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The Complex Role of Demand-Driven Acquisition in Public Libraries: A Survey
by
Posted On October 11, 2022
Librarians fight many battles, but one constant is that of a growing mountain of material to acquire on a budget that can never keep up. There are multiple acquisition models, learned both in master’s programs and through everyday experience. One that has been debated for more than a decade is demand-driven acquisition (DDA), also known as patron-driven acquisition (PDA). DDA can be controversial because some librarians see it as devaluing their professional training and judgment, while others see it as a natural fit in the public library, where taxpayer dollars fund purchases.

As a librarian in a rural public library, patron needs and desires are always on my mind when purchasing my next cartful of items. In an effort to find out whether others also feel this way, I created a survey for library workers whose responsibilities encompass purchasing materials of various formats for adults. I inquired about the factors they base their purchasing decisions on, whether those factors and decisions have changed over the past 3–5 years, how heavily they rely on patron requests and feedback to drive purchasing decisions, how important celebrity book clubs are for collection development, and what role they believe patrons should play in determining the shape and contents of a public library collection.

SURVEY QUESTIONS

Over the course of 1 week, 24 library workers from mostly rural and small libraries responded to my survey. The majority of respondents were from Pennsylvania, since that is where I work and had the most access to survey distribution, but other states were represented via those who took the survey from the librarian Facebook group where it was posted.

Immediately upon looking at the results, themes around acquisition models began to emerge. In asking participants to list five factors they use when making purchasing decisions, the factor mentioned most frequently was that of patron requests, recommendations, or demand. Other top factors (see Figure 1 for a word cloud representation) included whether the item was on the bestseller list, its price, and whether it had garnered positive reviews from reputable sources.

Figure 1, a word cloud representation of common purchasing factors, with the most common being patron requests and reviews

This question was followed up with one that asked whether their purchasing decisions had changed at all over the past 3–5 years, and if so, why that might be. Twenty-one of the respondents said yes, their decisions changed recently, and many pointed to a changing culture around media consumption as their biggest reason why.

Multiple library workers described how they are purchasing fewer DVDs, music CDs, and CD-based audiobooks because of the growing ubiquity of streaming services and the decrease in patrons having the correct technology at home to play physical media. Others mentioned an increase in spending on electronic resources and a growing comfort with relying on digital collections to fill gaps in the physical collection. Additionally, expanding the library collection’s diversity and representation, purchasing more patron requests than years past, and digging through circulation statistics and data to influence decision making were all mentioned as new or growing factors.

Since I was anticipating multiple people answering yes to that question, I also asked the respondents to estimate what percentage of their monthly purchases stemmed from patron requests versus staff choices. Results varied widely, anywhere from less than 1% all the way up to 75% of monthly purchases being initiated by patrons (see Figure 2 for the bar chart on these results).

Figure 2, a bar chart of survey results on percent of monthly purchases due to DDA, with the highest at 10%

Since patrons are seemingly driving acquisitions more actively than ever before, I also wanted to know whether librarians were keeping up with reading’s position in popular culture, such as through celebrity and television-based book clubs. The responses were almost split in half whether they paid attention to the monthly picks from celebrity book clubs, but when asked about which book clubs were most requested and represented in the library, the favorite was clear: Eighteen participants indicated that the most popular celebrity book club choices at their library were from Reese Witherspoon’s Reese’s Book Club. A distant second was the Read With Jenna Book Club by Jenna Bush Hager from NBC’s TODAY show, and in third place was the woman synonymous with the celebrity book club—Oprah. Although celebrity book clubs and pop culture reading were very low on the list of purchasing factors, they still have a place in public library collections when moved by patron demand.

PATRON INVOLVEMENT

All of this data begs the question of how powerful patron desires should be in the library setting. There is no easy or correct answer, since every institution and community is different. S.R. Ranganathan’s first law of library science states that books are for use. If patrons are driving acquisitions, they are certainly going to be used (at least once). His other laws of library science also fit neatly into the DDA discussion because every reader has their book, every book has their reader, libraries should save the reader’s time, and the library is a growing organism. Breaking free from the chokehold of traditionalism is difficult for many libraries in trying to adopt DDA as part of their toolkit. However, librarians shouldn’t be solely relying on DDA to do their jobs for them either. Patrons must be allowed to explore the unfamiliar (as academic librarian Jane Schmidt puts it in her article on DDA)—and if they are making all of the purchasing decisions, they can never do so.

While DDA can empower users, it can also call into question the quality of a library’s collection. What metric is the best determinant of a collection’s quality? It depends on whom the library believes it is to serve. Is the library suited to fill current needs only? What about the needs of future or potential patrons? Have a small number of regulars been able to shape the library collection into a personal bookshelf? Or is use so low that patrons cannot find anything inside to pique their curiosity?

As David McMenemy explains in his article on celebrity book clubs and public libraries, selection is one of the most controversial acts of librarianship. Determining whether an item is worthy, popular, or both—all on a limited budget—can be a stressful task that is increasingly under the public microscope. When integrating DDA into the librarianship toolkit, library workers must ask themselves what role they want their patrons to have in shaping and determining the contents of the library’s collection.

I asked the survey respondents this very question and found the answers enlightening. “Patrons should be providing the destinations,” wrote one survey respondent, “but the librarians should steer the ship.” They went on to explain how librarians should act as a “bridge” to new materials patrons have never before considered. Another talked about how a “well-rounded collection is useless if no one reads the items and checks them out.” To repurpose an old adage, is a library still a library if no one is there to hear the barcode scanner beep?

REFLECTING THE COMMUNITY

Many respondents mentioned how patrons need to be an important, even crucial, part of the collection development process. For many libraries, tax money funds purchases, and thus librarians feel as if they are held responsible to the community members for the decisions they make. A great way of framing this argument is through “people-focused librarianship,” as one respondent called it. Libraries should have items that appeal to everyone while also reflecting the community in which they operate.

Most of those surveyed agreed that reflection of the community in the collection should not be one note. A diverse collection, even on a limited budget, should be a goal librarians strive to meet. “Patrons should take an active role in determining the contents of a public library’s collection,” said one of the surveyed librarians, “However … I also believe it is incumbent upon the library staff [to] add new and previously unheard voices to the collection, including those that patrons may not be aware of.” Additionally, while library workers almost unanimously agreed that patrons should have a say in what is added to the collection, there was just as much adamancy that patrons should not have a say in what is removed. They have the right to object, have their voices heard, and be offended by materials in the library collection, but the right of removal should always remain with the trained library staff.

Since the first library opened its doors to the public, library workers have wrestled with the notion of choice. Is a trained library worker selecting a book based on a matrix of merit being paternalistic? Is allowing a high percentage of acquisitions to come from patron demand leaning too far into populism? Libraries are to be used by the public who financially supports them, but do they have a higher calling to the retention and availability of knowledge? Or is the risk too high that if we don’t deliver what the public wants, they will simply look elsewhere, and then library utility will plummet? These are questions that all of those who employ DDA as part of their collection development procedures must ponder. The library is a growing organism, and we must grow with it.

Note: Special thanks to all of the survey respondents who helped shape the content and findings of this article. Your time and insight are greatly appreciated!


Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa., and the co-CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Her writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library Journal; The Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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