Thursday, August 15, 2013

Letter to a Young Collection Development Librarian, by Rachel Fleming

Source: Wikimedia Commons

You got the job! Well done, my friend. You will move to a quaint college town and be thrown into the deep end of the library. Collection development is the most fun job you can have in a library, and that is why they didn't even teach you it exists in library school.

Based on my time in collection development, my three bits of advice: be cool, be nice, be magic.

Be Cool:

In many cases, it's a lot of money, sure. You can handle it. Don't freak out. It's just a matter of scale. You'll be all over it in no time. Also, you might think that being responsible for all of that money at work will help you lead a disciplined budgetary life at home. You are wrong. But you will get scary good at managing an amount of money that you did not have a method of comprehending.

I recommend scheduling freak outs. You’re in charge of these budgets, so you need to freak out every now and then about the money, at least for show. January and July are the required times, but if you enjoy those, go ahead and do it once a quarter. Freak out time of year is a good time to run some giant lists (what you’ve purchased, what you want to purchase, etc.) and make some huge spreadsheets (how much money you’ve spent on which parts of the collection is a fun one). If that doesn’t get you excited, I take back what I said about having the most fun job. Loving spreadsheets and not feeling bad about it is part and parcel of being a collection development librarian. Owning your love of spreadsheets is the definition of cool. Be cool.

Be Nice:

You might feel like you're just some awkward kid, and you may well be (I’ll admit I feel that way at times), but if you remember to be nice to people, it will work out.

Be nice to vendors. It is part of their job to be nice to you, and that will improve your day, but returning the favor is good, too. You may be adversaries in business, but that isn't any reason to be mean or dismissive. The more you know about each other’s needs, the more likely you are to be able to reach a mutually beneficial outcomes. Answer the phone, have a conversation, get to know each other. [Editor’s Note: But don’t be nice to the vendors in a way that ends up being a disservice to you or your community.] Plus, vendors know the best restaurants and bars.

Be nice to faculty all of the time, even if they treat you terribly. It will happen, and it will suck. Most of the time faculty will be pretty great. Ask faculty about their research, their classes, their majors, and their curriculum. The truth is that they want to talk about all of that and it will help you collect better. Don't ask about the library; they don't think about the library that much. Thinking about their students, classes, and research is their job. Your job is to worry about how the library supports all that. Give and give to the faculty expecting nothing in return. Returns will come.

Make friends with secretaries and other support staff. The earth would spin wildly out of orbit and be flung to the cold depths of the universe without secretaries. You should be nice to secretaries because they are usually great and don't ever get paid nearly enough. If you ask a beleaguered secretary how she is doing today with genuine concern and interest, your kindness may be rewarded with useful information. You should by no means inquire about her well-being in order to obtain information and be careful to use this information wisely. When you are consistently courteous and thoughtful when interacting with the executive secretary of a top administrator, it may pay off when you need something done urgently. You should not be nice because you may need something urgently done in the future, you should be nice because it makes the world a more hospitable place.

Be Magic:

Your job is to make things happen. Books appear; you get more resources with less money; policies are revised; and outdated books disappear. As far as your community should be concerned, all of this happens by magic!

The mechanics of the way these things happen are foreign to those you serve, and honestly, they can be pretty boring. Don't get me wrong: YOU will love it. (I know I do.) It is a good policy to answer the question at hand and provide additional details upon request. When someone needs a rush book, take their order and say “I’ll see what I can do;” that faculty member is not interested in the rush order process, they are interested in finishing writing their syllabus on time.

Don’t withhold information willfully, be transparent in all of your decisions, but understand that there are aspects about what you do that people are simply not interested in. Your gigantic spreadsheets, for instance. People probably are not interested in the brilliant mnemonic color-coding scheme you employed. Have the data that influenced your decision on hand and in an understandable format. You did the work, do yourself a solid and write a position memo to share with the world, or at least the library. But the nitty gritty stuff isn’t important to your community.

This is how I do the job, but I know there are other ways to be successful as a collection development librarian. Regardless, know this: you’ll be okay, kid.

Rachel Fleming is the Head of Serials at Hunter Library at Western Carolina University in Collowhee, North Carolina. She tweets at @RachelMFleming.


  1. Happily, I did take a Collection Development class in school but unfortunately the professor really, REALLY had it in for publishers and Vendor Approval Plans. I agreed with him on a lot of the latter, but as a former publishing person I found myself defending them fairly often. Fortunately he didn't seem to mind and it helped me bridge my two careers.

    All that said, CD was one of the scarier responsibilities of my new job, one that I probably put off longer than I should have. Now I'm having a ball. If I could have done a TARDISesque forward flash to this post I would have calmed down a little. Thank you!

  2. I thank you for this wonderful piece. I know it's been a while since you wrote it...I can't read every blog I'm interested in. But I just wanted to thank you for being such a "mensch". You are seriously the first person I've read in a long time who says to be kind just for the sake of being kind. Awesome.