Genrefication and avoiding ‘bias’ in collection development – is it possible to represent all interests?

This is me musing after the discussion today on the SLANZA listserv and following on from last weeks thought provoking thread there, about the reading (or non-reading) habits of teenagers.

Our Library collections have been lovingly built up by many librarians over many years, but declining issues in the fiction collection in the upper part of the school library and changes to the visiting and borrowing habits of classes demands a different strategy. Any changes we make in our libraries have to be with future readers in mind, not just those we have now. Similarly, philosophical changes aren’t a one size fits all fix. Genrefication is not the answer for every Library.

Collection development feels like an art as well as a science but so is how we organise our collection, especially if it is large and well established – I sometimes wonder if it would be easier when starting a new library collection from scratch?
So how does one achieve real balance in a collection? Is the answer to get more student input into book choices…but how do we do this when many senior students don’t even set foot in the library unless it is for a curriculum specific lesson or to study? How formulaic and specific can ones budget allocation/collection planning documents be, so that we force ourselves to be committed to a more diverse and ‘even’ book buying strategy across all genres (whether separated out or merged)?

It’s easy to underestimate how much prior understanding we librarian ‘experts’ have about books when we are browsing or looking at our shelves. We are familiar with both our own collections and the authors and series within them and it is like having secret knowledge e.g. we recognise that a specific author writes a specific kind of book (usually), but if the spine is unappealing or hasn’t been designed well and doesn’t indicate what’s inside, it’s not going to stand out to a student in an A-Z sequence as matching his or her favourite genre or style of book.

I’m trying to see our collection through a student’s eyes. Most of our readers come in and do not want to consult the library catalogue before choosing – ‘discovery’ and quality metadata are really valuable but of little use if not consulted properly. Displays only go part of the way too, as not all readers are coming up often or regularly enough to see them all – it’s serendipitous if they stumble across THE book in a display of genres or theme…this is despite promotions, emails, and toilet door marketing etc!

I’ve selected and purchased for our collections in the past by trying to provide more of the material that is in demand and I believe this is what the Librarians before me have done too. Girls have been the biggest and most avid group of readers in this part of the library hence the natural inclination and possible bias in purchasing more books for them. Girls do doubly well as many of them are also reading the books that boys would think are theirs alone e.g. Cherub, or Andy McNabb, whereas most boys at our school won’t read books they perceive are too feminine.

‘Bias’ – makes it sound as if I am saying our librarians have knowingly tried to reflect their own reading interests and preferences – this isn’t what I mean…but I’ve been thinking about how we can be unknowingly biased by tending to buy more books that match the needs of the biggest group of users especially when budgets are constrained (oiling the squeakiest wheel).

Does this have a self perpetuating biased effect on our collections? e.g. if in a co-ed library we buy more for the avid reading girls and subtly less for the boys (who in many ways are often ‘potential’ rather than ‘actual’ readers), and then build up a collection that over time appears to reflect the reading interests of that larger group…. you do end up with boys expressing the view that there isn’t as much for them to read that they can find easily (but just as problematic for girls who don’t want Cathy Hopkins, or Meg Cabot but prefer Annabel Pitcher and John Green or for kids with other specialised reading interests too).

Pulling out our ‘chicklit’ into it’s own genre did two things immediately – firstly, made all those books really easy to find for the girls who love a heady dose of BFFs, crushes and intoxicating romance (and 99% of our boys wouldn’t touch these books in a million years)… It also instantly made it look like there was far more on offer for our boys and the rest of our girl readers when so many ‘hidden gems’ came to light simply from having the distracting books around them taken away. Bear in mind that when I pulled out realistic and contemporary fiction from the main sequence – there were so many ‘oriented toward girl only readers’ aka chick-lit – that they skewed the appearance of the whole realistic/contemporary genre – it was literally a wall of spines in varying shades of pink – making it very difficult for boys to feel confident browsing in that area (the same thing had happened when we genrefied our Junior collection so I shouldn’t have been surprised by this). Separating these out made the realistic books seem more even and gender neutral.

When a collection is genrefied it is possible to target specific genres with a selection strategy or goal if you feel it is under represented (a goal for next year for instance for us, might be finding more series that fit with Cherub and other high octane authors). Similarly if you get the genre ‘wrong’ for a single title or series and wish you had put it somewhere else it is really easy to reallocate it to another one, giving that book a new chance of discovery.

The worst that can happen if genrefication should prove a failure is that if we go back to A-Z or a hybrid of the two philosophies, or look at something completely different based on feedback from students and teachers. I don’t think it will – I am filling more empty acrylic face out stands in the genrefied sections than in the general A-Z sequence and the genrefied sections look attractive, vibrant and appealing (backed up by anec-data from students and teachers – I’m trying to not look at and overanalyse the issue stats too soon).

I’ll add some pictures in the morning 🙂

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