Competency F: use the basic concepts and principles related to the selection, evaluation, organization, and preservation of physical and digital items and collections.
1. Books are for use
2. Every reader, his book
3. Every book, its reader
4. Save the time of the reader
5. The library is a growing organism
— S.R. Raganathan, “The Five Laws of Library Science”
Selection, evaluation, organization, and preservation: these are the four steps to creating and maintaining a library. Done properly, these tasks will help strengthen a library’s collection, and make the best use of an often-limited budget by ensuring that the library has materials its users will need, be able to find, and actually use. Essentially, these four tasks are crucial to fulfilling the Five Laws of Library Science, as put forth by S. R. Raganathan. If any one of these four tasks are weak, it hinders the library’s ability to serve people. I must mention one other point that is crucial in this competency but was omitted here and rarely discussed elsewhere is the subject of deselection. Selecting and maintaining a collection is useful, but every now and then, some books should be discarded for various reasons. It is unpleasant to have to think about discarding books as it feels like they are sacred, information bearing objects.
Selection and Evaluation
The first two are selection and evaluation. While these are separate components, they are intertwined in the collection building process. In order to select books, one must evaluate the appropriate collection to ensure that the books being selected will actually be useful. Conversely, when evaluating the collection, it is a good time to consider purchasing additional books to bolster weak areas or replace outdated books. Selection and evaluation helps to guarantee that “every reader, his book” and “every book, its reader.”
Evaluating a collection is fairly straightforward, and should involve a mixture of electronic and physical evaluation. On the electronic side, the most popular form of evaluation is seeing the circulation statistics of the books. How many times has it been circulated? If it has been checked out numerous times, it’s possible that the material is worn out and should be replaced–or maybe an additional copy is needed. If something things have not been circulated in a number of years, is it because the copy is outdated or is it because the library chose the wrong book? It could even be that the librarian selector needs to market the collection better, a subject covered in Competency D. A physical evaluation simply consists of going to the stacks and examining the books in person to see if the area is in use, messy, or full of worn out material.
Selecting material typically involves considerable research into the needs of the community and book recommendations by professionals in the subject area. It is also useful to look at interlibrary loan request and see which materials are most often requested, as it may actually save the library money to purchase the book instead spending processing time every single time it’s requested.
Deselection, also known as weeding, is an important component of collection maintenance. “Weeds,” or books that have outlived their usefulness (or perhaps they were never useful in the first place), hide the usefulness of the other items in a collection. It crowds out the catalog or the shelf, making it harder for library users to find resources they actually want or need, which runs counter to one of the laws of library science, “save the time of the reader.” Needing to house unused material also raises the costs of operating a library, either through expanding the building, building a new library, shuffling books around, or purchasing additional shelving. Much of that could be avoided if unusable material is weeded. Deselection should follow an appropriate evaluation to determine what items need to go.
Organizing a library is just as crucial as selection, deselection, and evaluation. It’s not simply a question of basic cataloging or whether one should use Dewey or Library of Congress call numbers. Rather, organization is more about developing a logical layout of the bookstacks in the library, whether fiction books should be interfiled with nonfiction or not, or whether certain subsections such as mystery, fantasy, or urban fiction should be shelved separately. The purpose of organization is to save the time of the user, and all of the above tactics assist with that goal.
Firstly, preservation should be differentiated from conservation. Conservation is the careful storage and handling of materials to slow their deterioration. Preservation is the active saving of already-worn or -broken material. It’s easy to confuse the two terms, even among experienced library workers who might see the two terms as synonymous.
The type and volume of preservation work done in a library is something that varies depending on the library, the budget, and the collection development plan. Research libraries may have an actual preservation department capable of saving fragile 16th century books, while public libraries may re-glue or tape worn materials, tossing anything that requires anything more extensive.
The library is indeed a growing organism, because the collective human knowledge is continually growing. At the same time, the ways in which we communicate this information changes. It’s difficult to know when to adopt new technology and when to discard the old. Many libraries choose to hang onto the old communication mediums for at least some time. This created capacity issues at all of the libraries where I worked, and has affected collection development, preservation, and maintenance decisions.
In one public library, I weeded VHS tapes for the librarians in 2007. Some patrons complained because they didn’t have a DVD player, while others were quite glad since it meant that we had more room for DVDs. Similarly, we also had to continually evaluate our collections to identify crowded areas where the books were particularly old, so we could weed old books in order to make room for newer ones. A prime example of a book that should be weeded is one I found, a 1996 book about personal computing, complete with a 5″ floppy disk. It was discarded in favor of a book about the most current version of Windows. Discarding books may seem verboten, but it is a cheaper alternative to continually building or expanding libraries. Deselection was also often cheaper than fixing or rebinding damaged books.
In contrast to the policy of discarding books, one of my previous jobs in an academic research library have a policy where they rarely discard material. If it’s possible that someone 100 years from now might need the book for research purposes, then that book will be retained. The university recently built an on-site compact storage system in order to house some of the material, in order to free up shelf space for additional growth. The library also has an excellent preservation program. Many worn out, brittle, or damaged books are often rebound, fixed, or at least put into protective boxes instead of being discarded, which also contributes to the crowding problems. However, this library’s approach to collection development, preservation, and maintenance is the exception in the library world.
As previously discussed, the purpose of library organization is to save the time of the user. Unfortunately, in my experience, signage is often a permanent part of the building and is difficult to change. It is also difficult to completely reorganize the bookstacks or other areas of the library due to the sheer bulk of library materials or the cost of reconfiguring. In the aforementioned academic library, it took the construction of another library and $1 million in order to reorganize the entire bookstacks into a more logical format that also allows for future growth. Not every library has the ability to spend much time or money on bookstacks organization, so that’s where finding aids come into play. If the library cannot be organized in an ideal way, wayfinders and well-designed bookstacks maps should be available and visible. In almost all of my library jobs, I’ve created range markers, labels, maps, and other guides to help library users and other staff members find what they need quickly.
The first step in creating a collection is finding useful selection tools, as it helps to identify specific items that might be good to purchase. I investigated Booklist to determine its usefulness as a general purpose selection tool. I also reviewed several resources that function as resources for selectors of child abuse-related collections.
In another project, I evaluated the Chicago Public Library’s present collection of resources for the deaf and hard of hearing, researched additional books and resources, and created a list of items that the library could purchase to bolster their deaf and hard of hearing collection.
I wrote two short essays examining topics concerning archival and preservation work. One discussed practical problems facing processing and digitization of archival materials. It is difficult to balance the desire to process archival materials to an appropriate level of detail while keeping up with the perpetual backlog of materials. It is also difficult to find time and money to digitize collections, even though archives understand that digitization can help them save time and preserve the material better over the long run.
The other essay discussed the cost/benefits of using technology in archives. On one hand, it helps archives to digitally organize their collections and put it online, thus making it much easier for researchers to find material they need. On the other hand, embracing technology can easily trap archives into a cycle of needing to continuously upgrade their equipment or websites.
There are many factors to consider in collections management for both physical and digital items, ranging from institutional policies about deselection and preservation to the practicality of organizing or reorganizing the materials in a library or archive. In order to make careful use of library resources, it is important to evaluate the library’s needs and current collections when purchasing or weeding materials.
Ranganathan, S.R. (1931). The five laws of library science. Madras, India: The Madras Library Association. Retrieved from: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b99721
Last edited on September 11, 2012