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.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from AJ Robinson, Islamic Studies & South Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some people don’t expect to see themselves in the library.” This comment from Vivek Shraya, 2015 recipient of the South Asia Book Award, was a moment of clarity at the Conference on South Asia in Madison. The conversation among book award authors addressed #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online campaign that has highlighted issues of exclusion in mainstream literature industries. “Diverse books” generally feature characters of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA identities, and/or varying abilities. Many libraries with a strong focus on serving young readers have embraced the campaign with displays, booktalks, and new collection development strategies. There has yet to be significant traction for this campaign in academic libraries, so as academic librarians we must ask ourselves: do our users see themselves in the stacks?

Despite the influx of university diversity and inclusion programs, minority students at many schools continue to report feeling like outsiders. The topic of diverse books exposed a critical gap for supporting my students—a visible collection that explicitly recognizes their presence. Making diverse books prominent in academic libraries is a necessary component for welcoming all users.

At my library, I started expanding the Popular Literature (PopLit) collection with novels and other non-scholarly titles representing authors, protagonists, and themes related to South Asia. PopLit is located on the main floor next to study spaces and arranged by genre for browsability. I also noticed other gaps in the collection, including a need for representation of my other subject specialty, Islamic Studies. Working with PopLit had the benefit of collaborating with other bibliographers, reducing strain on subject-specific collection budgets, and (most importantly) placed the books on shelves more accessible for casual browsing.

The push for diversity in books speaks to wider issues in systematic exclusion, including standard selection tools such as mainstream publishers and reviewers. Booklists such as the South Asia Book Awards and blogs like Arabic Literature (in English) have been instrumental in building a core collection. I also sought out alternative publishers such as Arsenal Pulp Press, Other Press, and Seven Stories Press. In selecting books, I prioritized finding authors who speak directly from personal experiences to balance popular journalist, travel writer, or ghost-writer accounts. I also sought materials with a wide variety of genres and formats, such as graphic novels and poetry.

To reach a wider spectrum of genres, my most useful tool were lists on GoodReads. Lists like “Desi Chick Lit,” “South Asians in Contemporary YA,” “Fiction featuring Muslim Women,” and “Queer Islam,” among others, were useful for identifying novels appropriate for pleasure reading, and the user-submitted reviews helped evaluate literary and content quality. Although GoodReads is now owned by Amazon, it’s possible to change the interface to easily check availability through BetterWorldBooks or IndieBound.

In processing new titles, student workers curate books for display on the centrally located New Books Shelf. The YA novels have eye-catching covers that draw interest to the shelves even from a distance. I also found an opportunity to promote the books through collaboration with the campus Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is housed on the second floor of the library. We arranged to display a monthly book exhibit related to their programs. New PopLit titles complemented and balanced relevant academic texts. Books circulated from the exhibit each month, and several students expressed appreciation for the display.

If students immediately recognize that the library is intended for them, they are far more likely to see the rest of the services we provide. As librarians we must be deliberate and proactive to “meet users where they are.” Building and promoting the collection has challenged perceptions of the library to open conversations and outreach on campus. While a book collection alone cannot address the deep inequalities embedded in higher education, it is an important opportunity to show users that we see and value them in the library.

Somewhat Off-the-Cuff Thoughts About the Print Vs Ebook Debates

I opened the paper this morning to an article discussing the continuing fight for market share between print books and ebooks. In a headline sure to lure in every librarian and avid reader — The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead — the New York Times reports that:

E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

It’s a decent article, though to my mind it glosses over many of the issues around print books and ebooks that librarians are well aware of. The reading landscape is complicated — it’s less a matter of either, or and more both, and. We see it at the Reference Desk when some students are happy to have access to an ebook on their device, while others wrinkle their noses if they find a book that’s only available electronically and ask if there’s any way we can get them the hard copy. In my library our printing statistics are through the roof as students print thousands of pages per week; yes, some of these pages are their assignments or journal articles, but some are ebook chapters too.

Ebooks can be troublesome, frankly, even for those who want to use them. As a library user and a librarian and an avid reader, I’m highly motivated to sign into multiple platforms at my university’s library or the public library to be able to read books on my phone or tablet, but the barriers can seem very high to novice ebook users. Alycia Sellie’s recent article in Urban Library Journal notes the trials and tribulations that students in her library experience when they want to use ebooks (among other topics), frustrations which often “makes them dislike the libraries that offer them.” And even those who are extremely digitally savvy may not embrace ebooks. In my house, with an n of 2, I read both print and ebooks (and the paper newspaper), while my spouse, a software engineer, reads only print books (though the newspaper on his phone).

While I do think the Times article doesn’t delve as deeply into the complexities of print vs. ebooks as it could, I’m glad to see it, and especially glad to see that physical bookstores are seeing a boost in print sales. I also hope that folks who have input into the future of libraries — politicians, funders, etc. — take note before issuing proclamations about the death of print books. The public libraries in my city are booming, and they are full of print books, as are all of the K-12 public school classrooms in NYC that I’ve ever been in. My son, who just started high school, reads only print books at home (his choice) and in school, though he did receive one of his textbooks on CD this year. Kids of all ages read lots — for school and for their own interests — and they may not have access to devices that make it easy for them to read ebooks. I think we’ll be living in our both, and hybrid print/digital book world for a while yet.

On users, now and future


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Almost every morning I come in the west side of the building, the original entrance for Mullins Library. On the way to my office, I pass a travelling exhibition that is here for the spring semester – a display of books from the Remnant Trust. As a part of my service activities for the library, I volunteer to lend a hand when needed with the collection. There are several times during the week that patrons can request to see and handle the books, which is always a delight for me.

As I am a cataloger, my office is in an area that is generally off-limits to most library patrons: technical services. The term off-limits makes me cringe a bit, but there is very little of interest to most patrons in the technical services area – lots of cubicles, dot-matrix printers, and the occasional typewriter (including the one in my office). Oh, and several shelves full of bibliographies and cataloging reference books. The utilitarian look of this area is in contrast to the more welcoming look of the patron-centered areas, and so we see very few patrons amidst our technological antiquities.

Working with the patrons who request to see the Remnant Trust materials has been a welcome change for me. These patrons are a reminder to me that everyone in the library, even we metadata wizards in technical services, works to serve the needs of our users. For me, it’s an easy point to forget about, or neglect; so working with patrons from time to time has been a welcome change and reminder of the service-centric nature of our profession. Indeed, as a cataloger, working with and listening to patrons makes my work better as the metadata I create and use can be better tailored to our patrons based on their feedback.

Of course, the reference librarians and staff are the first point of contact for many library patrons. Their mastery of the resources in their libraries and collections makes them well-suited to serve users. Those of us behind the scenes serve users with the work we do in describing resources, acquiring new items, and providing access to items in our collections. However, librarians are also charged with the responsibility of providing for future patrons – collecting and preserving those things that might have significance for those that come after us. This can take many forms, but the books in the Remnant Trust exhibit would not exist if it were not for forward-thinking collectors and librarians.

In this spirit, I would like to leave you with a quote about the Boston Athenaeum, one that highlights our place in the continuum of the printed and written word:

I decided to make a last stop at the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s great book places and home of a magnificent research library that itself has been a work in progress since 1807.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

What Feeney did not say – what he did not have to say – was that the books had been set aside by his predecessors for the better part of a century on the off chance that one day somebody in need might want to see them. Fortunately, the fact that nobody had requested the titles before me was not considered sufficient grounds for discarding them, a practice employed by so many other libraries in these days of reduced storage space, stretched operating budgets, and shifting paradigms. It was as if the collective hands of Aristophanes of Byzantium, Petrarch, Robert Cotton, Christina of Sweden, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg – every temporary custodian of the world’s gathered wisdom – had reached out through the swirling eddy of the ages and places in my hands the precious gift of a book. It was an act of faith fulfilled, and we, their heirs, owe no less a compact to the readers of the third millennium.1

It is this faith that we take part in as librarians in any and all parts of the library: reference, administration, technical services, inter-library loan, and many others. The faith that we will do our utmost to serve our patrons both now and in centuries hence.

  1. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2001, p. 8-9. []

Use it or lose it

I’d never even heard of a Math Emporium until six months ago.

For those of you in a similar boat, a Math Emporium is a large computer lab with associated tutoring and supplemental instruction space used to offer remedial and lower-level math instruction via online, self-paced modules. I am not qualified to speak to its pedagogical merits but have reason to believe it is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction (these reasons include the fact that, during the most recent round of non-tenure-track faculty layoffs at BGSU, the department that took the biggest hit was Math).

If a Math Emporium is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction, it is more space-intensive. We have been told BGSU’s developing Math Emporium requires a space large enough for a 180-seat computer lab dedicated for 13 hours a day to math instruction. Following the lead of the universities that have gone before us (including our neighbors at Kent and Cleveland State), the best space for such a facility is, naturally…library collection space.

We welcomed a Learning Commons into our library building two years ago, significantly cutting down space devoted to reference, periodicals and government documents. The partnership is imperfect: the Learning Commons group study spaces are not available to librarians or walk-in users, and no one can sit in their area without swiping their ID card and recording their activity in the space – a policy which, as it violates my professional ethics, prevented me from holding my office hours there this fall. I have collaborated with the Learning Commons, however. I have referred students to their writing tutors and taught joint instruction sessions with them. Their writing tutors also refer students to librarians at our reference desk.

I have trouble imagining the same kind of thing happening with the Math Emporium. I do not understand what connection remedial math instruction has to any part of the library’s mission as an academic unit – and I honestly don’t think anyone is prepared to pretend that there is one. The library is seen as a convenient place to house this kind of facility because, frankly, the people who make these decisions see most of our building as empty space. To them, space housing physical collections is space that is not being used.

During the summer, BGSU sets up incoming student advising in the library, and a group of student workers sits by the front entrance to direct traffic. I once overheard a parent ask one of them, “Is this entire floor of the library the learning commons?” He said, “Yes. Well, pretty much. The learning commons is most of this part over here; that part over there is just library storage.”

Just library storage? I told the student, “No – those are our books – all the materials we collect and make available for people to use to complete their coursework and research!” He clearly felt bad, and he quickly apologized and told me he loved libraries. But it seems like he thought the same thing our administrators do – that everything is online, our stacks are full of things no one uses, and if we cut the library’s footprint for physical collections in half, no one will miss the thousands of volumes that will, almost certainly, just be thrown away.

I bet that to many, and even to many of you, I sound like a Luddite, not wanting to get rid of “legacy print collections.” It’s not that I’m opposed to doing that. (I’m an e-resources librarian – remember that!) I would be especially willing to do that if that work was going to result in spaces that would support the programmatic needs of the library and that would showcase our remaining collections. If it would allow us to create the kind of student and faculty space that makes people want to discover and create knowledge. The kind of space where students could work with our collections (curate, engage, create). But we never made that investment in our own space. We don’t have any processes in place to support those kinds of uses. We’ve just been doing the same things with our collections for years and years and years, crowding more and more volumes into a smaller and smaller space, keeping things for posterity while ignoring the present, and now both are threatened.

I believe we should both try to manage legacy print collections in a way that makes space for new priorities as well as in a way that leverages their use in the broadest possible way. This is going to require a little more nimbleness on our part – more proactivity, more willingness to adopt non-normal procedures, more cooperation, and more imagination. A year ago, a new professor in the School of Art approached me about our library’s space: she wanted her students to engage with our collections, but our collection spaces were “so uninviting.” Nothing about how our books were shelved or presented encouraged the kind of engagement she envisioned. As reimagining our first floor space was under discussion even then, I suggested we pilot something with the School of Art. My dean said she would talk with Capital Planning “when they get to the point of imagining the new spaces on the first floor…I imagine it would involve a lot of stacks shifting to create what we would really like.”

I don’t think a large computer lab for remedial math instruction is what she had in mind when she mentioned creating “what we would really like,” but it looks like that’s what we well may end up with. Regardless, earlier this week, the library faculty passed a resolution stating that we believed the Math Emporium was a “bad fit for the academic mission of the library, and therefore a bad fit for the Jerome Library building.” We’ll see what happens. I think part of the problem was we let Capital Planning imagine new spaces on the first floor of the library instead of going ahead and doing it ourselves. If our collection spaces are not especially inviting, I don’t expect replacing them with a Math Emporium will make them more so. Not for people who need to engage, curate, discover and imagine. Not for anyone except a couple hundred students taking low-level math, and not, perhaps, even for them.