Weeding

For the Spring 2010 semester, I am enrolled in two classes. One of them is IST-613, which deals with Planning, Marketing and Assessment in libraries. For our first assignment, we had to go to a nearby library, pick a section of about 200 books, and weed! A summary fo the experience is below.

Over the next few weeks, I will be updating this blog to incorporate some of the knowledge that I gain from my classes for this semester, and I will also begin to post about some of the most interesting parts of my fall ’09 classes, which were introductions to reference services and digital libraries.

Reflections on Deselection

For my weeding assignment, I chose the technology section of the San Diego State University Library (T14 on the Library of Congress catalog, which SDSU uses). This process underscored several of the concepts that we learned about from the readings and lectures. As previously advertised, this was a difficult process, and almost every book that I chose for deselection became an agonizing decision. My choice of an academic library did not help matters, as the institution’s focus on research added another dimension of anti-weeding arguments: sure, that directory of Czechoslovak manufacturers from the late sixties (see number 4) is hopelessly out of date and of no practical use, but perhaps, in the hands of an enterprising Economics graduate student, it will become the key information artifact that uncovers the hidden signs of the demise of Communism. In the end, however, I was able to adopt a pro-weeding attitude and find several books that should be confined to either offsite storage or the recycling bin. The section contained 202 volumes, of which I deselected 29, and chose an additional 10 for weeding and re-ordering.

This was not exactly the weeding process as it would be conducted by the librarians themselves. First of all, since the library instituted electronic borrowing records several years ago, I was not able to gather any meaningful data on frequency of use. Second, because I only saw what was on the shelves, I had no way of knowing whether any volumes were checked out, taken off the shelf for repairs, or ordered but not yet delivered by the publisher; I was potentially dealing with an incomplete collection when making decisions. Third, I did not have access to any faculty or subject expert input regarding the books; all I could do was look at them, briefly read the introductions, book jackets, or at most one or two pages of text. This made it a challenge to determine obsolescence and, especially, accuracy.

I followed several basic rules: I looked for books that were in bad condition, I removed duplicate copies of works, and I looked for volumes that were older and seemed to have lost relevance. Because of the fast pace of evolution in this subject area, I considered any book older than 15 years potentially obsolete, and looked for volumes that were written of and for their time: practical guides, conjectures about future (to the author) developments, etc. I also experienced the power of bias first-hand, when I decided to keep a volume on “the existential pleasures of engineering,” written by Samuel Florman in 1976 (number 19). I met Dr. Florman many years ago when I received a fellowship named in his honor during my undergraduate days, and found him to be an insightful and exceedingly intelligent person. While I did not find any specific reason to deselect his book, given its age and subject matter, I may not have been so quick to keep it if not for that personal connection.

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IST-511 Day Three: The truth about eBooks

I spent much of today working on the poster project. We have a topic: what the growth in eBook publication means for collection development in academic libraries. I’ll talk about pros and cons later on this week, so as not to give away any spoilers. After some frantic source consultation and some good teamwork, we have a draft of the handout that goes with the poster (so that people who don’t get a chance to ask any questions can take away some additional information). Tomorrow is actual poster design, and Friday is the big unveiling.

In class, we had a talk about library systems, followed by a panel on the same topic. I found the discussion informative and inspiring. Hearing about all the different fiefdoms that make up the systems world brought out my techie and organizational sides, and I spent a good portion of the morning with half a brain focused on the presentations, and the other half on several ideas about how I would go about improving the situation. Today, I ruminate. Tomorrow, who knows?

The afternoon was spent getting to know some crucial pieces of Bird Library: the book conservation/restoration operations and the special collections space. Professor Lavender gave a great talk on collections, showing us some truly impressive pieces that belong to the library (anything from pieces of an Assyrian cuneiform clay tablet from about 4,000 years ago to an art project created by an SU student about her grandparents’ experiences in Auschwitz). I especially liked the stories behind each item’s acquisition, which were not only entertaining, but provided valuable insight into the why and how of collection-building. I think one of the best aspects of this course has been the glimpses it provides into all the various aspects of Library Science. I’m still focused on academic and digital topics, but it’s always good to know what your various career choices are within a field, and it’s always good to have some insight into what other members of my future organization will be doing.

Reflections on chapter 9 of The Portable MLIS

In chapter 9 of The Portable MLIS, G. Edward Evans (2008) imparts valuable advice on the subject of collections, from how a library’s community expresses different kinds of needs to why a librarian should build relationships with vendors. Being new to the library field, I found the information shared in this essay to be very helpful, as it helped me discover some of the hidden complexities of library life. For example, having to keep an eye on the world’s various monetary exchange rates in order to properly plan acquisitions, or the fact that accommodating technological advances like the compact disc means having to re-acquire large parts of your collections.

The piece that most interested me, however, was the discussion of the various types of needs that must  be met in order to build an appropriate library collection. At first I found the discussion somewhat alien, until I realized that it is very much like the process I go through at my current job. I work in the Product Development department of a small software development company, and our task can be thought of as building a collection of features. After every new version is released, it is my job to develop a plan for the next release, which involves deciding which new features and enhancements will be included. Like a collections librarian, I have a budget: the time our developers can dedicate to the new release before the new release date. And the process we follow takes into account the same factors that Evans describes.

First, of course, we must include a basic set of “normative needs,” those features that are recommended by best practice lists and expert opinion. For example, we should include a way to add a record to the database, basic query functionality, an intuitive user interface, standard security protocols, and so on. Then, we need to investigate what the competition is doing, and make sure we build in “comparative needs.” If all our major competitors offer certain reports or functionality types, we will likely fail in attracting customers if we do not offer it. Of course, it could be that everyone else is offering something that is not useful to the customer, because that is what has always been done, so we need to verify that the addition is warranted (every development hour we spend on something that is not useful is an hour we cannot spend on a feature that may be crucial to success). Finally, we turn to the customers and users, and first we listen. Usually, we hear plenty about what our application does not have, or what pieces do not work properly. That gives us a third set of features to add to the pile. Second, we watch. We sit with users as they navigate the application, and we analyze how they use the tool, and that tells us what the users need, which is not always the same as what users articulate they want.

One of my concerns as I begin my journey in librarianship is that there is so much to learn, and I know so little. Collections was one of the topics that most worried me, because I thought it would be this strange, arcane process that I know nothing about. After reading Mr. Evans’ exposition, I feel better about the task at hand. There is still much I do not know, and a great deal to learn, but I realize now that it’s not so different from the processes I follow every day: know what the experts say, benchmark the product against others in the same field, listen to the users and their concerns, and analyze their usage patterns to discover how what they need differs from what they say they want. Once you have all that information, it’s simply a matter of prioritizing appropriately, and minding the budget, and having strong relationships with your vendors and colleagues, and knowing the ruble-to-dollar exchange rate, and keeping up to date on the latest information technology trends, and…


Evans, G. Edward (2008). Reflections on Creating Information Service Collections. In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 87-97) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.