Freedom on the Wings of PDA

Suppose that a librarian is convinced (no thanks to the previous post I had) that he wants to select books that will have a higher probability of being used within, say, the next five to 10 years than the current stock of books already sitting on the shelves. How may he go about trying to accomplish this?

I’ve suggested one way where the librarian essentially makes some guesses when he buys books but then receives feedback in the form of usage statistics so that he can make better guesses going forward. However, these tweaks require time and attention on the part of the librarian. How may he find that time?

Library purchasing is, and has been for a long time, done on an semi-automatic basis via approval plans, or blanket orders based on some previously determined criteria, e.g. buy all books published by Harvard University Press. This is because with the explosion that’s happened in publishing in the last century or so, no librarian has the wherewithal to do selection title-by-title*, that is by actually looking at a book and making a judgement based on its unique merit. Now that librarians are asked (theoretically in this blog post anyway) to have their purchasing decisions be held more accountable to a measurable metric that is usage statistics, presumably they have to spend more time looking at titles and the data generated with those titles even if they’re not going to move back into title-by-title selection full time. Where from the time?

From letting more of collection development happens through patron-driven-acquisitions (PDAs). Here’s my idealized conception of how this would work: instead of using approval plans for purchases, librarians use something akin to these plans to set the parameters of what they want their patrons to be able to immediately request the library to buy. In the case of e-books, this means patrons will be able to get the books right away (perhaps via an innovative e-book buying program like these). In the case of p-books, the books can be rushed to the patrons in no more time than it takes to do an inter-library loan. If PDA can become a normal and substantial part of library collection development (say something approaching 50% of the total acquisitions), then this frees up a lot of time for librarians to round out the collection and to do book purchasing with closer scrutiny with each book.

Of course, there are obstacles to getting PDA to become a major conduit for library collection development. Perhaps the greatest fear and therefore biggest objection to such a proposal is that librarians will be losing control over the collection. It’s understandable that librarians take a lot of pride in developing a set of materials they deem to be good, that reflects a lifetime of worth of collection decisions, and serves as point in the chain linking professionals who worked in the same libraries with one another. Opening the acquisition process up so that now a bunch of hands, some casual, some careless, now shape the collection is a scary thought.

To address this fear, I would point out that PDAs, in freeing up librarians’ time to do more careful title selections, actually increases librarians’ control over the collection. Librarians will now have personal knowledge of a greater number of titles entering their libraries. For example, they will buy more books based on having read reviews of those particular books and not just looking at the books’ publishers. On some titles — those selected by patrons — librarians will have no less control than they have with the current approval plans since they will still limit the universe out of which which books can be PDA-ed. On other titles — those that they select on an individual basis to round out the collection after the patrons have made their decisions — they will exert much more control thanks to their deeper knowledge of the books.

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* A librarian may occasionally have cause to look at an individual book in consideration of adding it to the collection, but this happens irregularly, mostly likely when something like the cumbersome “suggest a purchase for your library” is triggered. No librarian does title selection as a matter of routine building of the collection.

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