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User-Centered Collection Development Means ... What?
January 27, 2011 - 11:00pm

One of my far-flung correspondents (well, not that far-flung; he lives in the Fargo-Moorhead area) sent me an intriguing job announcement today, with editorial comments. The position was at a good university where the librarians are certifiably brilliant, but it's an interesting commentary on collection development today. The position is to head up a new department: "user-centered collection services and programs" and the successful candidate will help the library "meet library users expectations and needs" and will lead initiatives in "collaborative and user-driven collection building, resource sharing, access services, and collection development."

Larry's take on this:

"'User-centered collection services and programs?' We have a small collection of McNaughton rental books that are chosen, mostly, by students who work in the library (because we couldn't get and keep a group of students from the university who'd do the choosing). The most popular books are by Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks and some graphic novels (but we have a mostly female student population here and I think that graphic novels are for guys). Intermingled with these books are new books for the general collection that I think might be of more general interest. I see a MINORITY of students pause even to look at these things. It's hard to read for pleasure when (1) you're a first-generation student; (2) you work at least 25-30 hours a week trying to pay your tuition (because the freakin' state keeps cutting appropriations); and (3) there's no culture of library visits and reading in your background. So, in this environment, what's a 'user-centered collection?'"

My snarky come-back:

"I doubt 'user centered' has anything to do with what anyone wants to read. It's letting students and faculty racing a deadline download scholarly books that nobody actually wants to read and having the bill being automatically sent to the library. It's quicker than ILL and who has first sale rights anymore, anyway? I hate this, by the way. Maybe you guessed."

Then I rushed off to class; we're wrapping up the last week of a course in which students read books of their own choosing, adding 90+ reviews to a collection of student and faculty recommendations, did fieldwork, and created chapbooks, zines, or altered books. One of the student presentations given today compared reading experiences between white Minnesota-born students and first and second-generation students of color; another analyzed the schedules of students who claimed they didn't have time to read. (Turns out, they do.)

So it wasn't until later that I reread that position description. On reflection, I think the new unit as described is a smart move. It pulls together functions that should be integrated but often are separated in traditional library organization charts. That's smart. And it includes the responsibility for tracking and communicating issues in scholarly communication. That's even smarter. Too often, that effort is underfunded and is separate from and overshadowed by business as usual.

But the trendy phrase "user-centered" is old wine in new bottles: all collection development programs worth their salt have always been "user-centered." Any librarian who failed to collect materials that fit their curriculum and the locally-active research programs wasn't doing their job properly. And yet, librarians are acting as if this is a bold new initiative.

What troubles me is the rush, in the name of improving the "user experience," to copy the model for digitization that we've endured with journal content. Libraries are beginning to outsource book selection by offering vast aggregated catalogs of e-books to their users and letting them pick what they want on the fly. We did this before with journal content, and while it provides a seemingly rich "all you can eat" buffet of options, it has left us owning nothing, selecting nothing, doing nothing but negotiating licenses and trying to make the buffet of options accessible. We have learned the hard way how much the "all you can eat" practice costs, in every sense of the word, and I don't want to make the same mistake with monographs.

Because let's face it: a lot of what people do in libraries is centered on completing assignments that are due tomorrow and getting tenure, promotion, and grants. Does "all you can eat" give users what users what they really want or what they think they need, right now? Is this the best way to sustain culture and share knowledge, or are we just making it more convenient to follow our worst impulses? Fast food is convenient, too. It's just not nourishing or ecologically responsible.

Let me take this opportunity to point (again) toward Open Folklore, a project that created a much more sustainable and smart alternative to licensing content, and congratulate the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries and the American Folklore Society on being awarded the 2011 Outstanding Collaboration Citation from the American Library Association's divivision, Association of Library Collections and Technical Services for this project. This is the kind of user centered collection development that works.


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