Is It About Us, or Is It About Them? Libraries and Collections in a Patron-Driven World

As budgets get tighter and prices keep rising, libraries are increasingly forced to think about ways to minimize waste in their collections. A sudden sharp interest in patron-driven acquisition solutions is one indicator of this concern, the idea being that when we let patrons select the books we buy, the less likely we are to buy books they don't want.

But this trend gives rise to deeply uncomfortable questions. What does "waste" actually mean in a library collection—especially in a research library? Can we ever know for certain that an uncirculated book won't be important at some point in the future? Won't patron-driven processes lead to a breakdown in the collection's coherence? And if we're just here to "give the people what they want," what meaningful function do librarians serve? Do we just become shipping-and-receiving clerks?

These are serious questions, and to answer them thoroughly would require more space than I have here. (I did offer answers to these and related ones in a posting earlier this year at the Scholarly Kitchen.) As we all wrestle with them in our own institutions, however, I think it's important to divide the questions into two broad categories: which ones address the needs of our patrons, and which ones reflect our insecurity about our own status and position as librarians?

Sometimes the line between the two concerns is fuzzy. For example, when we express concern about simply "giving the people what they want," is it because we're genuinely afraid that our patrons aren't always the best judges of which resources will serve their needs best, or is it because we sense a lessening appreciation for our hard-won expertise?

When we worry about a deterioration in the coherence of our collections, are we afraid that our collections will no longer serve our patrons' research needs, or are we afraid that our collections will no longer reflect well on our skill and insight as bibliographers?

Of course, it's very possible to be concerned about both sides of these issues. But I think it matters very much where our primary concerns lie. If we approach the future in an attitude of fear and reaction—doing whatever we can to preserve our own position and status, trying to avoid having to learn new skills (even radically different ones), clinging to a model of librarianship that is time-honored but may not provide well for the needs of present and future library users—we'll succeed only at moving further to the margins of our users' information experience.

Library collections exist for one purpose only: to connect users to the information they need. The more we lose sight of that fact, the more irrelevant our work will become to those we are meant to serve.