Collection Development for the Sciences in an Academic Setting

by Moya K. Mason


The trend toward specialization in certain disciplines is intrinsically related to the technological advancement of knowledge (Osburn 1981,10). What Vannevar Bush described as a 'mountain of research,' "has grown into a chain of mountains with ever increasing academic specialization" (Gilbert 1995). As Colin Campbell points out in The Future of Scholarly Communication, there is a real need in research libraries to be selective at all times, not just when financial concerns force it (Campbell 1990,81).

Collection development is an ongoing and continuous process, which includes setting collection development goals for various areas of the collection, as well as assessing, planning, and implementing. The collection development policy must also be written, updated, and regularly reviewed in order to assure that its provisions continue to reflect the current requirements of the academic program, the state of the collections, and the allocation of resources. There needs to be a concise collection development policy in place to avoid the necessity of buying everything just in case someone, somewhere, sometime might want it. That mentality is no longer fiscally responsible, nor is it good for a university library to appear as if it collects everything because it has no conception of what it should be acquiring. Every library needs a well-defined mission statement.

As a newly appointed collections librarian in the area of the sciences, the first thing that will be required is a thorough knowledge of the collection: what subject areas are collected, the extent of the monograph collection, and a complete review of the serials and whether the titles are still relevant to the mandate of the library. Once the librarian is aware of what is available, the hard work begins: an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the collection. This paper will look at evaluation procedures for collection management, and identify sources and strategies for developing academic science collections, including mass selection programs.

Evaluation Strategies

Since a large part of collection development is making sure that selections continue to be valid and reflect the collection development policy, librarians must evaluate the chosen materials on an ongoing basis. As William Katz points out in his seminal work, Collection Development, "the purpose of collection analysis and evaluation, among other things, is to determine the quality of the collection" (Katz 1980,84). Evaluation of library materials involves two steps. First, establishing what the collection is like in terms of size, currency, and quality; and secondly, deciding how well it serves its user groups (Katz 1980,85). Its goal is to ascertain how good the collection is and then determine how it can be improved (Gorman 1989,119). There are many ways librarians do that, and most, if closely connected to the collection, are well aware of where the gaps are and which books and journals should be weeded or replaced.

A series of methods can be used for evaluating collections, including the compilation of holding and use statistics, such as circulation studies; the checking of subject bibliographies, online catalogues, and lists to verify resource adequacy; citation analysis; document delivery statistics; user surveys; examination of the collection by a knowledgeable subject specialist; expert evaluation; and particularly good for the evaluation of periodical use are in-house use studies, to provide information on materials which generally remain in the library (Gorman 1989,147-155; Katz 1980,84-87). However, librarians cannot use all simultaneously. Circulation studies, document delivery statistics, faculty involvement, and the use of specialized bibliographies, university OPACs, and check lists are a good combination. In-house use studies work well with other methods for evaluating science serials.

Although the sciences rely heavily on journals for the transmission of information, an academic library supports the courses taught to undergraduate students who depend heavily on the monograph collection, including key text books. As a result, circulation studies are a good indicator of use when used in conjunction with the statistics on reserve materials. Interlibrary loan statistics are also one of the best ways to evaluate a collection because they allow the collections librarian to find out which books faculty and students must access outside the library. If certain titles appear repeatedly, librarians will often buy them to cut down on loan fees and inconvenience to patrons. Finally, checking the collection against other university catalogues offering similar courses, and using subject bibliographies, can be very helpful when evaluating a collection. What about taking advantage of faculty input to evaluate library holdings?

Since cut backs and layoffs have seen many subject specialist librarians replaced with book jobber library profiles, librarians should be encouraged to work with faculty members, who are specialists in the courses being taught. Professors do order some of the library collection to support their teaching needs and usually stay current when it comes to information available in their subject areas. They usually have their fingertips on the latest literature and are always interested in making suggestions. What better source can collections librarians utilize for evaluation? Faculty members can also pinpoint gaps in a collection. Cooperation between faculty and librarians is a very important component and any barriers should be broken down for the common good. Librarians must stay aware of needs and maintain adequate quantities of research- level collections, always keeping in mind that library resources are to support faculty research and teaching. Academic librarians working in collection development should take advantage of faculty expertise in making decisions on what to keep, what to weed, and what to buy.

Sources for Developing Academic Science Collections: Catalogues and Bibliographies

Once librarians uncover the strengths and weaknesses of a collection, and have done the appropriate weeding, they can concentrate on building an exemplary collection of materials. This can be done in a variety of ways and librarians will often use many different tools to collect materials. For instance, collection development librarians use the catalogues of other libraries as "stock selection tools" (Gorman 1989,252). Library catalogues are simply bibliographies that represent the choices made by a group of people building a library collection. As a collection tool, they can give insight into what is considered important in a particular subject area, and what is not, by its exclusion. Catalogues also provide some standard information on authors, publishers, ISBNs, and possibly prices that may help collection librarians with selection and acquisition. They are particularly useful if retrospective collecting is taking place, since they alert librarians to the existence of titles (Reed-Scott 1991,307). Overall, these inventory lists are only appropriate as alerting tools, and must be used with other selection tools, such as subject bibliographies and reviews, to learn the value of the items (Gardener 1981,109-111).

Librarians can also use subject bibliographies, which are lists of materials that relate to a particular discipline or subject scope. They are often attempts to select "the most worthwhile books on a particular subject" (Gardener 1981,153). Subject bibliographies are a good place to start when collecting in a specific area because they provide a valuable overview of a discipline. These tools are especially important when building retrospectively because they allow the librarian to see what has historically been considered worthwhile in a field. However, subject bibliographies also have inherent problems that fundamentally reduce their usefulness in certain fields of study - fields that need timely cutting edge materials, such as many areas in the sciences.

Subject bibliographies are out of date the day they are published. They sometimes contain books that currently have little value, having been replaced by newer and better titles (Gardener 1981,156). For instance, it is easy to see how textbooks on genetic engineering are quickly superseded. Another difficulty is the subjectivity of the author who compiles such a list. As G. Edward Evans writes, "personal opinions vary, and these are either one person's opinion or a composite of many opinions about the value of a particular monograph" (Evans 1987,128). Finally, finding some materials listed in subject bibliographies can be very time-consuming and sometimes impossible, if an item is no longer published (Gardener 1981,156). Nonetheless, a librarian can probably find many items that have enjoyed continued success. Checking Bowker's Books in Print, a trade bibliography, is a good place to start looking for newer editions.

Trade bibliographies are alerting devices that make no statement on the value of the works cited (Katz 1980,252-254). Their main purpose is to list titles that are currently available from a series of publishers, within a geographic area. For example, Whitaker's Books in Print concentrates on materials published in Great Britain, while Canadian Books in Print will contain everything that is currently available from Canadian publishing houses. They give basic purchasing data, with "information gathered from the publishers, such as complete titles, correct spelling of authors' names, ISBNs, years of publication, and prices (Katz 1980,124). They are handy tools if a library is trying to expand a particular subject area of their collection. Supplements such as Bowker's Subject Guide to Books in Print, which uses Library of Congress Subject Headings, can be valuable, although as Katz stresses, these resources are only alerting tools and should be used with reviews and subject bibliographies (Katz 1992,100).

In areas such as science, retrospective collecting will always play a role in the collection development process, but being aware of what is new is very important, particularly when you consider Derek de Solla Price's research. He reports that since the early 1700s the number of scholars in scientific disciplines has doubled every fifteen years (Bennion 1994,25). This means that there is new material being published every day which librarians must be aware of. They use publishers catalogues to find new titles to add to a collection (Chapman 1989,24-25). Librarians will scan the catalogues for particular authors and will select on that basis alone, since waiting for reviews is often impossible (Katz 1980,148). The reputation of a publisher, coupled with a book that has multiple editions, is another way librarians choose monographs (Spiller 1974,126). The great value of publishers catalogues lies in the fact that they let librarians know a particular book has been published, and offer a way to collect current materials.

It is also a good idea for science collection librarians to read journals such as New Scientist, which lists the top ten science books; Science Books and Films; Choice, which has reviews for university level materials; Library Journal; and Katz's Magazines for Libraries. These sources are invaluable as alerting devices for current and upcoming materials, and are also a good way to keep apprised of new areas of interest in the sciences.

Strategies for Developing Academic Science Collections: Blanket Orders, Approval Plans, and Standing Orders

Librarians can save time and streamline the collections process by using purchase plans, such as blanket orders, standing orders, and approval plans. Since some publishers do not deal with jobbers, or because some jobbers will not bother with smaller presses, librarians must order directly from the publisher (Katz 1980,160). In such cases, they may decide to use a blanket order, especially if it is a specialist publisher from which the librarian orders most everything they produce (Chapman 1989,99). There is no profile needed for this arrangement; all the publisher needs to know is the subject area and price range. In return, there is an automatic discount for each title (Katz 1980,165). If the press is quite small, or with an association that publishes, such as the ALA, these orders are called standing orders (Katz 1980,166).

Approval plans require librarians to develop a profile of their institution, detailing which subject areas they are interested in, the language of materials, preferred publishers, and price range (Katz 1980,164). This profile is given to a book jobber, who then matches materials with the library's criteria, allowing unwanted items to be returned, if they are considered outside the library's profile (Gorman 1989,193). Approval plans can be helpful to collections librarians, as long as they are not used for the entire budget; this would mean that there is no real connection between the staff and the materials coming into the library. Besides wiping out important local flavours that were always evident when collection development was done in-house, outsourcing, "severs the tie between the collection and the librarian . . . and has the potential to create cookie-cutter collections" (Oder 1997,30).


Collection management includes both the development and evaluation of library collections. The science collection development librarian must have a solid and ongoing understanding of important new texts and journals, along with being aware of important standards. By using an extensive array of evaluation strategies, sources, and selection strategies for developing academic science collections, and by keeping communication lines open between them and expert faculty members, librarians will continue to build notable and useful collections.

Related Papers

Document Delivery: Panacea for the Crisis in Science Serials?
Academic Research, Scholarly Publishing, and the Serials Crisis
Library Catalogues and Collection Development
Grey Literature: History, Definition, Acquisition, and Cataloguing
National Bibliographies and Collection Development
Publishers Catalogues and Collection Development
Subject Bibliographies and Collection Development
Trade Bibliographies and Collection Development


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Chapman, Liz. 1989. Buying Books for Libraries. London: Library Association/Bingley.

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Osborn, Charles B. 1981. Marketing the collection development aspects of serials control. Pp.9-17 in Sul H. Lee (ed.) Serials Collection Development: Choices and Strategies. Ann Arbor, MI.: The Pierian Press.

Reed-Scott, Jutta. 1991. Typology of Selection Sources. Pp. 301-312 in Charles B. Osburn and Ross Atkinson (eds.) Collection Management: A New Treatise. London: JAI Press.

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