Collection Development 2020 | Library Journal’s Day of Dialog

Ebooks. Self publishing. Platforms, platforms, platforms. It’s hard enough to keep up now; what will collection development librarians’ jobs look like in 2020? At LJ‘s Day of Dialog, held May 29 at the McGraw-Hill auditorium in New York City, Christopher Platt, Director, Collections and Circulation Operations, New York Public Library, put that question to a panel of librarians and a publisher. Below are highlights of the discussion.

The panelists were Celeste Steward, Collection Development Librarian, Alameda County Library, CA; Anna Mickelson, Reference Librarian, Springfield City Library, MA; Robin Bradford, Collection Development Librarian, Indianapolis Public Library; Terri Clark, Acquisitions Department Manager, Mid-Continent Public Library, MO; and Tina Pohlman, Publisher, Open Road Integrated Media, a three-year-old company that publishes backlist and classic titles and offering digitization, sales, marketing, and distribution services to authors.

Platt’s introductory discussion of his own workplace served to highlight the rapid changes in the field. He’s head of the fledgling (three-week-old) Book Ops department that combines the technical services divisions of Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries, and that will select and process 150 million items per year. It emerged that working in centralized collection development departments was a common experience among the panelists; Steward is a selector for 11 branch libraries, and Bradford for 23 branches plus a central library. Open Road’s Polhman is no stranger to large-scale work herself, corralling a stable of 500 authors and 4,000 titles. 

Demographic Concerns
Assessing what libraries do now came before any discussion of the future, with Platt asking the panelists whether their libraries take a “seat-of-the-pants” approach to collection development or perform demographic studies. The Fremont area, said Alameda County’s Steward, is home to the largest Afghan population in the United States. To help in selection of materials for this group and others, she explained, the library gets information from school districts, “but it doesn’t run selection,” because more on-the-ground concerns come into play. For example, Steward said that she finds that materials for children must satisfy three audiences: the children; their parents, who want to expose the children to their culture; and the library’s staff.

Mid-Continent Public Library’s Clark echoed that raw demographics are “not the be-all, end-all.” As well as census data, she explained, her library assesses patron habits and needs using ILS statistics and has hired OrangeBoy, a company that uses data to help companies and organizations to become more successful. What is irreplaceable as a data gathering tool though, explained Clark, is “actually working the desk.”

Bradford lamented that before centralized selection began at Indianapolis Public Library in 2005, all information came from the front line, but now that knowledge is lost. The centralized selectors find that they get branch requests for, for example, Russian materials, “because they’ve always needed them but we didn’t know it.” Foreign-language materials were foremost in Mickelsen’s mind too; the library’s Vietnamese collection no longer circulates, she said, and the staff will need to figure out what language is now in demand.

Open Road’s Pohlman took the demographics question a step further: she’s curious to know, she said, about whether there is any truth to assumptions about the reading interests of a given population. Bradford agreed that these assumptions can be a problem; in her library, she explained, staff believed that Spanish speakers wanted materials by authors who wrote in Spanish. While they do want those, the staff has learned, “they also want Gone Girl, James Patterson. Not just their native-language writers.”

Centralized selection emerged as another area in which the librarians feel that one size doesn’t fit all. “Know when to let the vendor kick in,” advised Clark, “They can give a lot of depth, then use selectors to take care of local interests so you take care of breadth.”

Collecting Self-Published Materials
What gets lost with vendors, Clark said, was selection of the hot-button item of the panel: self published materials. We need a “giant clearing house of books that are somewhat vetted,” said Mickelson, to help with this phenomenon that is a mix of “a huge opportunity and a huge slush pile.” Until that happens, she collects works by local authors and puts a sticker on it so patrons will know, and would like to be able to distribute free flash drives that have the first chapter of a self-published work on them, with information about how to get the rest at the library.

While Clark explained how she currently assesses self-published material on Amazon, for example—she looks for books whose reviews show that the reader really pondered the book and whose fans are geographically dispersed—Bradford cautioned that if we had had such filters five or ten years ago, “how would urban fiction have grown? We have to remember that it’s not always quality that resonates with the audience you’re buying for.”

The Future
“More platforms, devices, authors, models” was Pohlman’s prediction for the future of ebooks, even as she admitted that the future was unknowable. After all, she said, “in 2009 we couldn’t have imagined what 2013 would look like.”

The biggest challenge Steward sees for the future is something she noted that librarians have never complained about: too many materials. But now, while her library is “bursting at the seams and branch managers are saying they have concerns about new materials, nobody is talking about digital.”

Bradford noted that the proliferation of ebooks and readers is a positive development for the libraries of tomorrow because it means ““no more ghetto shelving” that people don’t necessarily look beyond. Print copies of men’s adventure stories, for example, which were shelved out of the way in her library, didn’t circulate but electronic copies of the same books are in heavy demand, a fact that Pohlman, as a publisher of backlist ebooks, was only too happy to hear.

Mickelsen’s dream is that down the road, all libraries will use the same ILS, with one layer of discovery. It won’t be all about e, though; in her library, many patrons can’t afford an ereader. Bradford had a related request: upon discovery of item reviews in, for example, LJ, she wants to be able to click something and seamlessly order the material from her vendor.

Clark’s prediction: while in the past, libraries were about the democratization of delivery, in the future they will mainly facilitate the democratic creation of information. She likened the situation to last century’s studio system that kept actors tied to one employer. United Artists was born, she explained, when actors formed their own studio, and her closing challenge was, “can authors take a page out of that book in 2020?”

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.