Felicitations- you have inherited a great fortune. It takes the form of books, journals, databases, films, music, and maybe a few umbrellas (yes, I mean literal umbrellas). That’s because a great collection provides what people need, and so whether your collection is big or small, established or infant, budget-intensive or built on donations, you are the inheritor of a great collection - even if you can’t see that yet. I urge you now and always to consider the splendor, eccentricity, and charm of your library’s collection. You may fall in love. I have done so many times. Being a collection development librarian is appreciating, improving, and attending to your magnificent inheritance.
I say “yours” and I mean it. While others will have pieces, and while your collection will be developed in service of your community, you will be the one who sees it holistically rather than in individual experience. This part of the work is a responsibility and a privilege. I say yours, but I also mean “theirs” and “ours,” because your collection is a generous thing, built for sharing, inspiring, and celebrating your community. This part of the work is a true joy.
I encourage you to ask your coworkers why there is an extensive collection of monographs on flora and fauna of the Southwest or Hungarian Festshriven [Editor’s Note: there was a very old book about domestic breeds of cattle in the first collection I ever managed. We never figured out why it was there in a small, liberal arts college library, but we all fell a little in love with it and kept it.]. There will always be an answer, though sometimes no one will remember it. In such cases assume the answer is that your predecessors were trying their best. The longer you are in it, the more familiar the collection will become, but it will never be less weird than it is on the first day, and it will be weird. Maybe you will be particularly lucky and it will be SUPER WEIRD. Explore your collection- your inheritance- and remain grateful for it. Because the collection is going to make demands of you.
There is maintenance, planning, management, and development. The collection is alive to need; and, as a result, the responsive collection can be at times unknowable. You will never get to focus on just an inventory or a weeding project. As you hone in on necessary maintenance, you will also be helping to grow the collection to meet the needs of your community and getting to know that community. It will be challenging to track what the collection was and what it is becoming, but you will try your best, and you will succeed. You will develop your rhythm of activities.
There is so much pride to take in your inheritance, which will move and inspire people who use your collection. They may produce scholarship or art or other cool things, and then you can collect what they make. Those people are also inheritors in their way- they share your inheritance and benefit from your stewardship. And sometimes, people will be annoyed to find that their something specific isn’t in there. You will receive angry emails, and you will not always meet expectations. The collection will be imperfect and serviceable. It is a great collection if you find that people are more often satisfied than they are not.
Because when you inherit a collection, you become more aware of the logistical and unseen connections between all the collections of the libraries of the world through the magic of ILL, collaborative print, OA projects, digital libraries, etc. You will learn the greater context of your collection, and discover that it is endless in terms of the access you can facilitate. It’s an incredible time to be a collection librarian, as your inheritance is made greater through collaboration and cooperation. The collection is not defined by the boundaries of your library, the limits of your space or even your budget.
This inheritance of yours, vibrant and expanding, demanding and impossible to know, it is yours only for a while. All around you are incredible materials- in some cases the life’s work people you may never meet, whose efforts are evident on every shelf on every subject guide on every list of databases. A collection is an incredible wealth, and you are the latest in a series of stewards. Your legacy will be forever intertwined with the work of unseen coworkers, past and future.
Consider this resonance when you find a moment, perhaps in those challenging moments as you grapple with budget decisions or at after a difficult meeting with stakeholders. The timbre, deep beauty, and span of the collection is its own meditation. In such moments, remember again that you have inherited a great fortune, and others will inherit it from you. Be grateful and be gracious, collections require both.
Lindsay Cronk is the Head of Collection Strategies, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. This is the second time she’s written for LtaYL; the first was an interview. She tweets at @linds_bot.