Collection evaluation: a book review

I just finished reading* Karen E. Kohn’s Collection evaluation in academic libraries: a practical guide for librarians. Apart from the fact that it’s an awkward A4 size, that doesn’t fit into bags easily and is hard to read in a comfy reclined position (what, who doesn’t read collection development monographs in bed?), I found it a much more useful read that I had expected.

Kohn discusses four different methods of collection evaluation: benchmarking, list-checking, usage statistics and citation analysis. For each method, she hkohnbookas a chapter outlining the “how” but then also a second chapter on interpreting the results. I found this is a very practical approach which suited me. There is also an opening section looking at the “why” of collection evaluation, as well as outlining the limitations of each method and a final section on communicating results, which was a pleasant surprise. Although there’s nothing earthshattering about the content, I really liked the pragmatic and realistic approach to this activity and welcomed having some context of what this all means in the real world too.

In my library, we’ve been looking at weeding (deaccessioning, withdrawing, whatever you like to call it) and at trying to make our collection development decisions as evidence-based as they can be. As Kohn acknowledges, this is an area that is often treated as something akin to The Force – you will eventually just develop a “feel” for collection building, you will “just know” what to buy and you will be able to control people’s minds with your words. Oh, maybe not that last one. I’ve worked in libraries for a long time, but this is the first time that I’m the person responsible for final decisions about purchases and weeding and I wanted to feel a bit more firmly grounded while I’m developing my Jedi skills. The methods we’ve employed so far are probably what I always would have done even without reading this book, but I do feel reassured knowing that there’s some method in the approaches we are adopting (if you’re interested, we’ve so far done a combination of usage statistics and list-checking). Although the book is really written with much larger academic libraries in mind (and with an obvious US bias), it has adapted well to our particular needs in a much smaller, college library collection.

I think the reason I was most pleasantly surprised by this book was the nuanced approach. There is an emphasis on the limitations as well as the benefits of each method, so for example in the discussion of usage there is an acknowledgement of what is problematic of treating usage as an indicator of intrinsic value. I was delighted to see that Kohn cites Chris Bourg on the idea of value and what academic libraries should be collecting (see for example this post on measuring value by Chris Bourg, but really you should just read everything Chris has written, if you haven’t already. Seriously). Kohn also mentions the important non-measurable aspects (the physical state of the books, whether the collection includes diverse opinions on controversial topics or reflects international perspectives, and so on). She actively encourages the reader to look at what you cannot measure and supplement numbers with “comments or reflections from your users” or by talking to faculty.

The book outlines a method for benchmarking using WorldCat which sounds very interesting, though I haven’t tried it myself, introduced me to the acronym MUSTIE for selecting books for weeding (developed for public libraries but a satisfying acronym). It covers electronic resources as well as print, but I was personally interested in the sections on print so have to admit I only skimmed through the sections on e-journals and ebooks. Having applied the usage statistics method, I really appreciated the table outlining what various statistics may actually be telling you about your collection, and it’s nuanced here too – there are limits to the conclusions you can draw from the data, bigger isn’t always better, higher borrowing statistics doesn’t always mean that you have all the best things.

I found this book a useful way to think about collection evaluation, both from the perspective of deciding which books we no longer need but also thinking about which areas of the collection need to be improved. I imagine a lot of this is fairly straightforward and those who are well-established Jedi librarians will find it all a little obvious but for me it was just what I needed. It has also helped me resist the temptation to ask everyone I know in libraries how they deal with these things (I seem to have an endless interest in finding out how people go about these things and hearing about their workflows but suspect people may be tiring of me asking lots of questions).

* We’re just not going to mention the fact that I haven’t blogged for years. Just insert a fast-forward montage of the last couple of years that end with me reading this book.

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