Posted on Leave a comment

Adventures in Collection Development


One of the toughest things to decide on for a community-minded, volunteer-run library is a collection development policy. I say for “a community-minded, volunteer-run” library with reason. Authoring a collection development policy is relatively easy for a more institutionalized library; the collections development librarian takes a look at his/her budget and says, “We’re drawing the line at graphic novels!” And that, generally, is that. The decision is the domain of one person’s professional judgment, everyone trusts in that decision and, even if not everyone agrees 100%, operations go forward.

I’m discovering with the Guelph Tool Library, as I did with Out On The Shelf, that when collection development policy is the product of a committee, things get more complicated quickly. In many ways, having a limited budget becomes ones saving grace; what services the library can afford to provide (and a collection is just one of many services) given its available resources is often where discussions around collection development begin and end. People may be frustrated or disappointed at the end of collection development meetings (“Awwwe… You mean we can’t afford a 3D printer?”) but generally no one argues and everyone is able to accept the reality of the situation.

When managing the Out On The Shelf library, political concerns were more front and centre. For example, “Should we purchase more trans narratives for the collection even if trans folks make up a small percentage of our patrons?” Or, “Should we favor fiction over non-fiction?” Or (and here’s a big one), “Should we continue collecting anti-LGBTQ narratives for the archive even though we have such limited space?” In the end, Out On The Shelf often didn’t have much in the way of extra funds to make such targeted purchases (one day soon, though!), but after several discussions with volunteers I decided that, when the time to invest money ever comes, one of our collection development policies should probably read something like this:

Targeted acquisitions shall be made with a mind to increasing the number and quality of items available of interest to minority groups within the LGBTQ+ community slightly beyond their proportional representation within the community. This shall be done out of a recognition of the impacts of historical marginalization in society at large. Furthermore, this shall be done while maintaining the mind that completely equal balance of items in the collection among all minority groups, in terms of both number and quality, is neither necessary nor practical. In this way the Out On The Shelf library collection shall, in its small way, strive to expand the diversity of its own collection while maintaining a mind to the wants and needs of its patron base.

With the Guelph Tool Library, political concerns came into consideration as well, but the politics were several degrees less personal. We dealt with questions such as, “Do we make an active attempt to acquire more popular items, such as camping equipment, even though it does not promote a more sustainable food system, which is one of our primary mandates?” When that question came up, I suddenly felt like I was back in a traditional library. Every librarian struggles with questions such as, “Do I purchase more paperback bestsellers or invest in that nice, large-print, hardcover classics collection?”

As one of the earliest members of Out On The Shelf, I was more comfortable speaking about values and priorities. But as the newest member of the Guelph Tool Library team, I didn’t feel like I should be leading the discussion or speaking to the founding values of the organization. I decided that the best thing I could do was provide a neutral framework for the discussion informed by what I knew about collection development in other contexts. What better way to do that than with a snazzy diagram!


I developed the above chart to help visualize our challenge in terms of collection development. I explained that there would always be things we wanted to do that were beyond our resources, there would always be demands of the community that would be beyond our resources, there will be values and goals that don’t overlap with the needs of the community and vice versa. BUT there will be a space where they do overlap and we do have the resources to meet those needs. I explained that, while we can accomplish anything inside the box of our resources, we should aim for the space in the middle where our values and goals overlap with the needs and wants of the community; we should treat it as the “bullseye,” the most effective space for our collection development decisions to be made.

Once we all agreed on the validity of this decision model, it helped us make such decisions as a group neutrally, away from anyone’s personal values or opinions. We were able to arrive at conclusions such as, “Well… if camping equipment comes our way and we have the space to store it, then we won’t turn it away. But stuff like that should probably stay off of our official wish list.”

I was pleasantly pleased that this approach to authoring a collection development policy lead not to lists of “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not”s but, seemingly without ever trying, it provided something much more useful, the adoption of a mental framework for discussion and decision-making that everyone involved could agree upon.

Note: working with these folks is never difficult! Things just went from smooth to smoother.       🙂

In conclusion, I look forward to the day when a used propane stove comes through the door as a donation and we can all roll our eyes in unison and find some room for it behind the newly purchased pressure cooker!

–Brandon, Librarian @ Guelph Tool Library