News & Opinion

The Evolution of Library Collections

by on October 1, 2013

What is a library collection?  Many would answer books.  For several centuries in the United States and to a large extent today this would seem appropriate, however, I believe it is too limiting of a definition for a modern library.  The definition I would posit is the resources a library owns or leases to serve the needs and aspirations of its community.  If a community needs equitable access to print materials, then the book collection is still accurate, however, this definition also gives credence to lending DVDs, ebooks, CDs, and many materials that alter the traditional paradigm of a library collection.

A recent Pew Research Study shows that a number of innovative library services are being offered at libraries across the country and library collections are beginning to reflect this evolution.

Does your library have an astronomy section?  Does it include a circulating telescope?  Three Maine libraries have recently added them to their collection.[1]  Dependent on what type of telescope this can be a large capital investment.  Are there school, college or community groups you can pool resources with?  Do potential damage and theft concerns outweigh the value they may bring to your community?

Adding a music library as well as texts on music has been fairly common since cassette tapes, and thanks to Sony’s Freegal and similar offerings, even digital music on demand has become standard fare at many libraries.  Less common is a library that actually lends out musical instruments, but the Lopez Island Library in Washington is doing just that.[2]  As with the telescopes the costs and community desire must be considered before pursuing this, as well as the particular types of equipment desired.  A few banjos might cost less than an electric guitar or drum set, but may appeal to a very different demographic in your community.  Another consideration is what impact your free resources have on the business climate.  Will offering a few instruments have a negative impact on a local music store?  Are there ways to use library lending as a way to assist local businesses, and does this need to be a consideration for your library?

As disparate as many of these resources may seem and with definite potential for exclusively recreational usage, they are also knowledge resources.  Is this a significant distinction?  Some circulating items that might bring this concept into question are tools, cooking pans and fishing poles.  The Honeoye Public Library was recently featured on NPR for the eight fishing poles they lend out from the Department of Environmental Conservation. They also provide tackle boxes stocked with extra hooks and bobbers from the local fish and game club.  Furthermore, they advise borrowers to pick up tackle at the nearby gas station.[3]  Multiple parties collaborating and also enfranchising local businesses seems like a great success, but is the library where this should be taking place?  It is a worthwhile conversation to have with your community.

Everything listed above shares another quality: they are all inanimate, but if a library is for the community, can it not also be by the community?  Two programs that believe this should be answered in the affirmative are the dog lending library and the human library.  Formerly at Northern Onondaga Public Library[4] in New York and at Havard’s Medical Library[5] and Yale Law Library[6], it is possible to check out canine companions.  In the former instance they could acclimate children towards a potential future pet or listen as they work on reading skills (non-judgemental support), while in the latter they are a great means of stress relief.  In both instances the dogs are certified service animals.  Human libraries offer a wide variety of services.  Want to learn about what it means to be a plumber?[7]  What about coming in contact with people from different ethnic or religious traditions?  The Copenhagen Library in Denmark is working to discourage prejudices by allowing dialogs with people of different backgrounds.[8]  These initiatives have great potential, but will likely also face some challenges.  Would it be acceptable, for instance, to seek legal aid during one of these sessions?  Does the same confidentiality apply?  Would the lawyer feel that they were being misused in this instance and not take part?  Can this be a means of the individuals or firms marketing their services?  All of these questions and many more need to be carefully considered, but for many communities this can be a great mechanism for the library to be a social hub.

I am not advocating that every library needs to shift its collection development to novel resources.  In some communities the desire might be to have close to one hundred percent of the collection development budget to go towards books.  What I am advocating is that we do not allow perceptions of what the library is to minimize the positive impact we have on our communities.  This list of items only scratches the surface, but I hope it gets public librarians thinking about the possibilities.  Please share in the comments innovative additions to your collection or anecdotes about issues that have arisen with such new additions.



[1]   Zickuhr, Kathryn.  “Innovative Library Services in the Wild.”  Pew Internet and American Life Project.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/01/29/innovative-library-services-in-the-wild/

[2]   ibid

[3]   Blaire, Elizabeth.  “Beyond Books: Libraries Lend Fishing Poles, Pans and People.”  NPR: Keys to the Whole World: American Public Libraries.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://www.npr.org/2013/08/13/211697593/beyond-books-libraries-lend-fishing-poles-pans-and-people

[4]   “Dog Days at NOPL.”  NOPL Blog.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://www.nopl.org/category/blog/page/2/

[5]   “Cooper, the Countway Library Therapy Dog.”  Countway Library of Medicine.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  https://www.countway.harvard.edu/menuNavigation/aboutCountway/cooper.html

[6]   Williams, Timothy.  “For Law Students with Everything, Dog Therapy for Stress.”  The New York Times.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/education/22dog.html?_r=0

[7]   Blaire, Elizabeth.  “Beyond Books: Libraries Lend Fishing Poles, Pans and People.”  NPR: Keys to the Whole World: American Public Libraries.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://www.npr.org/2013/08/13/211697593/beyond-books-libraries-lend-fishing-poles-pans-and-people

[8]   Broder, Henryk.  “Copenhagen Living Library:Teaching Danes to not Judge a Book by its Cover.”  Spiegel Online International.  Accessed August 17, 2013.  http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/copenhagen-s-living-library-teaching-danes-to-not-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-a-646298.html


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