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Thursday, 26 April 2012

To buy or not to buy – the challenges of collection development : some thoughts

by Omesh Jagarnath

Developing collections

Any academic library that aims to satisfy the information needs of its academics and researchers must take great care in the management and development of its collection.

Collection Development aims to provide the right information for the right reader at the right time. The cost of books has escalated in recent years, especially in the sciences, while book budgets have been shrinking year after year. Consequently, schools and colleges have begun to feel the negative impact that this is having upon collection development. After all, university libraries aim to develop collections primarily to support the current and future instructional, research and service programs of the institution.

Some challenges

The collection development process has to be vigilantly monitored and cannot be approached in a haphazard manner. Some crucial questions to ponder are: who decides what to buy and what not to? How often is our collection really up-to-date and in support of the University's goals of teaching and learning? What happens to older editions of books and is there a process to be followed regarding removing these older underutilized titles? Then there is the question of should libraries go completely virtual and re-look at space utilization, or, perhaps invest in off-site storage facilities, a practice that is very popular in many US libraries? These are just some of the areas that upon close examination present challenges to today’s academic libraries and librarians who have to juggle their time between serving the needs of the user and collection maintenance.

Both the quality and quantity of a library’s collection is dependent upon the library’s acquisition programme, including its collection development policies and procedures. Perhaps what is needed is a regular review of our current Collection Development Policy to ensure that is flexible enough to reflect changes and trends in the university's academic programs and the overall outcomes of the institution.

At UKZN Library, collection development is viewed as a joint effort between library and faculty, with the library managing the process. Academic staff are requested to send in recommendations to the subject librarian who in turn processes the requests. In most instances, emphasis is placed upon the development of the "core" collections that support undergraduate requirements. Some schools place great emphasis on the purchasing of multiple copies of a text to be placed on reserve for students to access, while others concentrate on purchasing books in their areas of teaching. Often there is confusion as to the numbers of books allowed per student, yet the guideline states that one copy of a book per 50 students up to a maximum of five copies may be acquired.  It is not the function of the UKZN Library to circumvent the need for a student to own copies of prescribed books. Duplication of prescribed textbooks is not justified and this applies to recommended books as well. The library sometimes ends up purchasing several copies of a text to serve a handful of students, or one book to serve hundreds of students. This is purely due to a lack of communication between the librarian and the academic staff member.

One observation has been that many academics only respond to the librarian’s call to send in their book requests after they are told that their budgets will be cut the following year or it will be utilized by other departments. As a result there is a rush of book order requests by a certain cut-off date resulting in many underutilized titles being ordered.

With regards to the postgraduate experience, perhaps this is where subject librarians play an equally active role in liaising with electronic database vendors in evaluating databases and making recommendations for purchase with the support of academic staff.

And why are we intimidated by ebooks?

Somehow, the purchasing of e-books has been slow at UKZN library.  Possible reasons for this could be either that patron’s prefer a hard copy to an electronic one; or the concept has not been well marketed. Budget constraints and license agreements are other hindering factors. As much as we may be living in a techno savvy environment, how many of us are enthusiastic about reading a book online when it is so easy to grab a book off the shelf? Many US libraries have begun loaning Kindles which are preloaded with selected titles - perhaps once this trend is adopted at UKZN library they will become popular. Currently not many textbooks are available electronically which is another hindering factor as publishers battle to maximize profits.

Some Concluding Remarks

Collection Development should undergo constant review to ensure that our acquisition, weeding and retention policies are unbiased and customer focused so that our library users have access to current, relevant and authoritative information in their preferred format. We should also look at the benefits of shared collections, regular weeding and preservation of rare collections, and current trends in e-book acquisition. No matter what the trend, collection management will continue to be an activity in need of librarian expertise.


  1. Wow!! well said, I vote e-book is the way to go with a little bit of hard copies.

    1. I agree - more e-books will mean more space available which can be reconfigured to accommodate more computers in libraries - hence increasing access. Perhaps the so called virtual library or "libraries without walls" is not far off...

  2. good article.

  3. Couldn't agree more...collection development one of the core functions of Librarianship.
    Crucial that Librarians and library users are receptive to the developing trends in the knowledge economy.

  4. Nonhlanhla Ngcobo11 May 2012 at 13:21

    We need to put more effort into marketing our existing e-books and acquiring more!

  5. Informative article: looking forward to the roll-out of Kindle at UKZN Libraries.

  6. Call me a dinosaur, but books are books, with their own sensory experience, the feel of the paper, the spine, perhaps new, perhaps decayed. I know that Kindles and Kobos are the future or even downloading from Project Gutenbeg to your tablet, yet the world seems poorer in some way for the loss of the traditional book even though of course the environment appreciates it.

    When I go to visit someone for the first time, I blatantly peruse their shelves and learn a great deal about the resident. Their personalities and interests spring visibly from the shelves, but I would consider it an invasion, paradoxically perhaps, to pick up their e-reader and "flip" through it.