Books and Beyond: How Public Libraries Build Collections

There are more than 16,600 public libraries in the United States, and filling these information centers with materials is not cheap. Recent data from the American Library Association (ALA) reveals that public libraries annually purchase over $1.6 billion in print, audiovisual and electronic resources. But just how do librarians determine which materials will fill library shelves and servers?

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libraries collections development

Variety Is the Spice of Libraries

Just as American towns and cities vary in all kinds of ways, so too do the nation's libraries. This fact is perhaps no more evident than in libraries' collections.

In many respects, a library's collection is a mirror of its patrons. The books, magazines, DVDs, CDs and other resources in a facility represent an amalgamation of community reading interests, political beliefs and cultural attitudes. The history and development of a town or city might also be explored in archives or special collections. Since library collections reflect unique populations, how they are developed also differs among locales.

libraries collections development

Meeting Community Needs

Whether it is a single librarian in a small town or a committee selecting resources for a large urban system, the underlying goal of collections development is to meet community needs. To reach that objective, librarians must consider many questions.

What fiction and nonfiction books should be stocked for adult, teen and children readers? How important is it to have a wide selection of newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals? How can high demand for audiovisual materials like CDs and DVDs be met?

What about resources that don't take up shelf space, but room on a hard drive? How much of the collections budget should be reserved for ebooks, online database subscriptions, computer software, music downloads and other electronic resources?

libraries collection development

Identifying Needs

As a librarian goes through this process, community need is the primary guiding factor for making buying decisions. Staff members rely on patrons' reading and media habits to make determinations about where to place precious collections development dollars. Some librarians use technology akin to that used by large bookstore chains to track the popularity of materials so that the resources that are most in demand get ordered.

This process of identifying which books are important to stock not only applies to best sellers or popular audiovisual items. Librarians must also consider special needs the community might have. For example, a library may need to increase resources printed in a particular foreign language to help serve a large immigrant population. Audiences relying on large print, Braille and other specialty items must also be accommodated.

libraries collections development

Disappearing Collections Funds

Limited resources are a constant factor in the ordering decisions. As the economy has faltered and municipal, county and state budgets have been cut, library funding has also dropped precipitously. Funds for buying books often dry up first because collection building is often viewed as secondary to simply keep libraries open.

One innovation librarians in larger systems have adopted is the 'floating collection' concept. A floating collection might be one genre or type of resource. Rather than have a permanent home on the shelf of a single library, an item might instead 'float' around the system as it is requested by patrons being serviced at different locations.

library collections

How Are Materials Ordered?

That depends. Many libraries in smaller towns and cities designate a single staff member to select and order materials. Larger systems in metropolitan areas cannot realistically rely on one person to carry out these duties. Instead, ordering is usually split among many librarians, often on committees.

Ordering responsibilities might be split up by branch. For example, the San Francisco Public Library System has branches in 20 different communities. Staff members at each of these locations are responsible for keeping the pulse of their respective neighborhoods and ordering resources accordingly.

Other large library systems utilize a more centralized approach. The Hennepin County Library System, a network of 41 branches in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs, largely orders at the county level with specific staff members serving as genre experts. For example, one staff member might specialize in ordering fiction for the entire system. Another orders the county's juvenile titles, and so on.

Most libraries order books, audiovisual and other resources from wholesalers who specialize in representing the library market to publishers. These vendors have a solid understanding of library needs and may even, such as in the case of the Phoenix Public Library, be asked to determine what titles and quantities are ordered. Relatively few libraries order resources directly from publishers.

library collections development

The Patron's Role

Libraries are by their nature communal places where people come together to share ideas and experiences. And librarians typically pride themselves on how well they are meeting community needs - including building the right collection.

The next time you're at the library and find yourself wishing for a certain item, speak up! It just might be there for you the next time you drop by.

Find out more about public libraries through our interview with Laura Shea-Clark, a librarian at the Mountain View Public Library in Mountain View, California.

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