Hack the Stacks: Outreach and Activism in Patron Driven Acquisitions

As many others have said more eloquently than I could, everyday in libraries we make decisions about how to spend our resources: time, space, attention, but perhaps most obviously, money. In 2015, the average library expenditures for collections at doctoral institutions was over 5 million dollars. What we choose to spend that money on is an inherently political act. Recognizing it as a form of activism, students at the University of Virginia used our purchase request system to ask that the library add more materials by underrepresented voices to our collections.  I’ll describe the background, logistics, and outcomes of an event we organized to encourage and facilitate these requests.

As a subject librarian, collection development is a surprisingly small part of my job. A centralized collections team manages our approval plans and once a year subject liaisons review them to make sure they still align with departmental interests and priorities. We also have an automated purchase request system that patrons can use to request items for the library. These requests get sent to the collections team and the subject librarian in the area and we passively approve them (unless there’s a glaring reason not to purchase it, it goes through). Beyond those two responsibilities, my involvement in collection development is minimal.

UVA isn’t alone in changing the way it handles collection development from the selector/bibliographer to an outsourced model. Along with this operational shift, we’ve experienced a more philosophical one: budget and space constraints mean that we can no longer try to collect everything, and have had to refocus our efforts towards providing material as patrons explicitly need them, which is the same paradigm shift of “just-in-time” to “just-in-case” that many libraries are experiencing. We rely upon patron purchase requests to tell us when there’s a gap that needs to be filled, but sometimes students don’t know about that feature of the library website or how to use it.

A few weeks ago, a graduate student in the Music Department approached me about co-organizing an event to teach people how to use the purchase request feature while simultaneously requesting books by marginalized authors and independent presses be added to our collection. (Thank you to Aldona Dye of the UVA Music Department and Matthew Vest of UCLA who came up with this idea.) We decided to call it Hack the Stacks and partnered with the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation, an interdisciplinary group formed  “with the goal of creating a campus environment where resources  for learning about and combating white supremacy (such as discussion forums; visiting scholar and activist talks; syllabi; direct actions; trainings; and safe and accountable spaces) are readily available.”

Prior to the event, we circulated a Google Doc and asked people to add books and presses they thought should be added to the library’s collections. The day of the event, we gave a presentation covering the library’s current method of collection development, emphasizing that purchase requests are the best way for patrons to influence what they think we should own, how to submit a purchase request, and describing what happens after a request is submitted. From the patron perspective, our collection development process is opaque and this discussion made it a lot more transparent. We posted large print-outs of the list on the wall and asked participants to check off items when they submitted a request. We also brought a blank sheet of paper for participants to add to if they submitted a request for a book that wasn’t on our list. Participants filtered in and out during the two hour event, with some staying and submitting multiple purchase requests and others dropping in to submit one or two. 

Our collections and acquisitions teams helped facilitate this event on the backend. Before the event, we talked about whether our normal purchase request budget would be sufficient to cover an event like this, and I shared the list with them in advance to give them a rough estimate of the number of requests to expect. During the event, I encouraged participants to track down the link to purchase the title they were interested in to make it easier on the acquisitions team and to use the “additional notes” field to justify the purchase, which is a practice our collections management team encourages for requests to be fulfilled more reliably. We also added a designation to each item that was requested so that the acquisitions team could track which requests were coming in as part of the event.

All told, we ended up submitting purchase requests for close to fifty items. Those requests are still being processed, so I can’t yet say how many will be added to our collection, but I’m hopeful that most of them will be purchased. Building diverse collections is, as AJ Robinson pointed out, imperative if we want to be the inclusive and welcoming institutions we strive to be. We need to have books by and about people from historically marginalized groups if we want them to feel as though the library is for them, too.  Having these materials on hand also means that more people will engage with them. We are undergoing the beginning of a renovation right now and through a series of preparatory focus groups and meetings many people have emphasized how essential browsing is to their research processes. Hopefully, by having these books in our catalog and on our shelves, faculty and students will be more likely to use them in their courses and research. This event also revealed gaps in our collection, particularly in disability and indigenous studies. I hope we can use this knowledge to revisit our approval plans to see how we could collect more intentionally in these areas.

This was my first experience doing outreach to encourage patron driven acquisition and using it as a tool to encourage more inclusive collections. I’m hopeful we can turn it into a larger effort to tap into patron expertise as we make decisions about how to allocate our limited resources and to incorporate what we learn into our long-term collections strategy.

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