Monday, March 26, 2012

Collection Development - The Beginnings of a Philosophy

Lately I've been working on library collection issues. Many things keep cropping up, and I'm hoping to eventually work them into a coherent philosophy. The biggest one on my mind right now is this: To put it simply, I think the library should not hope to win on quantity, but we should try to win on quality.

The problem is that many online library products come in bundles. And as with a cable TV package, the library ends up with a mix of the great with the less than stellar. Unfortunately, the content that is less than stellar degrades the entire library brand. With free web search, there is little expectation of quality. But usually if you look long and hard enough, you can find something relevant due to the sheer quantity. The library should be stepping in to provide a shortcut to quality when people get overwhelmed by or weary of quantity. Instead, I notice the trend is to mimic the open web and to emphasize the idea that something is better than nothing, even if that something is frustratingly irrelevant.

On the one hand, and in the context of human/computer interactions, if a computer gives you something irrelevant, at least it's not implying you're stupid by refusing to give you anything at all. Instead of a null, you're getting some feedback, which might give you a clue about how to get the thing you really want.

But what I'm really worried about is whether we're misdirecting time and energy (and, let's face it, money) away from serious collection building into efforts to make the library more user-friendly. Text the library! Use this one single box to search across everything in the collection, sort of!  Read this 25-page research article on your iPhone! These types of tools are only valuable when there is strong content underneath.

I'm not recommending that we ignore the Long Tail, but instead of trying to be all-inclusive we could focus on acquiring and maintaining core materials in whatever discipline or disciplines are relevant to our patron group. And then for the things we don't have, educate patrons about how to get them -- this is usually well within our power.

So I am I crazy? Why do I feel like I'm swimming against the current here?

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