Leisure reading collections in the academic library

Here’s my honest opinion: I wasn’t a big fan of collection development during graduate school. When I was supervising the residence halls libraries at Illinois, putting new books in my virtual cart was always at the bottom of my to-do list. I didn’t have a good system of finding new books and once I found something cool, usually one of my colleagues had it in their cart. For me, I was always more interested in using my time to support the student employees or plan programming with residence life than I was in spending my time building a collection. The work of collection development felt like a chore.

Needless to say I was jazzed when I started at Penn State and had zero collection development responsibilities. I could go back to just me requesting the books for myself I heard about on podcasts or read in the many email newsletters I subscribed to. I “escaped” collection development for two years and this fall, the Leisure Reading  collection in the Pattee & Paterno Libraries fell on to my plate of responsibilities.

Leisure reading collections (also known as recreational reading, browsing collection, or popular reading collections) were first started in academic libraries in the 1920s and 30s, when a core value of academic librarians was to promote reading. These collections became less prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, when war impacted library budgets and people found it less important to have these collections (Dewan, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1990s that academic libraries started to create leisure reading collections again and publish on the importance of these collections. These collections continue to get pushback from the academic library world; some consider the collection not within the mission of an academic library; others talk of tight budgets and space limitations (Alsop, 2007); there is even an assumption that faculty, staff, and students do not have or any interest in reading for leisure (Van Fleet, 2003). However, more recent studies have shown the benefits of reading for leisure, including a correlation with higher academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), promotion of critical thinking, and improvement of reading comprehension and developing one’s own writing voice (Rathe & Blankenship, 2006; Trott & Elliott, 2007). But just like anything done well, building this sort of collection takes time, energy, and resources.

The decision to put the Leisure Reading collection on my work plate was strategic — pivot the collection to take a student engagement approach, leverage the talents and energy of our student engagement intern and part time student employee to help with the vision and maintenance of the collection, and tie the collection more closely with our outreach work in order think about how we highlight and promote this collection. During the first few weeks where the collection was now “mine,” I drew inspiration from UCLA’s Powell Library, who worked with students and student clubs in a variety of ways to help build a student-driven collection (Glassman, Lee, Salomon, & Worsham, 2017). I felt like I was sort of stumbling through the dark those first few weeks, just trying to understand what the collection was, and where we could take it. Luckily, I wasn’t tackling this project alone — the Leisure Reading team is up to five: 3 full-time library employees, and two student employees.

I definitely took for granted the system that the residence halls libraries had set up for collection development. As a small system, we didn’t have too many other people to work with in order to keep the collection up and running. Here at Penn State, there’s 10+ people or groups interacting and supporting the Leisure Reading collection in some way. This meant that any changes we decided to make, had to be communicate clearly and often to all those involved. These folks also gave us some of the best feedback on the collection; their sometimes daily interaction really helped the new team wrap our heads around the current situation and see potential ways forward that would make the collection easier to find and use for both staff and patrons.

Our collection is mostly leased; something I hadn’t really considered before. In doing some research about recreational reading collections in academic libraries, I learned that academic libraries have been talking about leased collections since at least 1976 (Cushman) and people are interested in the pros and cons of having this type of collection, especially when considering if these popular books are “worthy” to keep for a long time (Odess-Harnish, 2002). Part of our lease agreement is that we get to keep a percentage of the books we lease, giving a new option to the research already out there about leased collections. Our monthly weeding gives us the chance to think about what we should keep and starts to give us a better sense of how our patrons are using this collection.

A big challenge that the Leisure Reading team tackled in the first few months was wayfinding and discoverability. Our collection is shelved in the Library of Congress classification, which can make it confusing to figure out where the new book by Phoebe Robinson or Tana French is going to be. As Pauline Dewan says so succinctly, “The Library of Congress classification is not an effective scheme for browsing fiction” (2010, p. 44). Our two student employees helping with the collection learned first hand how difficult the classification system can be when creating new signage to help people discover new items in this collection. But, we are working on it — trying things knowing they might fail and also trying to get as much feedback as we can from the people actively using the collection. The collection is constantly a work in progress.

As we look towards 2019, there are big plans on the horizon for this collection. Our spring will be devoted to tying the collection more closely to programming, making a stronger connection between our leisure reading and viewing (DVD) collection, and assessing if the things we are doing are actually impacting circulation and patrons who use the collection. The past several months, I’ve come to love this collection; it’s tough and challenging but it’s fun to collaborate with others and try to build a dynamic, usable, interesting collection.

Do you have a leisure reading collection in your library? Do you help maintain the collection? If you are in charge of this collection, what are some challenges you face and what are exciting elements of this sort of collection in an academic library?

References:

Alsop, J. (2007). Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 581–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2007.05.004

Cushman, R. C. (1976). Lease Plans– A New Lease On Life For Libraries? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(1), 15–19.

Dewan, P. (2010). Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(1), 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691310903584775

Van Fleet, C. (2003). Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries. The Acquisitions Librarian, 15(29), 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J101v15n29_07

Glassman, J., Lee, S., Salomon, D., & Worsham, D. (2017). Community Collections: Nurturing Student Curators. In S. Arnold-Garza & C. Tomlinson (Eds.), Students Lead the Library: The Importance of Student Contributions to the Academic Library (pp. 77–92). Chicago, IL: ACRL.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literacy reading in America. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/publications/reading-risk-survey-literary-reading-america-0

Odess-Harnish, K. (2002). Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections. Collection Management, 27(2), 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v27n02_06

Rathe, B., & Blankenship, L. (2006). Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries. Collection Management, 30(2), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v30n02_06

Trott, B., & Elliott, J. (2007). Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(3), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.46n3.34

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.

Thoughts on Weeding

As much as I enjoy the technology-focused projects I work on as an emerging technologies librarian, I also don’t spend as much time as I might like with our print collection. Since I am also a our psychology liaison, I do have collection development responsibilities which require a better familiarity with relevant areas of the collection. I see the books quite a bit while roaming around the library or helping students locate materials during reference and instruction interactions, but I don’t always have regular occasions to just browse our stacks. This means it was a rare treat for me to spend about an hour of quality time in my liaison area’s reference section this morning.

My time with the books was not all fun and games. Due to space constraints and collection reorganization within the library, we need to reduce the size of our physical reference collection. Which means – that’s right! – I was weeding.

Weeding (or “deselection”) can be controversial and anxiety provoking. But it’s also a necessary reality for academic librarians who manage an infinitely growing body of information while faced with limited resources (time, money, space, etc.) to manage such information and a mission to curate collections that are useful and relevant within the context of our institutions.

As I was working with this subsection within our larger reference collection, I realized there are several reasons why weeding may be a particularly important learning activity for new librarians.

You learn what is in the collection.

Of course, there may be half-a-dozen other ways to learn what is in your collection. Simple browsing may be one way. Another may be discovering gems during other routine duties. And through my reference and instruction activities this semester I’ve certainly spent time looking for books on particular topics and gained a greater sense of some of our more popular materials. However, I find that picking up each book in turn and evaluating its place within the context of the rest of the collection gives me a much more intimate connection to the the collection as a unit.

You learn what you don’t have.

During a recent lunch discussion, one of my colleagues referred to weeding as “pruning.” I like this analogy, because weeding can lead to growing and strengthening the collection. Although I was looking to remove items, I also learned which topics are covered in the collection but need updated or more balanced information, and I found areas which should be completely revamped. For instance, I chose to pull an older volume on human intelligence. However, as I moved through the rest of the section and later checked our catalog for e-reference sources, I discovered this item was the only reference work about intelligence available in the collection. Given that “intelligence” could be a topic in several different courses across our social science curriculum, it’s an important gap to fill. Knowing this, I can seek out alternatives for replacement.

You learn to identify good places for new resources.

Since, as discussed above, I found myself needing to replace items removed to the collection, weeding led to a search for new material. Although I remember learning about finding quality, authoritative materials in graduate school courses on reference services and collection development, it was definitely no substitute for real-world librarian-esque shopping. Particularly in the reference collection, where cost of materials can be significantly higher than materials for the general collection, learning where and how to find the best materials is a vital skill for new librarians learning to curate useful and authoritative collections.

You learn from your colleagues across the library.

For me, weeding led to a lot of questions. Of course, there are questions about how to evaluate materials and what type of information should be used in making deselection decisions. There are then additional questions about the process for physical removing items for the collection. And there are questions about selecting and purchasing new materials. These questions have been great conversation starters to learn from more experienced colleagues, and are a significant reason to talk to people in several different departments (reference and instruction, technical services, etc.).

 

Since I was working with a relatively small subsection of the reference collection to begin with, I did not remove more than a handful of books. And several of those will be moved to the stacks or are available electronically, so the net change in the collection is relatively small. But, in just an hour or two, I gained a greater understanding of the types of reference materials available within my liaison area, as well as the areas which need more attention in the future. I learned more about collection development at my library and enjoyed several conversations with my colleagues regarding the state of our collection and the complexities of deselection. Although it is a bit daunting, particularly as a new librarian, to be responsible for deselection decisions, I’m inspired to continue investigating further collection development and analysis projects within the general collection.