Turning Collection Development Inside-Out

Hi there. My name is Dorothea Salo, and I’m the Research Services Librarian for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This talk was originally intended for the Ontario Library Association Superconference twenty-eleven, but a grand Midwest blizzard kept me from getting there in time to give it, so I’m delivering it via video instead.

Collection development is a tough row to hoe these days! In public and academic libraries alike, its efficacy and efficiency is being questioned, sources of collectable material are changing rapidly as publishing industries change, and librarians feel under the gun, wondering how to adapt. I’m going to try to frame these challenges usefully for us, talk about what’s changing and what impact those changes are having, and then I’ll tell you where greater minds than mine think collection development is going. You’ll be seeing quotes from these minds briefly throughout the presentation; I don’t plan to read them aloud, because I know librarians are literate, and anyway if you want to contemplate one you can always pause the video, but I do want you to understand that I didn’t make this stuff up off my own bat, and I’m not the only librarian thinking along these lines. One voice is easily disregarded; the number of voices I’ll be showing you is harder to shrug off.

Public libraries

I’m an academic librarian by training and trade; let me just say that out loud. But public libraries are by no means exempt from these questions, so I’ll start with them. The big disruptor for the print world right now is ebooks, of course. The first big question is whether we can lend out materials to ebook devices at all; there is no first-sale copyright exemption in digital space, and publishers so far don’t seem to want to play with us. The next question is whether we can even afford to lend out content if we can legally do so! Right now it’s a small proportion of our users, and the content providers are asking for pretty big money. Even if we get past that, there’s the hassle of figuring out how all this works technologically, if it even does, and explaining that to patrons.

If ebooks weren’t enough, there’s Google Books. And no, of course it’s not a replacement for all our collections, but for public-domain material? And what will one-terminal public-library access really mean for our patrons? And anyway, this is a problem of perception as well as reality, the perception that “it’s all on the Internet, right?” True or not, public libraries have to cope with that perception, and it’s proving difficult.

Non-textual materials like music and movies are “format shifting.” Instead of videotapes, CDs, DVDs, and cats—well, maybe not cats—instead of these physical materials, our patrons are getting cheap digital purchases, online radio, and non-library-mediated lending services like Netflix that can afford much huger catalogs than we can. Now, you still can’t stream your cat, but you can stream almost everything else by way of mass-produced multimedia. Just not from your library.

Think about it: newspapers, magazines, music, film, university presses, trade book publishers, scholarly societies, commercial scholarly publishers. These are all industries whose business models and distribution systems are under intense disruptive pressure.

It seems to me that an emerging important question is, “What’s there going to be left to collect in a radically different media landscape?”

John Dupuis

So the question becomes, what media do libraries circulate in a streaming universe? Probably not cats! Playaways, sure, but what else? And I know about the digital-divide arguments here, and no surprise, I agree with them, but in a streaming universe, will libraries be allowed to redress the divide? And even if we’re allowed, do we have the tech-savvy, particularly in heavy digital-divide areas, to do it? Will we even have the bandwidth, for that matter?

Academic libraries

Academic libraries are hardly immune to change. Many of the same issues facing public libraries affect us too, but we have some other questions to confront as well.

If our goal in collection development is to pick things we know our patrons will use? We’re failing. We know from circulation studies that a large percentage, one-third to over one-half, of what we buy never circulates, not even once. And how surprising can this be, given that mindreading is not really a librarian superpower? (We have others, just not that one!) And given how few faculty will actually give time to this?

Approximately 45% of print monographs in the CUL collection published since 1990 have circulated at least once to date; approximately 55% of these books have never circulated.

—Report of the Collection Development Executive Committee Task Force on Print Collection Usage, Cornell University Library

To make matters worse, we know that patron preferences have shifted to electronic, off-premises access. This is increasingly true even for the humanities, our old stalwarts. So what is the value of a local monograph collection that practically nobody comes in from the park to use? What is our cost to keep a little-used physical resource?

These are awkward questions. We don’t like to ask them. Sometimes our patrons don’t like us to ask them—but we’re asking them!

We used to think, particularly in research libraries, that another thing collection development did was make our libraries unique special snowflakes. Our library has more books than that library, so it’s better! One library specializes in this area, another specializes in that area, so we’re all different! And different makes us special!

Many of the assumptions about running a library—that the measure of a library’s quality is the size of its book collection, that there’s value in keeping even infrequently loaned books on the shelves, that library staffing decisions shouldn’t be questioned—are outmoded and need to be set aside.”

—Corwin, Hartley, and Hawkes, “The Library Rebooted.” strategy+business 54, p. 3

What we’ve found, though, especially in these days of ubiquitous approval plans, is a ton of collection overlap across institutions. Research libraries aside—they’re a bit of a special case—our collections just don’t make us distinctive the way we thought they did, and bigger is not always better measured from the point of view of actual collection use.

And then there’s the Big Deal in serials. Who are we shaking hands with when we negotiate journal-access contracts? Are they even human any more? If you ask me, the Big Deal is teetering on a precipice, exactly the way many housing markets were in 2005. Publishers can smile and deny all they want right now, but we know what our budgets are like. We don’t want to say no—we never want to say no—but we’re about to be forced to, many of us. It’s a long way down for purveyors of the Big Deal.

So you might ask, considering the precarious serials situation, where is the open-access bus taking collection development? When does Open Access get us out from under the heel of the Big Deal? Does it? And if it does, what are our serials people going to do with their lives?

Well, okay. Who owns open-access materials? Who preserves them? Who collects them? Who pays for preserving and collecting them? Often it’s not us! The open-access agenda is moving out of our hands, for good or ill (and I think it’s for good; we haven’t done as much as we should). But that means we don’t have the materials. We don’t have a collector or caretaker role. If we think we should, we’d maybe better step up!

And then there’s space: the final frontier. You might not think at first that physical space is a collection-development problem, but it surely, surely is. We’re bursting at the seams, especially in research libraries, and public-service space is finding new uses. Some of that is separating patron spaces: noisy group work or cafes kept away from quiet study and work space. This of course requires more space than everybody being in one space. Technology wants space too, but we’re not talking about your old-school computer lab any more. Technology is smaller, more flexible, and more ubiquitous. Patrons want to cluster around it, consult over it, plug it in—they don’t want to be stuck in fixed rows staring straight in front of them! And that takes space. Lots of it.

So one of the things we’re looking at is whether offsite warehouse storage gives us better bang-for-the-buck. We’re also asking ourselves how much sense it makes to use incredibly scarce, valuable campus space for books that aren’t circulating, even when we do have to keep them because they’re part of the scholarly record. Jury is still out on how all this will go down, but indications are we’ll see this more and more.

Collection development

So that’s a laundry-list of challenges to what collection developers are used to. Let’s step back a moment and ask ourselves: What has collection development actually done? What have we collected, and why? What is it for?

The way that we commonly think of collection development is that there’s a huge world of information out there, from which we select materials very carefully for a library’s designated patron community. We have a sense that our patron communities differ a lot from one another, so we need to select different things for them. But how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm now that they’ve seen Paree? All our patrons are becoming accustomed to what looks like a limitless information sea. We know it’s actually not, but they don’t, and they’re becoming more correct every single day. Momentum matters here. Direction matters.

And the direction right now is toward openness. So now that the world is holding and accessing more and more materials in common—in what’s slowly becoming a true common, a worldwide common. Now that more and more materials don’t have to be shared through libraries, either because they’re open access or because the gatekeepers have shut libraries out, maybe Thom Hickey is right, and we really are at Peak Books—peak physical media generally.

Here are some measures of library activity that may have already passed their peak:

  • Physical books circulated
  • Budgets for physical material
  • Title selection by librarians

Some that probably haven’t, but may soon reach their peak:

  • Physical book purchases by libraries
  • Books printed
  • Physical books/volumes stored on campus
  • Physical interlibrary loan

Thom Hickey, OCLC

These aren’t, by the way, all of Thom’s predictions, so I do suggest you go read this post if you haven’t already. If you’re a librarian or a library educator—and I am both—I think this short little post gives at least as much to think about as the recently-released ARL scenarios.

Inside-out collection development

Now, it’ll be a while, I grant you that, before we really start to notice a decline. But I still think that one important part of the future of collection development for all of us, certainly and obviously academic libraries, but public libraries as well, is inside-out!

Instead of collecting commodity materials from the world for our patrons, we collect unique materials from our local patrons and hold them in trust for the world! And it almost goes without saying that these days, a lot of these local unique materials are born-digital. So part of this new collection-development puzzle is learning how to collect and preserve born-digital materials. Academic libraries have a head start on this, no question. I do believe public libraries will have to sort out how to catch up.

I think libraries have to change their view of the world 180 degrees. Libraries should no longer aim to be the portal to the world of information for a local audience. Libraries should try to be the portal to local information for a global audience.

Peter van Boheemen

I’ll give you some examples of what I mean, starting with public libraries.

The marvelous thing about history is that it’s fractal. No matter how close in you draw the circles on the map, there’s more history to keep and share! The more that public libraries can work on collecting local history, public history, the more they can put their collections online, the more they will become ambassadors for their communities to the world: for the people in their communities, and the creativity in their communities, and the knowledge in their communities.

Or we could… find untapped sources of content created by our local users and work together to create a single publishing platform and rights-management tool to allow easy creation and access to local content.

—Kathryn Greenhill

What you may already have and can get into your local archive, even if it’s not nearly so grand as the library of the Parliament of Canada, can also be your library’s and your community’s portal to the world. Who in your community is producing information? Well, who isn’t? And who’s going to collect and preserve it in many places, if not libraries?

good newspapers aggregate and curate information for their local readers. they simplify or enhance, when required. they think about the local population when going through the sked. the go out in the local area and solicit feedback from people. they are the record of a place, a time, a citizenry.

good newspapers and good libraries have a helluva lot in common. i have always thought we should be working together more closely. how can we do this?

Amy Buckland

Oral history counts too! History is more than the written word. If you do guest lectures at your library, and especially if you already record them, why wouldn’t you put them online? With your lecturer’s permission, of course.

There’s also a growing interest in and concern about personal digital archiving. We’re seeing a fair few online services fold; Geocities was a huge example, obviously, but the del.icio.us bookmarking service is also threatened, and any service can die if its business model fails. I think this is a tremendous service and education opportunity! Show people how to back up. Show people what responsible archiving looks like. And then, if you’re smart, you can use this as a collection opportunity too. See something good? Ask if they’ll donate a copy to the library!

Now, here’s an outfit that I think should be an example to us all. The Chicago Underground Library is a nonprofit explicitly aimed at collecting examples of local culture, especially local digital culture, describing and cataloguing them, preserving them, and disseminating them to the world through the web. How amazing is this? And for pity’s sake, why wasn’t it a public library that thought of this first? I am happy to say that a fair few librarians are participating in it, as educators and cataloguers. I’m especially happy to say that because there’s so much ignorance about what librarians do. What better way to make that clear than by inviting the public to do it alongside us?

CUL… not only places them in a collection that values their work, but through our catalog instantly locates them within an interconnected map of the city’s history… The Underground Library isn’t just a community archive of things past. We are constantly reaching out, connecting with new people and their work, and providing a home for what they do.

—Nell Taylor

And now academic libraries. What do we do to stay afloat?

I’ll start with open access. So, quick refresher: green open access is open access through archiving of researchers’ work on the open Web. In academic libraries, that’s usually in the form of the much-reviled institutional repository. Which as they’re often run, are essentially cardboard boxes sitting empty waiting for stuff to magically show up in them. This is broken. It’s just as broken as putting up a building with a lot of empty shelves and calling it a library! Sitting passively waiting for stuff plain old doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the analog world; I’m really not sure why anyone thought it would work in the digital world. Self-archiving is a failure; nobody just gifts us their publications, not even with mandates. Have you seen the infrastructure Harvard put together to implement their mandate? Did you read about the University of Minho in Portugal, bribing faculty outright to follow their mandate?

So, really, what these things need is a little conscious collection development and arrangement, if you ask me! And just so you know, in my experience as an IR manager, local communities find and really love whatever’s in there about local history, local flora and fauna, local geography, local policy—anything local. So developing this kind of collection has real tangible benefits for town-gown relations. What we don’t need is any more failures on this front—and I say this as a notable failure!

Another place we can inject our collection-development expertise, and hopefully a little sanity, into the system is by becoming publishers. Again, this is inside-out! Instead of collecting the products of the publishing process for readers, we’re collecting the inputs to the publishing process, so that our campus authors present their best face to the world!

The role of libraries in research institutions is evolving from a focus on reader services to a focus on author services (an insight first voiced by Kimberly Douglas of Caltech).

—Christine Borgman, “Research Data: Who will share what, with whom, when, and why?

In a fair few research libraries, this is happening by libraries combining with or taking over university presses. But that’s not the only way it can happen, so I’m going to mention the University of Nebraska here, with its tireless champion Paul Royster. Not only is Paul a successful institutional-repository manager, he’s successfully shepherded several peer-reviewed journals to open-access publication. That’s journals that our strained serials budgets don’t have to pay for, so thanks, Paul!

Now let’s take a look at special collections. There’s a fair bit of buzz in academic-library circles about special collections these days, because if it isn’t our regular old collecting that will make us special, maybe our special collections will! Now, the mere fact of special collections is meaningless. (Special collections librarians can hate on me later, but I really do believe this.) Access to special collections, discovery of special collections, is what matters. So locked doors between interested patrons and special collections don’t cut it. And these days, “analog-only” means “locked door,” because “it’s all on the Internet, right?”

So if it isn’t on the internet, you’d better put it there. Given the amount of materials we’re talking about here, that probably means More Product Less Process. And I’m proud to say we have a pioneer within the University of Wisconsin System. Archivist Josh Ranger of UW-Oshkosh has experimented with more-product-less-process digitization, and he’s also asked his special-collections patrons about the tradeoff between beautifully digitized and described collections and more collections available online. He’s gotten pretty good feedback to the effect that more is better than better, and I think we need to take that seriously.

Instead of dismissing researchers who want to see more of our collections on the Web, we must acknowledge that these expectations will be an increasing reality… Let’s consider giving our users what they want.

—Mark A. Greene, “MPLP: It’s not just for processing anymore” American Archivist 73 (2010): 175–203

Data curation. Is this the new special collections? In the States we’re all fussed about this because our National Science Foundation is requiring all grant applicants to include a data-management plan in grant proposals, but don’t worry, Canada, your time is coming!

In some libraries… library attention, resources, and research are being directed toward locally produced digital collections… Original research data sets produced by campus faculty are thus moving out from the fringes of this evolving collection activity and into the periphery of prospective library practice.

—Newton et al., “Librarian Roles in Institutional Repository Data Set Collecting,” Collection Management 36:53–67

People are asking me if the NSF is going to build a big data barn the way that the National Institutes of Health built PubMed Central to host publications covered under the NIH Public Access Policy. Early days yet, but it doesn’t look that way. So some of us will have to build local data barns. I honestly expect that a lot of this work will eventually be done consortially, or even at a national level in many countries, as it is now in Australia. Still, there’s always something! But sometimes we’ll be handing data off to disciplinary data barns, and that’s fine.

Either way, we’ll always need people to herd all those cows into the barn they belong in (have I run this metaphor into the ground yet?), and realistically, that’s not going to happen on a national or consortial level. That will be people inside institutions, collecting local materials and making sure they’re where they need to be. Doesn’t that sound like collection development to you?

Pioneers in this effort include the Digital Data Curation Center at Purdue University, and if you’re interested in this area and you haven’t checked out their website, you really, really should. They’re taking a very pragmatic approach to helping faculty and collecting data, and their experiences and guidance should inform all of us in this area.

So that’s my collection-development future, in which we appreciate, collect, and preserve what’s valuable from our local patron base. Inside out? Maybe—but let’s let a million unique and beautiful umbrellas bloom.