When I tell folks I am a librarian with 15 years of collection development experience, the most frequent response I hear is, “Lucky!  You get to read all those good books!”  Ah, if only that were true.  Truth be told, I don’t have time to read many books.  I read a lot of book reviews.  And I speed-read from the never-ending piles of books that take over the book cart in my cubicle, piling up faster than I can assess reading level, interest level, and thematic content to make a collection placement decision on where it will best find its most appreciative audience of readers.  But the reality is I spend most of my day engaged in my least favorite subject from my school years:  Mathematics.

I think many of us have a much idealized notion of librarians “knowing books” and “knowing readers” and, therefore, intuitively “knowing” exactly what their customers want to read.  There is some of that.  But, for the most part, after many years of doing, I’ve found that the Science part of Information Science really boils down to one thing: measurable data.  And, as a mom with a home full of budding teenagers, I’ve also learned that databases are a lot like teenagers.  If you want to know what they’re really telling you, you have to learn how they think.

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar…

There are many different ways to measure data.  Does your ILS know what your patrons are doing?  There are also many different one size fits all collection analysis tools on the market.  Do they know what your ILS is doing?  Chances are, the answer to both of these questions is, “sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”  Therefore it behooves you, as a collection development expert, to make sure *you* know what your ILS is doing, if you really want to know what your customers are doing (and, therefore, what they want to read.)

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar…But there are Lots of Different Brands

A book circulation is a book circulation – and therefore evidence of a book’s popularity.  Right?  One would likely hope – since numbers of circulations are the bread and butter of measuring library success (and therefore justifying budget needs).  But there are lots of different “brands” of circulations.  Was the circulation simply the result of a usual routing process for all new materials?  Was the circulation the result of a conversion or repair process whereby technical services staff needed to view or correct an item for continued circulation?  Was the circulation the result of staff members viewing materials to inform their Readers Advisory services?  There are many potential scenarios that can be counted by your database as circulations.  In some of these scenarios the book wasn’t read; in others it was read but not necessarily because it was what the reader wanted to read.  If you want to improve your collection development services in response to your patrons’ desired materials, do these distinctions matter?  Does your ILS know how to track these distinctions?  Do you?

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar…But it Used to Be a Tobacco Plant

Collection maintenance is a fluid process.  New formats emerge, old formats wane, scopes of collections change, materials get weeded and replenished.  And sometimes things change form entirely: materials get reclassified, or systems migrate from one ILS to another.  Now things get tricky.  What happens when “old” material gets put into a “new” collection, or a new database, and its previous identity is, at best, transfigured, and, at worst, erased?  These changes matter for sound statistical analyses.  Plan ahead for such changes, and find a way to account for them in the statistics you will keep, so you can compare the “before” and “after” in a meaningful (and accurate) way.

The Reluctant Mathematician

I may not love Math, but I do love a good Mystery.  Over the years I have come to see measurable data on book circulations and patron behaviors as tantalizing clues in the great mystery of discovering how to match readers with books they love to read, with books that may just change their lives.  Though we may love the immediate gratification of standing beside a patron and hearing these touching success stories, if we want to really be successful Keepers of the Collection, we have to delve into the data, too.

Don’t be afraid.  Dive in.  And then go enjoy that cigar.  You’ve earned it.

By  Cheryl Turner
Collection Development Librarian
Gwinnett County Public Library