Confessions of a Collection Development Pantser

In writing, there is often a distinction made between “plotters” and “pantsers” : folks who plan, vs. folks who see what happens next and then choose.

Hi, my name is Lynne and I’m a Collection Development Pantser, especially when purchasing.

After a twitter conversation with Melissa Hubbard about collection development and feeling adrift, I thought it might be useful to write down some of my thought processes about how I select for RBSC. I did not have formal collection development training. Never took a CD class in library school. I saw bosses do it as a paraprofessional and a student worker. “Please search the circled items in this dealer catalog against our library catalog” led to seeing what was bought when I typed up tags. Bosses would answer questions if I asked them, but no one ever sat me down and said “this is how you do it” and the bulk of that experience was before Internet Shopping was possible.

So, here are some observations about how I handle collection development.

Keep in mind: RULE 1 is to ALWAYS STAY WITHIN DESIGNATED BUDGET. No overspending. EVER.

  • I have been here since 2004. I did not come in an expert in all of the areas that I cover. I still have bouts of impostor syndrome where I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.
  • I figure if I can answer the questions that might come out of trying to “catch me out” when purchasing, that’s probably okay.
    • Can I use this when teaching one of our repeat visitor courses that come to RBSC?
    • Does this work in the context of 2 or more collections?
    • Can I easily explain why I bought this thing in 2 sentences or less to a non-expert?
  • My typical budget is really modest by Rare Books terms. (More so this year with the lack of a state budget in Illinois; it disappeared completely about 2 months into our typical spending period.) I could literally spend the whole budget on a rather imperfect incunable, and that’s in the good budget years.
  • I rotate which collections I develop each fiscal year because there isn’t enough money to go around to buy something for every collection. So, one year will be Popular Literature and another will be Artist’s Books or African Americana. This is me trying to be “fair” and not ignore collections.
  • There are a couple of collections I actively ignore. I updated the Collection Development Policy for the department to let me ignore them because they are either a) under-documented and don’t even meet our rather loose definition of “rare” or “special.” or b) too expensive to continue developing to any level of usefulness.
  • I  keep a list of “wants” that I often end up ignoring. It’s most useful when filling in “high spots” or expensive things, and least useful for filling out the more mundane/cheaper materials.
  • I almost exclusively shop online rather than through catalogs because it’s easier for our particular procurement process.
  • When I am looking for more expensive stuff (say for a specific endowment), I usually BEGIN with the budget amount and figure it out from there within the subject.
  • When/if I read a catalog, it’s often when I need to buy for a subject area I know less about. I typically will follow up with online searching once I’ve gotten to the “known item to add to collection” stage.
  • I will typically purchase items that are in Good-Very Good condition rather than fine because they are cheaper for not being “collector ready” (e.g. they have previous owner signatures from mere mortals not famous people) but are just dandy for teaching purposes.
  • I rely on dealer expertise to help me figure out what to buy. I have built relationships with a group of dealers who are now vendors in our state system. I will literally say things like “I need an example of a 16th century herball” or “I need to add underground comix” and see what they propose.

If this random collection of “how I do it” helps you to feel better about how you do it, then I feel better about being a pantser.


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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