Without a doubt, collection development is far different from when I entered the profession decades ago. At times, I even wonder if there is still the same level of interest in collection building across the profession as there was back then when librarians carefully reviewed dealer catalogs for that one gem they deemed noteworthy. I entered the field when positions for subject librarians were gaining a foothold. Subject expertise was deemed important and colleges and especially universities were looking to create collections that would attract research faculty. Potential faculty were always shown the library. Librarians relished the opportunity to add new materials, display them with pride and work to fill in disciplinary gaps.
Sometimes money flowed fast and furious and selectors needed to expend gift funds quickly. At other times, new periodical title orders were kept on hold for several years or required cancellation of another title. It was never a perfect world.
Change came as it always does. First it was in the processing of orders and then to the actual selection process. We have gone from standing orders with academic presses using profiling techniques to reliance on vendors to send the right “stuff” fully cataloged and shelf ready. It is not just formats that have changed, but approaches as well.
Yet, until recently most libraries had a substantial investment in selecting specific titles and dare I say pride in their collections, even in lean times.
What has changed? Is it the result or fault of new technologies or new formats? I would venture not. These are tools. Somewhere along the line expediency took over at many institutions. The philosophical underpinnings of collection building changed. We may, in some instances, be less fussy than in the past. Based upon a profile, the vendor decides what goes into our stacks or our online holdings. Larger bundled packages contain desirable content as well as items totally out of scope. Patrons can now trigger an addition to the collection with a simple click.
We no longer buy just in case. Just in time is the new standard. Inter Library Loan services have been broadened and now are capable of delivering a far wider variety of resources in a shorter time frame. That is certainly good news. Yet, at the same time, it means that often less attention is being spent on a core stack collection with respect to editions, replacements, gaps in sets and so on.
So what is wrong with progress? Perhaps nothing, especially when funds are tight and skill sets lacking.
No one can do it all. But my concern stems from a perception I have that collection development is no longer being viewed as defining the library. Even small libraries with lean budgets strove to strengthen their holdings not just with more but with what they deemed important to their patrons. Time and expertise went into the decision making process. I hear internally and as well as externally that there is too little time to make choices. Reference or liaison work are often cited as to blame. But aren’t all these activities tied together? Don’t we require the right resources in order to assist patrons? Doesn’t engagement in reference work help us to learn about patron needs as well as the strengths and weaknesses of our own collection? How can we be effective in outreach without at least adequate collections and knowledge of what is available.
True, I would never want patrons to judge the institution only by what we have in hand. Services are crucial components of what makes an institution great. But as libraries continue to redefine themselves, I hope that knowledge of what makes a good collection will be examined or re-examined. Expediency may continue to be a consideration, but it should be weighed against other factors. Greater intentionality and self-awareness are good starting points. We are only as good as our patrons think we are.
Barbara Opar is Librarian for Architecture for Syracuse University Libraries