The Areas of My Expertise: Getting Your Feet Wet with Nonfiction*

Unless you work in a small library, the chances are good that more than one person selects the nonfiction. This is usually a good thing, because the collection benefits from the different perspectives that selectors bring to their work. It can be a problem when selectors pay less attention to one area than another (especially in terms of weeding and upkeep) or when the selector doesn't know much about the area they're responsible for, both in terms of subject matter and how that part of the collection is used by patrons.

Public librarians are supposed to be generalists, but ideally they would order books in subject areas that they were moderately familiar with. However, there are more subject areas than there are librarians, so inevitably there is going to be a situation where librarians are ordering books on topics in which they have zero personal investment. When I first started working at my library, my department head put me in charge of the 800-829 Dewey range (American and English literature), because I had a Master's degree in that field and theoretically knew something about it. Since it was two days after my graduation from library school, I wasn't so sure that made me qualified to order any books in any area EVER, but his faith in me was touching.

Unfortunately, layoffs have largely been responsible for my acquisition of additional nonfiction collection development areas. Even though staff is reduced, the library still has to spend a certain percentage of its budget buying materials, and someone has to select them. I'm currently responsible for the 840s (French lit); 930s and 940s (this mostly ends up being WWII books, but I sneak in the occasional volume on ancient Egypt or the Romanovs or life in medieval times); and the 400s (language), all of which I feel comfortable selecting as a former French speaker/history minor/person with a passion for language and grammar. However, the chances are good that someone in my position will be asked to take on additional collection development responsibilities in an unfamiliar area, whether it's due to layoffs or staff turnover or a change in job responsibilities.

I thought I would try to give some advice to someone approaching a new (to them) nonfiction collection area for the first time.** How does a selector get a handle on what should be ordered?

1. Browse that part of the collection. I recently took on the 790s because I like sports, but it wasn't until I browsed the collection that I realized that the books on movies and television shows and theater were shelved there as well. Double bonus for me! I suggest bringing a book truck along with you and pulling off some of the books that look the most "well-loved." When you get back from your walk-through, you'll check the circulation of what you've pulled and either be able to make a fairly easy weeding decision or have found a book with high circulation that should potentially be replaced.

2. Run a report. I am a big fan of statistics, and I run reports fairly regularly to find out what is circulating in my sections, what is missing and billed (which can be another indicator of popularity), when items were published, and so on. This also ends up being a great tool when it comes time to weed. Since nonfiction in my library is such a huge part of the collection, and it doesn't often see the light of day through displays, circulation stats are crucial when it comes to figuring out what my patrons are interested in reading.

3. Cruise through the "New" nonfiction. This is a great way to get an idea of what's been ordered recently (you can also see that through the stats, of course, but a visual can be very helpful) in your new section. If it's nothing but baseball books, well, maybe you want to work on developing the section in other directions.

4. Ask about the budget. How much money is allotted or how many books are generally ordered for this part of the collection each month? This will give you a general idea of how grand your plans for collection development can realistically be. Don't forget that you might want to spend a little bit of money to replace high-use items, once you determine what they are.

5. Talk to the person who was responsible for the area before you volunteered for it or it was thrust upon you (in the case of layoffs, this may not be feasible). Read the collection development plan for specific goals that might already exist. In my opinion, collection development in nonfiction is much more of a moving target than fiction, because there are fewer surefire bestsellers and there's really no way to tell when a book like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is going to strike a chord with the public. Therefore, having a plan based on the library's mission and hard statistics about usage, and actually executing that plan, is very important.

6. Check the relevant part of the Public Library Catalog. You may not have the budget or desire to fill out your collection with these "essential" titles, but finding them (or not) on your shelves will tell you a little bit about the shape of the collection as it has been formed over time.

7. Stay positive. There will be well-reviewed books that you order which seem to be exactly the kind of thing that your patrons should check out, but they will stay on the shelf like sad little mannequins whom no one will take home and dress in the latest fashions. As far as I can tell, this is normal. It may be a sign of changing tastes, or it may be a sign that patrons didn't know the book was there and never checked the catalog or that the reviewers thought it was going to be hot but it fizzled. Make a mental note and move on. 

I'm sure I've missed some useful advice, but this is generally how I go about familiarizing myself with a newly acquired collection development area. Some of these tips absolutely apply to selecting fiction as well. Please chime in with comments and advice, because I'm sure this would be helpful for first-time librarians and library students as well as those of us who find ourselves doing new jobs in uncertain economic times.

*If you caught that as a reference to John Hodgman's book The Areas of My Expertise, you might enjoy the Judge John Hodgman podcast.

**I am talking about books, because that's what I order, but I would love for someone to talk more about nonfiction in other media, especially in terms of ordering the same book across several formats.


Kelly said…
I work in a small library, so I am responsible for purchasing all of the adult books, nonfiction & fiction.

Before coming here, I was responsible for purchasing teen materials, so it was a big change when I moved to this branch.

Your suggestions are great and useful. I would add:

1) Look in the sorting area to determine what books are actually being used and checked out. It may not be your job, but actually shelve a little bit every day for a while to get a handle on the section.

2) Weed. Aside from seeing what is well loved and needs to be replaced, you can see what isn't getting heavy use and areas that need additional titles.

3) Don't be afraid to ask for advice. Other librarians can help, but your pages and other paraprofessionals probably have a good handle on what people like to check out.
Anna M. said…
Excellent post. I work at a school library and I am always having to learn about new areas in the collection that I am not an expert in at all.
It is great to read about some practical steps that I did not get in my classes or internships! Thanks!

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