This blog post is co-authored by Mercy Procaccini. Thanks to team members Constance Malpas and Claire Holloway who helped develop research questions and gave useful feedback as this project developed and to Rebecca Bryant and Dawn Fournier who helped to improve our draft.
In a 2017 survey, OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) institutions were asked which areas they had changed (or planned to address) due to institutional goals and principles around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Nearly three quarters of responding institutions indicated that “collection building” was an area where they were already working to expand their capabilities.
Now, more than five years later, research libraries are still finding their way with diversifying collections. The recent report Leading by Diversifying Collections: A Guide for Academic Library Leadership (Bledsoe, et al., Ithaka S+R, 2022) helps to illuminate some of the challenges, including: prioritizing DEI in staffing over operations, a lack of criteria for evaluating diverse collections, and overall downward pressure on collection budgets.
To deepen our understanding of practices and pain points in diversifying collections, which still feels like an emerging practice area, we conducted interviews with staff at research libraries that are engaged in this work.
A note on methods
We began by extending invitations to institutions that were engaged in DEI collecting activities, many which had a connection to the OCLC RLP and/or OCLC Global Council. All institutions included in the discussions have done work around DEI and collections and are on the larger side in terms of collection size (ranging from just under one million to up to 12 million volumes). Institutions that are just getting started in this work or that have smaller collections may have different needs and experiences.
Library staff from eight institutions participated in structured interviews that took place in December 2022 and January 2023. Discussants included collection managers* (who have primary strategic, financial, and administrative responsibilities for collections) and selectors* (who are responsible for recommending specific items for collections, using methods that may include tools and systems). Most interviews were conducted with representatives from two institutions at a time, based upon schedule availability. We shared a discussion guide with discussants prior to meeting. [*Definitions adapted from the Leading by Diversifying Collections report.]
Insights into collection development work
Discussing DEI collecting gave us a peek into the work lives of collection development professionals. At many institutions, collection development responsibilities are divided among a number of professional staff whose roles are described as selectors or liaisons. These individuals may have responsibility for collection areas where they have little or no expertise. The ideal approach to collection development involves time for consultation with those who do have expertise: faculty, students, and—importantly in the case of diversifying collections—community members. This collaborative approach helps keep collection professionals attuned to current topics, trends, and needs. Importantly, this consultation helps inform library staff about new language and terminology to use when locating (and sharing) collections. As with cataloging, the trend in academic libraries has been to reduce investment in collection development staff, leaving librarians with less time to do this important consultative work.
The libraries interviewed seemed to be intrinsically motivated to do work around DEI and collections—that is, the work is generally not in response to campus mandates. Interviewees expressed that their work grew out of previous anti-racist efforts undertaken at the library and/or in response to local events and situations, often addressing the impacts of violence (both historical as well as present day) against minoritized racial communities. The University of Toronto Libraries, in addition to its intrinsic motivation, is working toward the recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report to meet the needs of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples. (Based on other discussions, including those that helped to develop the Reimagine Descriptive Workflows Project, the TRC report plays a motivating role in Canadian libraries of all types).
Areas of focus for DEI work
Several interviewees talked about a clear area of focus; subjects relating to African American or Indigenous communities were mentioned frequently. In other cases, the collection professionals were thinking broadly about how to change patterns of collecting to be more inclusive without focusing on a specific area.
There was general agreement among the discussants that library collections are not as representative as they need to be, and that collecting practices need to change. One interviewee described collection building as
“. . .casting a net to get content. . . the net determines what you get.” They then pondered, “How do you make a different kind of net?“
The role of lists in diversifying collections
We asked about the utility of lists (award winners, publishers’ lists, etc.) in supporting DEI collecting. Such lists are considered as just one of many tools and are viewed with skepticism. This is especially true when the library is working to acquire materials that represent authentic voices from communities. One interviewee explained how lists lack critical information (metadata) about the books and their authors, so librarians need to do additional research to understand who the authors are and the experiences and perspectives they represent.
Another interviewee expanded on this:
“Who’s telling the story? … Whose lived experience is this? …It’s important to me, and I know it’s important to my colleagues, to be able to represent as truly as possible any one person’s experience, when we’re talking about, say, a novel, when we’re talking about a book of poems, right? And that falls in line with how an author might identify. I know there have been lots of conversations in librarianship about self-identification, author’s self-identification, how any one person chooses to move through the world, right? And we cannot force identification on people, right? So really being careful about whose story is being told, who’s telling it, how has an author chosen to identify, or not.”
One discussant uses lists to identify gaps in their collecting practices. If lists point to a collection gap, they try to understand why those materials had fallen through the cracks. This is seen as an opportunity to figure out why the gap is there and to shift collecting practices to address it.
Benchmarking against others
Many institutions talked about their needs to look at collections with a specific, targeted subject focus for comparison. One motivation for this might be the emergence of a new academic program on campus. For many this is the ideal way to think about who their peer institutions might be, rather than looking at an entire library collection. Right now, that work is based on known institutions as well as sifting through other data sources. This is a complex area with many decision points, especially since libraries exist within networks of what can be considered collective collections. One interviewee summed this up:
“So, do you benchmark yourself against somebody? Because we want to have what they have, you may want to benchmark yourself against somebody, because we want to have what they don’t have, we want to find and talk to them about it. Right? Like, if you’re talking about diversity and collecting, no one can collect all. I mean, it never ends.”
DEI collecting can influence decisions about formats of materials. Interviewees pointed out that the campus default of electronic format makes sense when serving the academic community, but for materials that should be accessible by community members who are outside the campus boundaries, library staff try to acquire physical copies to meet community needs.
Caution around use analytics
The topic of use analytics also surfaced. Some participants controverted the notion that return-on-investment (ROI) was a good measure for materials acquired to fill a DEI need, or for a specialized audience:
“some of these resources may not be used a lot if you just look at [use analytics].… like checkouts …. But that is not …. [reflective of] the importance of those works … Particularly if the community is relatively small, but it may be an essential work for that community.”
Expertise and authentic voice: terms people have defined for themselves
Collections professionals have customarily connected with experts—primarily faculty—to help inform their views on topics and trends they should be looking for. These connections are valuable and enriching and many interviewees noted the lack of time to engage in this valuable activity. With DEI collecting, collections professionals find it valuable to connect with faculty, students, and scholars working in a related discipline. But they recognized that they need the kind of expertise that comes from working directly with members of communities that have been excluded or underrepresented:
“…this notion of expertise that’s going to help us build our collection that maybe is coming from experts we hadn’t thought of as experts… people who know who they are, and they define themselves the way they want.”
This type of consultation is particularly valuable; not only does it inform library acquisitions, but it builds understanding and trust between the library and communities. One interviewee shared this example:
“…our Indigenous studies librarian will go to community events, go to their Powwows…both to purchase materials, because there’s often materials being sold there… that just wouldn’t be available on the market. But then also to help build relationships…So it’s not extractive and he’s able to have a two-way conversation.”
Direct engagement with community helps collections librarians identify important sources of information, books, and materials, but also helps to inform the librarians about new words or concepts being used within a community. This insider point of view can help with locating materials but also helps the librarian understand the community in context.
Opportunities to operationalize the work of DEI collecting
Some institutions are piloting reparative collecting strategies by engaging with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) bookstores or book dealers. The library benefits from deep community knowledge and expertise while at the same time investing in local businesses and supporting reparations towards communities. These arrangements also build relationships and trust between libraries and communities. Materials acquired through these pathways do cost more, but as one interviewee explained,
“Not only are we collecting content that is diverse, but we’re identifying that because it’s being sold by BIPOC bookstores, people of BIPOC identities are saying, ‘This is something worth having.’ Then we’re investing financially in those communities, rather than just saying, ‘Thank you for this book about you, we enjoy you being a subject, goodbye.’”
The higher purchase prices are also one way to recognize the community knowledge and expertise that these specialized booksellers are providing to the library.
Interviewees often encounter challenges when buying from smaller and specialized booksellers. Institutional policies and systems may not support purchasing from and paying these vendors. Additionally, materials may not come with cataloging copy or may be in formats that will be more costly to process and catalog. Some institutions are purposefully allocating more resources towards this, while others are first trying to design workflows that better support acquiring these materials.
An iterative and focused approach
Interviewees discussed piloting different approaches. One institution is allocating $6,000 a year to purchase from BIPOC bookstores to build relationships and workflows:
“It’s about operationalizing bigger picture acquisitions … starting up standing order plans with … small presses or booksellers, that’s a way to operationalize things to become a normal workflow to continually build a collection in a specific area.”
Others talked about taking a focused approach, prioritizing building collections in a specific area for a fixed period of time, then focusing attention and resources on another area for the next period of time, and so on.
Using analytics as a starting point
Analytics are useful for identifying gaps in collecting but determining how to fill a gap area is more intensive and requires more hands-on work:
“… what we’ve been doing is trying to visualize our collection [using Tableau]. … but that doesn’t speak to what we need, [to] finding the content to put there [in the gaps].”
Discussants recognized that the biggest challenges are learning and understanding how to appropriately fill the gaps that analytics tools illuminate.
Publicly commit to change
Institutions are reviewing their collection development plans to ensure that they reflect intentions and commitments around DEI collecting. The University of Toronto Libraries has shared a comprehensive Collections Diversity Plan which includes not only strategies for diversifying collections but also changing the nature of community consultation and the UT Libraries workforce. Ideally, communicating publicly about goals for change and sharing updates on progress supports transparency and accountability. While building connections and trust with community is essential, so is addressing gaps in the workforce, including hiring people who have connections to the community, to the materials, and to specific language groups.
Sharing practices with trusted others
As practices around diversifying collections emerge and evolve, professionals need to be able to share information and strategies with one another, within a network of trust. First and foremost, this needs to happen within an institution—support from leadership and a cohort of colleagues working together are critical to initiate and sustain efforts. Interviewees also highlighted a desire to connect more broadly across the field with peers engaged in this work. Discussants said it is important to acknowledge that this work requires significant time and resources and is tied to larger DEI efforts happening at one’s institution.
A note of thanks
Progress in changing practices and workflows to be more diverse and inclusive can feel slow, even incremental. We benefitted tremendously from our conversations with institutions that are taking steps toward change and thank those who shared with us—and with our readers—to illuminate current practices, promising strategies, and future possibilities.
We are grateful to those that participated in our interviews and acknowledge their contributions to increasing our understanding on this topic:
- Posie Aagaard, Assistant Vice Provost for Collections & Curriculum Support, The University of Texas at San Antonio
- Matt Gallagher, Director of Collection Development, Binghamton University
- Michael Holt, Head, Research and Instruction Services, Louisiana State University
- Eva Jurczyk, Coordinator, Humanities Collections, University of Toronto
- Lois Kuyper-Rushing, Associate Dean for Public and Collection Services, Louisiana State University
- Bill Maltarich, Head of Collection Development, New York University
- John Miles, Curator of Books & Head of Instruction, Louisiana State University
- Steph Noell, Special Collections Librarian, The University of Texas at San Antonio
- Chris Palazzolo, Head of Collections, Social Sciences Librarian, and Librarian for French and Italian, Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, Emory University
- Shannon Tharp, Collections & Content Management Librarian, University of Denver
- Cory Tucker, Head, Collections, Interlibrary Loan, & Acquisitions, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
- Amy Tureen, Dean of Academic Success Programs, South Puget Sound Community College (at the time of our discussions, Head, Library Liaison Program, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
We hope to continue to learn and share about this topic and invite you to connect with us if you have experiences and examples to support this work.
Merrilee Proffitt is Senior Manager for the OCLC RLP. She provides community development skills and expert support to institutions within the OCLC Research Library Partnership.