Why Didn’t I Buy That or Other Woes on Collection Building? / Barbara Opar

While working on another project, I found myself reading an article entitled: Why Did We Buy That? New Customers and Changing Directions in Collection Development.  Kay Downey’s article discusses how Kent State began directing its collection policies to better align with the University’s mission of student retention, higher graduation rates, increased international enrollment, and enhanced recruitment.[1]

My thoughts turned in another direction. Though a strong part of my concern does focus on globalization. Rather I started to think: Why didn’t I buy that? This concern relates to now seeking to purchase titles that were ‘missed’ for various reasons twenty or thirty years ago and if found now paying triple their initial cost. As well, I fret over past students missing out on key information.

Over the course of my long career I have certainly sighed a few times over purchases made. A then $75.00 book did not appear well written, had poor quality illustrations and did not meet library binding standards. Other times, I would read a review of a newly purchased title that indicated poor scholarship on the part of the author or found another new book on the same architect that would have been a better selection. I remember being excited about a book on factory towns to later find that it had a very different focus and did not concern company built communities or workers’ housing at all. The Libraries once bought a French romance writer on my recommendation instead of the critic we thought we were buying. That item went to our book sale! (Certainly mistakes like that are less common in the online environment.)

These examples stick out in my mind, but I am sure that faculty have wondered from time to time about specific acquisitions or students wondered why we bought such a specialized title in Japanese on ancient building techniques in that country.

Libraries themselves often now allow approval plans to include titles that a selector may not have wanted, determining that it is more expensive to make the exclusion.

Still I find myself more concerned over missed opportunities. We are now trying to buy materials on Demas Nwoko, a Nigerian architect. Two faculty members want the book(s)- one tenured and researching this architect specifically; another tenure track faculty looking more broadly for African material. We are also seeking to expand holdings about other regional architects such as Dimitris Pikionis. Again, when we do locate such books, the cost is very high—ca. $750.00 for what was probably a $35.00 title at the point of publication.

So how can we avoid such mistakes? We probably can’t in totality. But when a name pops on a book dealer’s list that I don’t know, I more actively try to access the value of having this title. Even when I can’t justify buying it now, I at least make note of it. The faculty member wishing to update and expand our holdings on regional modernism prepared a list of architects’ names for me. So when I see low cost titles about these architects, I can make purchases. I am signing  up for more mailings. Yes, all those catalogs we got and discarded were problematic. But lack of information can be as well. Emails do not take up that much storage.

What about ‘weeding? When I was first hired, the then dean of Architecture suggested we did not need Edifices de Rome Moderne. Several years later, his replacement has excited to handle this title, which luckily I had kept. We also kept books by Royal Barry Wills, certainly out of fashion in the mid- 1970s, but now being used by another new faculty member exploring mid- century house types.

No- we cannot buy or keep everything. I admit I error on the side of keeping rather than discarding titles. I try to do a little research when necessary and seek faculty advice. Most libraries now have off site storage facilities. We do not want to fill them with titles likely to never be used. But when making choices, I would keep a work by or about an architect rather than old directories- which I think less likely to be routinely used and sought by the researcher with a long term project.

Every library, institution and user group is different. But taking a little time to find out about an architect or topic or seeking advice about potential discards may help with collection building. We all want to build the best collections we can. Being a little more intentional will help.

[1] Kay Downey (2013) Why Did We Buy That? New Customers and Changing Directions in Collection Development, Collection Management, 38:2, 90-103, DOI: 10.1080/01462679.2013.763741

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