Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Give the people what they want?

It's a conundrum for libraries.  What is our role, as collectors, as curators, as stewards of information?

At the municipal libraries I've worked in, folks want Steig Larsson and there aren't enough copies to go around even in a well-funded, cooperative network.  And what's wrong with wanting to read Steig Larsson?  I can't say I have, although I enjoyed the Dragon Tattoo movie when I watched it with my niece and her partner last fall.  It's a riveting story.  So it may not be the zenith of literary accomplishment.

When I was a callow youth I worked in a bookstore in my home town, one which was owned by a national chain.  Of course the bestsellers of the day were prominently displayed, Judith Krantz's I'll Take Manhattan, the latest Danielle Steele, Robert Schuller's Be-Happy Attitudes, you get the idea.  The assistant manager, Jose, was fond of creating towering book displays which were referred to as "dumps."  But he would also get ideas from more literary bookstores near the colleges and universities in the cities, order them from the vendor, and they sold, he said.  Jose was giving customers choices of which they might not have been aware.  The same thinking is well described in a recent library blog post. Or, looking at it another way, patrons may not necessarily know what they need but a need exists and it's up to us to identify it, as this story illustrates.

I think of asking a researcher before I took on my previous position what he wanted from the library. "I don't know, Garrett," he answered with a sigh, and we were talking about table-of-contents journal alerting services, which he said overwhelmed his email box and consequently went unread.  (At the same time, as many journals went to e-only format or print subscriptions were discontinued, their needed, and still needs, to be a way to alert researchers of new material.)  I spent much subsequent time learning about this gentleman's research, trying to learn what keywords would pull out of database searches the articles he would want to read.  Much trial and error.  He gave me the word "clusters," talking about a concept in physics and chemistry, large aggregations of molecular material, specifically for him metal clusters in the gas phase, observed in a mass spectrometer or  with similar instrumentation.  But "clusters" pulled up computer clusters and galaxies.  The researcher laughed at me when I showed him the first search results, but I kept refining it and incorporating not only disparate literature databases but contents from the journals themselves, filtering, searching and researching, and keeping an eye on what the researcher's group was up to with regard to publishing and presenting results and new developments.  Even after all that, I don't have a magic formula, but the regular communication between us was positive for the library.  Some of my colleagues will object, probably, to paraphrase William James, wanting to do a wholesale rather than a retail basis, for efficiency's sake.  To my view, the information landscape is overwhelming and any kind of assistance we can provide these dealing with it will only increase our value.

Then today I was pointed to a posting on Patron-Driven Acquisition (PDA,) the thinking being that academic libraries with limited funds should not attempt to purchase widely or exhaustively in a subject but respond to purchase requests from their constituents.  This is what I did in my previous position, with some purchases for reference volumes and other materials of general interest at my discretion.  And I think librarians using model can maintain some middle ground and some level of participation.  Browse publisher's catalogs and also reviews in journals such as Nature, Scientific American, Physics Today, Science, Science News, American Scientist, and others.  Browse library catalogs of similar institutions and consider if your constituents need a particular title onsite or through the network. Know the activities of your institution, the current courses and assignments, the experiments going on in the laboratories and keep an eye out for publications in whatever format that will support these endeavors.  Dana Roth similarly suggests many of these ideas in his presentation on the future of science librarianship from last year's SLA meeting.

All of this is a roundabout way to say, yes, we can respond to patron wants while thinking creatively about delivering materials, services, environments, communities, opportunities, collections yet unasked for.  It's not an either/or.  It's a yes and.


  1. With cost pressures mounting, and availability of alternatives for customers, PDA may be a matter of "when" rather than "if". I think it could be a matter of ratios of patron and staff selections, which could be set as a target.

  2. Thanks for reading and posting your thoughtful comment, Ivan. I agree, and your point about "alternatives for customers" is valid with the increasing availability of ebooks, why would customers wait for the library. Although in the case of scholarly/technical ebooks, I'm not sure if it's cost-effective or desirable for patrons to buy for themselves, convenient though it may be. The e-environment is new territory for me, will have to see what choices emerge or may be negotiated.