School library collection development: It’s not as simple as you might think

This semester, I have been lecturing in the unit EUN617, Managing and Organising Collections as part of the Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship) course at Queensland University of Technology.

From the outside looking in, collection development seems pretty straight forward. Why would you need tertiary level study to understand how to buy books  and resources and make them available to students and staff?

In fact, effectively developing and managing a school library collection is incredibly complex, and a huge responsibility. It is a perpetual process, and as libraries continue to develop hybrid collections of physical, electronic and digital resources in a variety of forms, extensive consideration must be given to every step.

The responsibility of collection management is an exciting one, but also one that entails decisions that not only impact the quality of learning but can also have significant ramifications for the personal wellbeing of the students who make use of the library. A recent discussion on the OZTLNet Listserv about the book All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven was a stark reminder of this.

“The story of a girl who learns to live…from a boy who wants to die”

The discussion focussed around how to make available a book that might open up the perspective of some students, while being a dangerous trigger for others. Dealing with depression, suicide and other challenging life issues, All the Bright Places and other confronting titles can be incredibly powerful, but also, potentially dangerous. How does a teacher librarian make sure that they are creating opportunities for students to read relevant and thought provoking titles, while also ensuring those who may struggle with the topics raised are supported?

Making this kind of decision requires careful consideration of the school community and context, of the age and maturity of the readers and is not a decision that is made lightly. Creating an even greater challenge is the wide variety of ways in which the content may be interpreted. Participating in the conversation on OZTLNet, Pat Pledger, leading Australian expert on children’s books and young adult literature shared two very different reviews of the same title; demonstrating how personal experience and opinion can dramatically alter how a book is considered:

Let me start by saying that I believe both reviews are valid and equally of use; both reviewers recommend the book, and there is no question as to its quality or value. However one suggests that readers aged 13+ would enjoy the title, while the other takes a far more cautious stance, suggesting suitability for readers aged 16 or over – in Young Adult parlance, the difference here is a lifetime.

Now imagine a review of the same book, but written by a parent who had lost their child to suicide…or the review written by a young adult reader currently struggling with severe depression. How we embrace the messages within books is vastly dependent upon our life experiences, our world view and our personal principles and values.

A qualified TL will be guided by their professional expertise and experience; their knowledge of their school community and context; their library policies which outline detailed selection criteria and their extensive awareness of the range of selection guides available to them. They do not simply ‘go shopping’ and pick whatever has a pretty cover. Qualified TLs make important selection decisions every day which influence the whole school community.

How could we ever think that this is not an essential role best managed by a highly qualified educator? How could we leave the responsibility of these decisions on the shoulders of volunteers and technical staff, or worse, an automated selection algorithm created by a supplier? Crafting the collection is complex – and that’s why I believe it is a vital part of the study that teacher librarians complete.

9 thoughts on “School library collection development: It’s not as simple as you might think”

  1. Excellent. Working within a K-6 school library means that my choices do not really stretch to YA books. You made some really salient points.

  2. Great article with regard to such an important topic. A school librarian knows their students, staff, culture and parents. Within this they are able to have books in the collection that could have ramifications because they have the conversations and are involved in welfare committees etc. it is also takes experience both life and professionally to reach this point

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Maree. I felt that this topic was so important to raise and the area of collection development and management is often underestimated in its complexity and importance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :).

  3. This is a really relevant post for me at the moment. Working in a high school and having digital and print titles to manage it’s simply not possible to personally read everything to determine whether or not to add to the collection. That’s why I think having access to reliable curation tools is essential. Equally important though is the deselection process (which I am currently working on). While it is important to have written policies for selection and deselection to guide and streamline the process, ultimately the task of collection management should be flexible and responsive to the needs of the community it serves. And while I firmly believe that fiction offers readers the opportunity to vicariously, yet safely, experience challenges and explore multiple responses to real life dilemmas, in a school community we have a duty of care to ensure the right book doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Bernadette; I totally agree with you that having policies to guide is important, but that the professional judgement of the TL also comes into play, as no policy can account for every possible scenario. And yes; another reason why every school needs a qualified TL – to ensure the right resource finds its way to the right student at the right time :).

  4. Situations like this really highlight the need for a teacher librarian in school libraries – a person who knows the books and knows the student body. As you have noted, policies are vital. But someone needs to be responsible for a balanced response to challenges raised against items in the collection, such as outlined in the OZTLNet post, and who will that be if not the TL (supported by the school library policy)?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Judith. You are so right; we need a TL to ensure that informed collection decisions are made, and that the readers’ rights are protected; your comment reminded me of this Unshelved comic that is doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment!

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