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Exploring Cooperative Collection Development

As part of MPOW’s strategic plan for this and the next three years, we are exploring the idea of cooperative collection development with St. Olaf. Situated as we are, just a couple of miles apart and having a shared catalog, we’ve decided that it makes a lot of sense to look carefully at our collections, our ordering, and our processing to see if there’s any way that we can capitalize on our proximity and general good will. We’re wondering if and to what extent it’s possible to pool our resources, provide the best possible access to the widest range of resources, and yet not jeopardize any of the current customization we offer our communities.

So for almost exactly a year, we’ve been analyzing our collections to find overlap, learning about other libraries that have gone the cooperative collection development route, and worked with R2 to evaluate and recommend a redesigned acquisitions and technical services workflow. Needless to say, this has been a little bit of a strain. I think we all harbor a little corner of fear that our jobs will change and we’ll have to give up something we love.

Personally, I’m feeling better about the process the farther we go. We’ve learned a lot that makes me think we’re already doing a pretty darn good job, which is always nice to hear. Of course, I’m not working in one of the departments that’s being thoroughly studied, so the stakes are lower for me. But even so, we’ve been able to norm ourselves against other libraries (and find that we’re generally doing well), and we’ve been forced to take the time to reconnect with what we do and why we do it that way. We’ve found that we have relatively little collection overlap already, and that we’re both pretty well in sync with our user communities.

But in this context of exploring the benefits and challenges of local, semi-local, aggregate, and singular collections, I’ve been interested in the analogous discussions about aggregate collections and aggregate data about collections. For example, there’s Walt Crawford’s piece in Google’s Library Center newsletter or his revisitation of the topic in his January issue of Cites & Insights (pages 3-4). In these pieces he states that “every good library is a local library,” but that aggregate collections can help us serve our communities. He specifies that a local library is not just a collection; it is also a space. And while I’m not going to get into the “library as place” issue here, I think that this intersects with collection development in important ways.

No matter how much we feel like “two libraries acting as one” (which is the catch phrase of this whole operation), we won’t have succeeded unless our user communities think of us as two libraries working as one. We’re only two and a half miles apart, and some libraries on university campuses are farther apart than that, but we can’t start to think of that as an insignificant distance to our students. Not only does it require that they request books ahead of their deadlines (and good luck getting people to do that, but that’s another topic entirely), but it also requires that we think carefully about the research impact of having a semi-split collection.

If we could reach every one of our students through instruction, the research implications might be slightly less important. But we don’t reach all students, and I can’t foresee a time when we will. So what happens when students browse the shelves and don’t see whole sections of the larger collection? This is especially important to literature and history students who might be faced with less than informative catalog records, titles, or even titles of chapters. We humanities people are not given to providing informative titles to things. We like style. Flare. Allusion. We don’t like to actually tell people what they’ll be reading about until they open up to the introductions, conclusions, and indices.

People have argued that virtual browsing will solve these problems, but I’m not convinced. We haven’t caught all students in our instruction nets, so how will they know that browsing is even possible, or that they should do this by subject and by call number? But more importantly, virtual browsing is just not up to par, especially for literature collections and especially with our current catalog. Virtual browsing would require intuitive and transparent browsing functions, deep indexing that goes well beyond LCSH to include such things as protagonists and geographical settings (and probably tagging), easy access to introductions, conclusions, and indices, and probably a whole host of other functions. In our particular catalog the situation is complicated by the fact that there was a space of time when cataloging policy didn’t include adding contents notes, which pretty much kills the findability for short stories or essays held within larger volumes.

This doesn’t mean that I’m against the project we’ve undertaken. I wholeheartedly agree that we shouldn’t haphazardly buy the same books at two libraries that are within (long) walking distance. I’m entirely behind the idea that we should make sure that we’re serving our user communities as efficiently (money-wise and space-wise) as possible. But through it all we need to make sure that our patrons see the benefit. We need to figure out how to maximize benefit without jeopardizing all the work we’ve done to make each of these libraries our users’ libraries, our users’ spaces for learning, research, socializing, and yes… even browsing.

The best possible outcome would be for our faculty (who do much of the book selecting) to come to a nuanced understanding of whether a particular book should be in one or both places, for our two libraries to focus on collecting browse-able and useful collections with an eye toward sharing, and for the librarians and both places to increase our collaborative relationship so that we develop even better working relationships as a side effect of learning how to negotiate between our two collections. Oh yeah, and for our faculty and students to recognize the decisions we’ve made and agree with those decisions.