How Do Libraries Choose Books? Collection Development in Public Libraries: An Interview with Library Director Noelle Boc

INTRO

Today, I’m sitting down with Library Director Noelle Boc to ask 10 questions about how public libraries cultivate a collection and how librarians decide when to let books go. As a Children’s Librarian myself, I’ve often been asked these questions, and with recent book banning attempts in several states, I thought it would be a good time to clarify how public libraries both collect and cull items from their collections. 

Libraries in many states, both school and public, are hearing complaints about materials. For example, in Tennessee, the Pulitzer prize winning Maus by Art Spiegelman – a book based on his parents’ lives during the Holocaust — has been removed from the school’s eighth grade curriculum for nudity and objectionable language. The nudity is that of a female, but drawn as a mouse. And in Texas, members of the public are suing a library for censoring materials by removing them after the materials had been targeted by state representative Matt Krause (R). Most of the 850 books targeted were about LGBTQ subjects, with others about abortion or race.

Keeping these situations in mind, it may be a good time to understand how public libraries select materials and how they curate the collection. 

Noelle Boc, Director of the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers, Massachusetts, received her Master’s of Library Science from the University of Texas, Austin. She has worked in the children’s departments in public libraries in Austin, Texas, New York City, and Massachusetts, as well as in a school library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This variety of experience has given her a strong knowledge of the standards of collection development – how libraries make selection decisions, what materials are appropriate for what age group, how to decide when to weed a book out of the collection. 

10 QUESTIONS ABOUT COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES

  1. What guidelines do librarians follow when choosing books for the collection?

Noelle Boc: Public libraries SHOULD have a collection development policy in place to help guide the selectors. In general, materials are chosen with a few important things in mind: the make up of the community, demand for the title, and whether or not we already own other books that are by that author or on a similar topic. There is also always the ever-present concern of cost – librarians must always be conscious of how much money is in their budget. 

  1. Who can make collection decisions – librarians? The Board of Trustees? The public? 

NB: The library director is ultimately in charge of what gets ordered for the library and they delegate the responsibility to others [librarians] who are deemed to be properly trained or have the knowledge to order materials. The public are the driving force behind why public library collections exist, as selectors attempt to have a diverse, balanced collection of titles that appeal to the entire community. However, the public does not do the actual selecting, beyond making suggestions. 

  1. What does the American Library Association say about collection development?

NB: ALA believes that libraries should maintain collections that are diverse and that represent the population they serve. Everybody, regardless of who they are and what their abilities are, should have equal access to library materials. 

Amy Amberg: So, to break that down a bit: public libraries should strive to provide a variety of materials in a variety of formats about a variety of topics whenever possible. Many libraries belong to a consortium so that resources can be shared between public libraries, thus if a book is not available in one library, it still could be accessed through interlibrary loan. 

I’m also aware that libraries should be representing viewpoints and demographics that represent the wider world; i.e., if you live in a community that has a majority population that is fairly homogeneous, the library should also strive to provide materials that represent a heterogeneous society that may be reflected in the wider world. That way, the patrons can have access to a broader range of viewpoints. Censoring a specific demographic or topic would essentially cut people off from these broader viewpoints. The ALA strives to prevent this, as part of supporting the First Amendment right to free speech. 

Additionally, libraries try to provide materials for people who may have visual impairments, physical disabilities, etc. Audiobooks, electronic resources, homebound delivery and other services help to assist those who may struggle to have equal access. Economic barriers may also block people from obtaining materials. The library offers books, movies, programs, databases and the like for free to the public, with the intention of removing this barrier to equal access to information.

ALA Standards

B.2.1.20 Access to Digital Resources and Services

Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right and the foundation for self-government. Freedom of expression encompasses the freedom of speech and the corollary right to receive information. Libraries and librarians protect and promote these rights regardless of the format or technology employed to create and disseminate information. 

American Library Association
  1. What if a book has an agenda? Do books need to be vetted for the information within?

NB: All books are trying to share something. Libraries do not condone such things as racism or hate speech, so yes, books need to be considered to make sure they aren’t actively seeking to cause harm to any population or contain incorrect information. 

  1. Do public libraries need to make their collections fair and balanced, with a variety of viewpoints on a topic?

NB: Absolutely. Libraries need to attempt to balance different viewpoints on topics and to really try and represent the different groups in the community. 

ALA Standards

B.2.1.12 Diverse Collections

Library collections must represent the diversity of people and ideas in our society. There are many complex facets to any issue, and many contexts in which issues may be expressed, discussed, or interpreted. Librarians have an obligation to select and support access to content on all subjects that meet, as closely as possible, the needs, interests, and abilities of all persons in the community the library serves.

American Library Association

6. How does a librarian review books? What journals are used? 


NB: Selectors rely on a number of professional review journals like Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and others to access reviews on titles they may be interested in purchasing. Review journals only cover a fraction of published books, however, so sometimes a selector needs to dig deeper to make choices.

  1. Do librarians take patron recommendations into account?

NB: Absolutely. Patrons actually drive the content of our collections. Libraries keep track of patron requests and circulation numbers to help decide what items to purchase, or whether we need more than one copy. 

  1. What about self-published books?

NB: Thankfully, some journals are starting to review self-published or small press published books, making them more likely to be purchased. Otherwise, a self-published book normally only come into a library’s view if the author or patron pushes it. In that case, we follow our selection guidelines in determining whether it is something we might want to add to the collection.

  1. Do book bans play any role in the public library’s collection decisions?

NB: If a library owns a book, they had put it through a selection process to choose to purchase it. Often a book is challenged due to an objection to some or all of its content by a person or persons, but it is rare for a book to be objectionable to an entire community. If the library has followed its criteria for purchase, the book should be able to withstand any challenges for its removal. Libraries aren’t buying books purposely that are being challenged; if the book is selected, it was for its own sake and because it filled a need in the collection, as outlined by the collection development policy. 

ALA Standards

B.1.2 Code of Professional Ethics for Librarians, #7.

We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

American Library Association
  1. What is the weeding process? What parameters are followed, and does censorship play a role? 

NB: Books are weeded [removed from a library’s collection] for a variety of reasons: wear and tear, outdated information, a drop in circulation (or lack of it), space constraints, updated replacements being available, or there no longer being a need for multiple copies. Certain areas of content, such as science concepts, may need more frequent updating due to breakthroughs in information. Libraries consider all of these things when choosing to weed a book.

Censorship should never play a role in weeding. Selectors guard themselves against purchasing or weeding books that play into personal biases. 

AA: A good weeding guideline is the CREW method based on the system developed by the Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission. CREW stands for Continuous, Review, Evaluation, Weeding and uses the following criteria when considering what materials to deselect from the collection:

  1. When was the book published (i.e., is it outdated?)
  2. Has it circulated in the past several years
  3. Is it “M.U.S.T.I.E.”? i.e., how does it stand up to the following questions?

Is the material Misleading

Is it Ugly (some books get damaged from overuse),

Has it been Superseded (is there a newer edition? Are other books available that are more up-to-date?),

It it Trivial (was it a fad that’s now run its course?)

or Irrelevant (once a hot topic, now books on this subject are just gathering dust)

…or can it be found Elsewhere (perhaps this material is available through interlibrary loan, in another format, etc.)?

Sometimes, these materials are replaced and/or newer, more up-to-date materials are sourced. It’s better not to have inaccurate or outdated information, so weeding out older materials is necessary. For example, when Pluto got downgraded, librarians had to remove those books!

Thanks, Noelle, for taking the time to chat with me today about library collection development! I really hope that it takes some of the mystery out of this process.

For more information:

American Library Association Core Values, Ethics & Competencies

American Library Association Code of Ethics

Library Bill of Rights

About Amy Amberg

Inspired by true stories, little known facts and fun language, Amy Amberg is a writer and children’s librarian who finds book ideas in the scraps of internet searches, random bylines, and bibliographies. A member of SCBWI, she loves writing biographies, picture books and concept board books. When she’s not researching, writing or revising, Amy can be found exploring the New England woods, hiking and kayaking.

10 comments

  1. Thank you so much, Amy and Noelle, for reassuring us that our local libraries adhere to the ALA standards! I’m grateful to you and librarians everywhere for the amazing services you provide.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great read, thank you Amy and Noelle! It’s always interesting to learn more about the inner workings of the libraries that we patronize. Particularly with issues that have arisen around the country that affect books being available to traditionally marginalized groups who need them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this. I’m continually suggesting books to the San Francisco Public Library. If they ever refuse to order a title, they provide a copy of the library’s acquisitions policy as an explanation. But I think only one of my suggestions has ever been denied because the library found that it was difficult to impossible to order. I can’t recall the exact circumstances. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the ALA statements cover concepts like censorship, equal access to information and intellectual freedom…all very interesting!

      Like

  4. I appreciate your sharing of how books become acquired (or un-acquired). I love suggesting books to our library. One reason is then I get to read them first! LOL. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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