The Collection Development Conundrum

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

5934882 - student looking at empty book shelves in libraryAlmost ten years ago, David Feldman penned a series of “Imponderables”: books with catchy titles such as “Why Do Pirates Love Parrots?”, “When Do Fish Sleep?”, and “Do Penguins Have Knees?” They moved well in public libraries for a few years, and then people seemed to lose interest in those questions. There are bigger questions, though, that people never seem to tire of pondering:

  • How did life begin?
  • Will we ever cure cancer?
  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • Why do we dream?
  • What makes us human?

Certainly, the shelves of our libraries are replete with titles that attempt to answer each of these quandaries. I want to single out a different question, though— one that we librarians chew on from time to time: “What’s the best way to select new titles for our collection?”

After many years of practicing the art of selecting new materials for public libraries, I have learned many things but I don’t intend to imply that I have all the answers. Nor does anyone else—and I recommend you not allow yourself to be bamboozled by anyone who claims their modus operandi is numero uno. What I’m suggesting is that the question “What’s the best way to select new books for the collection?” is a classic imponderable.


Oops… I have let a clue slip into the previous paragraph: Art. Selection of new materials is an art, not a science. Says who? I say it is. Ah, yes, art vs. science, another timeless conundrum—and also the name of an Australian electronic dance band that is raucously frenetic, IMHO. But I digress.

Before getting into the art of selecting titles, let’s look at the various triggers that prompt us to select. “How do we decide what gets added to the collection? Let me count the ways.” (Apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) 

  • The powerful influence of media presence
  • The appeal of cover art: it goes without saying that poor design or the lack of text and colorful graphics will dissuade most if not all patrons from checking out the book
  • Physical size, or the Goldilocks principle (not too big, not too small)
  • Binding
  • Patron requests or to meet the needs of a particular audience
  • School assignments
  • Local interest or tie-in
  • Library book selector says, “It’s my favorite area of interest and my library can never have enough _____ books.” (Fill in the blank: knitting, backpacking, Indian cooking, Scandinavian mysteries, etc.)
  • Fill a gap or special need
  • Amazon customer comments
  • Expeditions to bookstores
  • Donations
  • Bestseller lists
  • Anticipated demand for a title
  • Author popularity
  • It’s the next one in the series
  • A particular title is selected to provide balance in the collection
  • Self-promotion by author
  • Publisher catalogs
  • “Let George do it”—or, in the library’s case, outsource selection responsibilities to a vendor
  • Vendor promotion/customized selection lists
  • Vendor buying levels
  • Vendor list of “best” books
  • Visit from sales rep
  • Print run
  • Price
  • “Whoops! Look, we’ve got some funds we need to encumber by the end of the week.”
  • “The computer made me buy it,” a.k.a. suggested titles generated by software programs
  • Blanket orders or standing order plans
  • Television shows (get ready—Oprah is returning to the air this autumn!)
  • Did I mention the influence of media presence?


7338274 - book. word collage on white background.   illustration.What haven’t I listed? Reviews, of course; book reviews. But do they really matter these days? While that’s a completely separate topic in itself, I won’t hesitate to jump in and firmly state, “Yes, reviews matter!” Librarians have many excellent sources of professional reviews from which to choose.

It comes as no surprise that our public expects new books. Not a travel guide from three years ago and not a hot author’s thriller that has been available for a few years. Every survey of our customers says “We want new books,” and every public library’s circulation statistics bear this out. We have our marching orders from patrons: “Make our collection fresh, new, appealing, and up-to-date!”

But consider this not-too-far-fetched example. While we are evaluating a brand new title that discusses the history of yodeling in Tasmania — to replace our worn-out, aging title on the topic — we may find reviews suggesting that this new title is poorly edited and full of inaccuracies, or that it is an unstated reprint of a title originally issued in 1957. Here’s how “art” comes into play. Perhaps we will serve our patrons better by purchasing a well-reviewed title on the topic that was published two years ago, as opposed to one published this month. Also, we may have to stand our ground when other staff members question why such a limited-interest title would be selected at all. We know our clientele, and we see the circ. stats for that old, worn-out tome on the shelf, and we employ what is so aptly described by the phrase “professional judgment.” This is the art of selection!

Selecting books can certainly be informed by science, but I’m of the firm opinion that simply letting the computer do the work is not the way to go. Humans can make judgment calls and handle nuances and shades of gray in ways that software simply cannot, no matter how sophisticated the algorithms may be.

11293717 - young smiling female librarian handing a book to a customerAs professional librarians, we have access to respected journals that offer us reviews of forthcoming and recently-published books. Amidst our efforts to respond to media saturation, vendor buying levels, tweets, emails, phone calls, and blog posts, let us not neglect the art of reading reviews, using good judgment, and knowing our community. Hippocrates said “Art is long, life is short.” I interpret this to mean that it takes us an extended period of time to develop and perfect the craft of selecting books for our library and community of users.

So, where are we now, dear reader? Are you reconsidering your book selection process? My motive was to raise a question, get you to think, and encourage you to ponder possibilities. How do you and your library select? How is it working for you?

And now, forward! Ahead into these times of turmoil and changing tools for publishing and selecting! Having begun with the imponderable question of how to best select new books, I now suggest you be forewarned to never lose the art of your foresight—and to never forebear.

“‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!’ So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit


Paul Maya party


Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

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