Resolved: Wherever possible, library collections should be shaped by patrons, instead of by librarians.
This debate followed the Oxford Union rules. Before it began, attendees were asked to vote on the resollution, and again afterwards. The winner of the debate is the one who caused the most audience members to change their votes. At the beginning, the vote was 58% in favor and 42%.
The debaters were David Magier, Associate University Librarian for Collection Development, Princeton University taking the disagreeing view, and Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections, University of Utah, taking the agreeing view.
Rick said that not every librarian is available to conduct a patron-driven program, but this does not mean that librarians should not select books for libraries. Therefore, he is in favor of the resolution. In libraries, there is always the risk of getting means and ends confused, such as thinking that the purpose of the catalog is to give a perfect view of the collection. Too often, we believe that the purpose of a collection is to collect. Why do academic libraries have collections? It is to give students and faculty the resources they need to do their research and not to showcase the collection. Scholarship is the end. Patron driven acquisition (PDA) is a fundamentally superior approach to collection building rather than an approach by librarians guessing what patrons need.
Relevance over time: A library serves those who will come in the future. It is absurd to think that librarians will know what patrons of the future will need. The further into the future you look the broader the spectrum of needs becomes. Predicting relevance is a roll of the dice and an increasingly expensive one. A book that is not relevant to users represents a questionable purchase.
Quality now: patrons do not know what they want. Librarians set broad parameters for PDA pprograms. Librarians have gotten away with the arrogant stance that they know better than the patrons what they need.
Impact on collection quality: Librarian-driven acquisition makes a coherent collection; PDA generates a mishmash. Does the collection exist to showcase the skill of the librarians who created it? A PDA program provides more oppportunity for serendipitous discovery. It also lets spending run out of control. There are restrictions to control the spending: putting the patron in the driver’s seat does not give him/her the opportunity to drive as fast as possible for as long as possible.
Objections to PDA tend to be librarian-centered rather than patron-centered. Librarians fear they will be moved to the periphery, which is not a suitable objection.
David Magier, Associate University Librarian for Collection Development, Princeton University took the opposite view and made two initial points:
- I am not against PDA. It can be a cost effecctive and useful tool for selecting materials that librarians would have selected anyway. Should we conclude that it should be used for all tasks? It would deprive the library community of the opportunity to give maxium scope for meeting our mission. PDA is a false panacea.
- Libraries should take those actions that best support their mission of providing patrons with the resources they need. They look at tradeoffs for their patrons every day: should they buy or license, subscribe to the journal or buy the backfile, or don’t get it at all? The hard questions do not arise for the patrons. Should we take the librarian out of the shaping business? It is not possible for patrons to make all the choices. What about the non-core research content excluded from the mainstream because it is less profitable–grey litreature, maps, ephemera, etc? Librarians know about this content. These materials are not commercially viable, but the content is available. It will not come to you via PDA. So many new fields have appeared, and patron selection alone will not make their content available because patrons can only select what they know about.
The long tail will not make it into the collection in a PDA system. Collection shaping means being proactive on behalf of your patrons. Collaboration has enabled us to share coordinated collection development. All of this disappears if shaping is done exclusively by patrons. The tighter the money, the more strategic you must be. Patron-driven librarians can shape collections.
In his rebuttal, Rick said that PDA does not call on patrons to do selection; they do their work, and their work generates the selections. Buying books you do not need is no way to build a collection that supports scholarly work on campus.
David said that Rick trivalizes the work of librarians. In the real world, librarians are patron-driven We engage in shaping collections with and on behalf of our patrons. Librarians have to make the choices but this is precisely collection shaping.
The final vote was a virtual tie: 94 people in favor and 95 against, so the disagreed voters swung the outcome, and David was declared the winner.
Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.