-depth homework for every selection.

If your library is a branch of a consortium, you will recognize over time the buying habits of your fellow libraries. Discover which branches’ customers have reading tastes comparable to that of your patrons. Watch what those branches are acquiring, then collaborate.

There may be a need to balance collections, perhaps in a neglected subject area or one your library has missed altogether. My rule of thumb is to spend no more than 20%–25% of my budget on these purchases (unless you have Friends of the Library or gift funds that are not otherwise earmarked). It is important to offer items on a wide variety of subjects, but your customers’ interests may be different.

Some other thoughts on acquisitions:

  • Get to know the available sources that list upcoming titles and their reviews. Identify the sources that most accurately reflect your point of view and those of your customers;
  • Avoid purchasing items that will have a short shelf life, unless in heavy demand;
  • Be judicious in purchasing works by pundits, predictors, and poseurs;
  • Buy current books when selecting nonfiction titles. A one- or two-year-old title may be the purveyor of three- or four-year-old information. Older titles should be destined for the recycle bin unless they are classics. (Consider what Mike Brown and Neil deGrasse Tyson did to poor Pluto. Do you want to be responsible for some schoolchild reciting the old mnemonic for the order of the planets from the sun: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”?);
  • Keep in mind what information is available from electronic sources that will be more accurate and timely than a print source, and direct your customers to the former;
  • And finally, on a very basic note, teach yourself to touch-type a number keypad. The weeding and selection processes move faster if you can touch-type an ISBN number that is not presented as a barcode or any other machine-readable code.

To market, to market

As part of marketing your collection, lobby your director for great display spaces and let your imagination run wild.

Customers appreciate handouts (electronic and paper) to give them ideas for future reads. Initially, these are labor intensive, but once created there is no reason not to update them and reuse the lists.

As with efficient weeding and acquisitions, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Eye-catching marketing ideas can be accessed at the touch of your keyboard. Look for those that will be most attractive to your customers.

ABBY PRESCHEL KALAN is reference librarian with collection development responsibilities at Madison (N.J.) Public Library.