Why we're reading what we're reading

By Willam Armacost

Here in the United States we are fortunate in that public libraries are pervasive. Northwest Arkansas is no exception. Three of the area’s four major cities boast new or recently renovated library facilities. But how many among us have stopped to consider how our local libraries determine the content of their collections?

Though some might be loath to admit it, one thing is clear; decisions regarding collections are often subjective. There will always be members of the public, as well as librarians themselves, who disagree about the inclusion or exclusion of authors, titles and subjects within a particular collection.

With limited funds and space, no library can ever truly be all things to all people. However, through the development of policies and the utilization of publications and tools, libraries and their staffs seek to minimize their own prejudices while developing collections that meet the wants and needs of the majority of their patrons.

Choosing the books we’ll read
A starting point, of sorts, is the American Library Association (ALA). That organization, founded in Philadelphia in 1876, has adopted or endorsed statements such as the Library Bill of Rights, Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read Statement, and the Freedom to View Statement, which help to establish and regulate both the goals of public libraries and broad based and unbiased guidelines for collection development.

In brief, the ALA calls for libraries to provide resources representing a wide array of subjects, regardless of origin or viewpoint, for the recreation and enlightenment of the publics they serve. As is to be expected, the mission statements and collection development policies of local libraries tend to express similar ideas.

The following are excerpts from the collection development policies of the Springdale and Fayetteville libraries respectively:

“The library will maintain a current collection of materials, in all fields of knowledge that are of permanent value, plus other materials on current issues or in demand. Materials will also be selected to meet the needs of business and industry, students, religious groups, and community organizations.”

“The library provides within its financial limitations a general collection of reliable materials embracing broad areas of knowledge. Included are works of enduring value and timely materials on current issues. Within the framework of these broad objectives, selection is based on community needs, both those expressed and those inferred.”

Both libraries’ policies make it clear that items will not be rejected solely because of their content or viewpoint.

Demographic impact
Demographics do have an impact on how libraries build their collection. Often obtained from censuses, libraries analyze data concerning matters such as their communities’ ages, ethnic diversities and socioeconomic levels in order to better match their collections to their patrons. Locally, the use of demographics may be seen in the decisions of the Rogers and Springdale libraries to invest more in Spanish language materials.

Libraries typically further refine their collection development policies by lists of selection criteria. The Rogers Public Library’s list serves as a good example:

“The following criteria will be used as they apply: 1. Favorable reviews. 2. High standards of quality in content. 3. Timeliness or permanence. 4. Community interests and demand or high potential user appeal. 5. High technical quality. 6. The reputation and significance of author, producer, or publisher. 7. Contributions the material makes to the breadth of representation of viewpoints on controversial issues. 8. Value commensurate with cost and/or need. 9. Up-to-dateness. 10. Need for the subject to fill gaps in the collection.”

Other criteria cited by area libraries include award recipients, relevancy to the local population, and literary or artistic merit.

A number of methods are employed to determine whether or not items meet one or more of the above mentioned criteria.

Librarians routinely read periodicals like Booklist, an ALA publication that annually features reviews of approximately 7,000 books and 1,000 audio/visual items, Library Journal, New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews and Horn Book, which specializes in children’s books.

Weighing the reviews
All reviews are not equal. Judy Casey, director of the Rogers Public Library, said that she weighs reviews on a sliding scale based on the source of the review.

Other librarians spoke of their preference to read two or more reviews of any given work before making decisions about their merit.

The H.W. Wilson catalogs are also commonly consulted. The Fiction Catalog and the Public Library Catalog both trace their origins to the early 20th century. Since then the company has added the Children’s Catalog, the Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, and the Senior High School Library Catalog. These publications draw upon the experience of librarians from throughout the country in order to obtain wide consensus as to the best works within a broad range of categories.

Libraries’ abilities to compare their holdings to the Wilson catalogs have been simplified by Bowker’s, the official agency in the United States for assigning International Standard Book Numbers [ISBNs] and the leading provider of bibliographic information. That company has placed the content of the Wilson catalogs on-line, allowing for computerized comparisons.

Audio/visual collections are likewise influenced by publications such as Billboard, Rolling Stone and Leonard Maltin’s movie guides. In general, a wide array of sources is consulted in order to maximize coverage of available materials and to minimize undue influence by any particular source or sources.

Awards lists are scrutinized in an ongoing effort to maintain awareness of those works deemed most noteworthy or significant.

Current bestseller lists are referenced to gauge likely demand.

What the public wants
While reviews, catalogs, awards and bestseller lists are important to the collection development process, the voice of the public can’t be understated.

Every librarian interviewed for this article was quick to point out the importance of public input. Through direct interaction with their patrons, the reading of comment cards, the assessment of surveys and the study of “hold lists,” librarians gain valuable insight into their communities’ wants and needs.

For example, response to pre-publication “hold lists” helps libraries determine the number of copies of a particular title to purchase.

Requests for material not available may lead to the discovery, and subsequent filling, of a gap in a library’s collection. All of the institutions that contributed information to this article indicated that they try as often as possible to purchase patron requests.

Doing the homework
Finally, the dedication and commitment of the librarians themselves must be considered.

Ellen Andes, assistant director of the Springdale Public Library and a librarian for the past 25 years, likely spoke for most librarians when she said, “We take it [collection development] very seriously.”

In order to be as effective as possible, librarians must constantly watch, listen, read and absorb.

Marcia Ransom, the director of the Springdale Public Library, put it rather simply, “We need to be up on everything.”

The Rogers Public Library’s Robert Finch certainly seems to express the desired attitude.

“I like going into an area I don’t know much about because it makes me a better librarian,” Finch said.

Staying power
Once the determination has been made to add or exclude an item or resource to a collection, how is that decision then judged sound or otherwise?

Again, comments and requests from the public play a vital role. Every community has its own unique requirements and desires. Libraries need direct input from their patrons in order to determine if those are being met.

Another way is through the process of “weeding.” Among other things, weeding involves the removal of outdated materials such as medical and legal information and worn or damaged items. But weeding also considers circulation and usage.

Items regularly in demand indicate the wisdom of their inclusion. However, some librarians will admit that it can be difficult to fairly judge the value of items that do not command high circulation or usage.

Catalogs and periodicals again play a role here as well by offering lists of titles and resources generally accepted as being of value or importance. Ultimately, however, individual librarians use their own judgment and experience when weighing the significance of individual items in relation to the larger needs and purpose of the institution and its collection.

The Fayetteville Public Library’s Collection Development Policy states: “Individual bias and interests must not be allowed to dominate material withdrawal.”

Conversely, one librarian admitted to practicing a form of reverse discrimination in an effort not to allow personal preferences to play a role in adding to a collection. In other words, a librarian will intentionally avoid picking too many items in a field she especially enjoys or has specialized knowledge in out of concern for adding items that the general public might not want or consider too academic.

Such policies and practices are to be commended, for the public has every right to expect and demand that those with the power to decide what is being held in our local library collections are professionals of the highest integrity.

Categories: Features