The Best Job in the Library! | Selection Philosophies for Public Libraries | How to Be a Good Selector | Selection Criteria in General | Further Information | Self-Assessment #3
The Best Job in the Library!
Selection is at the heart of the collection development process. This core function builds the library’s collection for a particular user community. Skill, knowledge, and the right tools are required to select appropriate library materials that meet the needs of the community. It is challenging to build a balanced collection. How do you decide which resources to select, or what formats your users will need? You may want to keep in mind the five laws of S. R. Ranganathan (one of the leading thinkers in the field of library science), which he laid out in his 1952 book, Library Book Selection:
Books are for use.
Every reader his book.
Every book its reader.
Save the reader’s time.
A library is a growing organism.
In thinking about the application of the above quote, keep in mind that when Ranganathan wrote we did not have the array of audiovisual materials now so popular with our patrons and we certainly did not have the electronic resources available today. Because of this, we want to apply his thinking to a broad spectrum of information resources, not just books.
This section presents background on selection philosophies, provides tips on how to be a good selector, and identifies general selection criteria that should help in making selection decisions for your library.
Selection Philosophies for Public Libraries
Competing selection philosophies (“quality vs. demand”) have been debated for a long time in the library profession and have complicated selection in public libraries. This debate pits selection based on customer preferences (“demand”) against selection based on quality content (“quality”).
The “demand” argument says that because public libraries are funded by taxpayers, libraries should provide taxpayers with the types of materials they want. A collection based on “demand” may result in more “best seller” reading materials and other materials that are heavily influenced by popular culture rather than the “classics.” Some argue that this type of collection will draw people into the library since the library contains the type of materials that satisfy the community’s interests. Then, once you have the citizens in the library, you can assist them in expanding their horizons if they are interested.
The “quality” argument says that a public library should be a “people’s university,” providing people with materials to help them better themselves. All resources should be geared toward improving the cognitive level of the members of the user community. However, this perspective suggests that there is a set of “best” resources. It is hard to agree on what the “best” resources are, since any two people are likely to disagree on what is “best.” Some argue that a library basing selection solely on “quality” may end up with fewer users because people can’t find what they really want or need.
In some senses, this is an artificial debate since most public libraries are going to strive for a mix of the two selection philosophies. Your ultimate goal is to provide a balanced collection that meets the needs of your community. It is helpful to keep in mind the various types of libraries within our society. Each type of library has a distinct mission. Our collections together satisfy the need for both what some call the “classics” or the best materials and the popular materials and types of information sought in public libraries. We know we do not have to satisfy all the needs of every citizen from the resources available to us. We have the great advantage of being able to share resources and to identify the location of particular items through the use of our extensive electronic networks. Now, in the 21 Century, public libraries have come to recognize that there is really no need for a debate. We can provide the things most in demand and borrow through interlibrary loan those items seldom requested from a public library. Sussex County Department of Libraries in Delaware has a very straight forward selection policy that might prove useful as a simple model as you work your way through the various segments of this site specifically devoted to selection for the diverse library materials found in our collections.
How to Be a Good Selector
While it is true that to some extent selection is an art, there are some practical activities you can do to help you become a good selector. In general, to be a good selector, you need to keep track of the trends and events occurring in the publishing fields, truly understand and be engaged with the life of your community, know the existing resources available through your library, and be aware of current events and popular culture trends. These pointers are explained in greater depth below and echo in great part what has been written by both Evans (2005) and Lukenbill (2002).
First, you should stay abreast of what is going on in the publishing trade. You can accomplish this by doing the following:
- Read reviews by a variety of reputable reviewers and reviewing sources.
- Be aware of which publishers or manufacturers have the best/worst reputations.
- Preview materials if in doubt about the quality of particular items.
- Consult bibliographies or lists that report prize winners, notable authors/titles, best sellers, or provide subject-based annotated lists.
Second, you must know your community and know it well! Be aware of the following factors:
- What are the different reading levels represented in your community?
- What are the main occupational groups, hobbies, recreational activities, and businesses in your community?
- What is the socioeconomic status of the people in your community?
- What is the mean age of people in your community?
- What is the education level of your community?
- What are the ethnic groups (for language considerations) represented in your community?
Third, you must really know the existing resources in the library. This requires hands-on familiarity with what is already available. It takes time and effort to get to know what is in any given library collection. Browsing the shelves when time allows, gathering statistics about subject segments, examining new materials as they enter the library, and actively evaluating and weeding the collection all help to give you valuable information that will assist you in the selection process.
And finally, it is critical to be aware of what is going on in the world. In particular, you should keep yourself informed of current events and popular culture trends. Reading newspapers is a good way to keep informed of world and cultural events. Some current issues that may influence your buying decisions include: What are the popular TV shows? What topics are the chat shows and radio discussing? What are the current best sellers? Are there any authors visiting the area?
Selection Criteria in General
General criteria to consider when you are involved in making selection decisions include subject matter, construction or physical quality, potential use, relation to the collection, bibliographic considerations, and cost. For selection issues that are specific to an individual format, see the appropriate section of this site (Books, Audiovisual Materials, Periodicals & Newspapers, Electronic & Internet Resources, and Government Documents. Below are the general criteria that apply to all resources are outlined for your consideration:
- What subjects do you need to collect to build your collection?
- How suitable is the subject, style, and reading level of an item for your user community?
- How accurate and current is the information?
- Is the item well made and durable?
- For books and periodicals, does the item have good print quality? Is the paper of appropriate quality?
- For audio-visuals, will the item stand up to multiple circulations?
- What will the demand for the material be?
- What level of use justifies its acquisition?
- How relevant is the item to the community?
Relation to the Collection
- How will the item strengthen the library’s collection? (Will it fill a gap, complement something that’s already there, or provide an alternative opinion to what is already covered?)
- Are the materials available elsewhere in the community?
- Is there fair coverage of opposing viewpoints?
- What is the reputation of the publisher?
- Is the type of publication and the format appropriate for your library?
- What is the reputation and/or significance of the author?
- What do the book reviews say about the item?
All libraries have limited budgets and have to make very careful decisions about how to allocate these funds during the selection process. One approach to the selection process is to rank the materials desired for selection. More expensive items that are ranked highly might still be purchased, but then the library would probably be unable to purchase as many items. These decisions can be difficult to make, but prioritizing your needs is always a good way to start.
Evans, G.E., & Saponaro, M. S. (2005). “Selection process in practice” in Developing library and information center collections (5th ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Heinzkill, R. (1990). “The literary canon and collection building.” Collection Management, 13(1/2), pp. 51-64.
Johnson, P. (2004). Fundamentals of collection development & management. Chicago: American Library Association. [Also available as an electronic book through NetLibrary]
Lukenbill, W. B. (2002). “Tools and aids for selection” in Collection Development for a new century in the school library media center. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Monroe, W. S. (1997). “The role of selection in collection development: Past, present, and future,” chapter 5 in G.E. Gorman and Ruth H. Miller (eds.) Collection management for the 21st Century: A handbook for librarians, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp 105-188.