Career Strategies for Librarians
The Collection Isn’t Really Yours: Balancing Personal Agendas with Library Agendas
by Michelle Martinez
At my library I’m in charge of my library’s literature collection, and I’m thrilled. I love literature -- I received a B.
A. and M.A. in English before my M.S. in Library Science. However, our collection has very little fantasy or sci-
fi, almost no erotic fiction, and the graphic novel selection is pitiful. The funds I’m given to order for the
library are not to create my own personal collection, but to support the studies on campus and the interests
of the university community. It’s difficult to not order a new and interesting manga series when I come
across the title in a selection catalog, though. Meanwhile, when I recently ordered erotic fiction I found
myself facing a self-righteous patron who believed librarians should be moral police.
The culture surrounding your library dictates the collection. If there’s high interest in urban erotica and
people never check out or request Westerns, then your public library will likely have more of the former than
the latter. If your library is part of a school offering a degree in Mexican-American Studies but nothing on
Australia, then your academic collection will have a greater depth and breadth of Mexican-American
materials than Australian ones. It makes perfect sense, but it can be frustrating if the library’s focus does
not correspond to your personal interests. However, ordering books the library doesn’t have just because
you think it should can be a waste of money, especially when the patrons you serve are unlikely to use
them. Make sure you try to create a balanced collection, whatever your selection area, but always
remember that you need to support the patrons’ needs.
Becoming a crusader for a good cause -- whatever you consider a good cause -- in a library that doesn’t
support your beliefs is entirely up to you. But if you want to keep your job and your sanity, here are some
Read your library’s mission & collection development policy
Read your library’s mission statement: a good library always puts its community first. The money for
ordering books comes from a myriad of sources, be it taxpayer dollars, student fees, or community
donations—it’s their money. Seeing holes in a collection can be frustrating, but remind yourself that the
collection isn’t really yours. It doesn’t belong to you, and the money isn’t coming out of your pocket.
My library’s mission is so broadly stated that it allows, and encourages, librarians to develop new
collecting areas to support areas that are increasing in popularity or importance. that are becoming a study
trend. This allows me to collect graphic novels, but money and space are not unlimited. The current and
immediate needs of the students and faculty come first; developing collections outside of current needs is
Reading your library’s mission will clarify what the library does and whom it serves, while reading the
collection development policy in your subject area will allow you to understand what’s expected in that
discipline. That’s not to say things can’t or won’t change, but you need to know where your collection is
Know your collection
Get to know what you already have and where the gaps are. Learning what’s being used and what isn’t will
help inform your future ordering patterns.
My library had very few graphic novels, but quite a few academic books that discussed them, which allowed
me to justify ordering a fewgraphic novels. I started with positively reviewed and award-winning examples,
and once these began to circulate, I included a few more and selected the first two books of a few new
manga series to see how popular they would be. I also occasionally donate books in collection areas I
think we need. This way I get the books into the library without spending the library’s money.
Keep in mind that the goal of your collection is for it to be successful in supporting the needs and
requirements of the community as well as the library, not for it to fill every gap you find.
Interact with your collection
Keeping statistics allows me to see how well my collection is doing. This can be difficult to do with a large
collection, but I periodically check to see if graphic novels are being checked out, and this helps justify my
decision to purchase award-winners on occasion. Furthermore, we have a large selection of Shakespeare’
s works, so when graphic novel adaptations of his plays are published, I often buy them because they
complement what’s already in the collection. Sometimes you can base what you want to order on what’s
already in the collection. It’s important to have a balanced collection, so make sure your own agenda and
efforts to fill gaps you perceive in the collection don’t cause you to push things too far in the opposite
Get to know the community
No matter what kind of library you work in, learn about the patrons you’ll be serving. How do they feel about
the collection? An English professor on campus happens to share my love of graphic novels , which has
allowed me to increase spending in this area because he uses them in his classes. Networking with
members of the community can lead to discoverieslikethis. Furthermore, you may discover that the library’s
mission and policies don’t support the community as well as they once did, and it may be time for a
change. Create surveys and circulate them widely—online and on paper—and once you’ve gathered data,
you’ll know more about the people you’re purchasing for. When you get to know your community, you’ll be
able to figure out where your own interests fit in with theirs and use this information to drive your collecting.
Interact with the community
If your personal preferences don’t seem to mesh well with community members’, you might be able to
expand their interests. Offer displays, book reviews, and reader’s advisory services that touch on your
subject area and introduce the community to new things. Buy a few books in an area and see how patrons
react. This may lead to a new collection development area, or it may fall flat, but you’ll never know until you
try. However, make sure you offer a balanced view of information. When dealing with sensitive topics you’ll
stir up enough discussion and controversy just by offering the information; ideally you want to enlighten
your community, not bully them.
Honestly, it’s often difficult to remain completely neutral. It’s very important to be aware of your own
personal preferences and prejudices when ordering books to make sure that you’re really serving the
community and keeping their best interests at heart. The library collection isn’t for your personal use, but
as a colleague pointed out, librarians do have the ability to foster intelligent and open discussion on new
(or old) ideas.
For example, when it’s time for the Banned Books Display, I always put sexually explicit material out. It’s
part of my personal agenda, and this is the best time for me to be able to share it with other people. I’m
able to share my viewpoints and foster discussion.
Balance your work and personal life
Join a club, participate in online discussions, start an anonymous blog, start your own personal library, or
start a Twitter feed. Have a support group of friends or like-minded coworkers who share your point of view.
Study your topic and write papers and articles, but be aware because of the risks involved. You may not get
promoted for tenure if everyone on your tenure committee opposes your sensitive topics or personal
agendas. In a non-tenure situation you might discover a less friendly atmosphere or get passed over for a
promotion or pay raise. Make sure that you have an outlet for your personal agenda outside of the library.
It’s impossible for me to remain neutral, but each time I order a graphic novel or a sexually explicit text I
have to decide whether it’s justifiable in the curriculum I support. Each librarian leaves his or her mark on a
collection over a period of time, and it’s impossible not to have opinions and preferences—after all, as
librarians we’re asked to make judgment calls each time we order something. We need to be aware,
however, of who we are and why we’re ordering something. The important thing to do is to support the
community. After all, that’s one of the main reasons I became a librarian: to help people find the
information they want and need, even if it’s not what we want them to want.
About the Author
Michelle Martinez is an Assistant Professor and Reference Librarian at Sam Houston State University's
Newton Gresham Library in Texas. She researches in a variety of areas and has published or presented
on topics such as "'The Breakfast Club' as a Contemporary 'Lifeboat'” and "Visual Representations of