Rates of Participation by Faculty Book Selectors in a College Library

by Steven Sowards, Head of Reference, Michigan State University Libraries


Smaller academic libraries rely on suggestions from classroom faculty to enrich their selection of monographs. This practice taps into faculty knowledge of their disciplines, and helps a limited number of collection development librarians build sound collections that support all teaching departments. Maximizing the benefits of faculty involvement requires evaluation of their performance. Most previous studies have tried to analyze the circulation or relevance of their choices. The present study instead looks at the regularity of participation by faculty members. More than 5,000 book orders from 46 faculty members in five humanities departments at a liberal arts college were examined on a monthly basis during a three-year period. While nearly all faculty members took some part in book ordering, participation was uneven. Few faculty selectors were involved during every year. A minority of selectors was far more active than its colleagues, and was responsible for a majority of orders. Also, the number of orders submitted by individuals and by departments varied substantially from one month to another. These observations imply compensating steps by librarians. Collection development librarians can buy in less active areas, and use approval plans to promote balanced coverage. To deal with peaks and valleys in workflows, technical services units can build flexibility into assignments and acquisition budgets.


The development of high quality collections is a demanding task in smaller academic libraries, such as those that serve liberal arts colleges. When acquisitions budgets are limited, each selection decision is an important step toward providing titles that meet the current needs of teaching faculty or students involved in the curriculum. A small number of librarians must be assigned to coordinate book buying for a large number of departments: thus individual selectors frequently must evaluate new publications in disciplines for which they lack formal training.

To supplement the capabilities of librarians, most college libraries ask their classroom faculty to suggest titles for purchase. Faculty members bring expert knowledge of their fields of study to the job, and also know exactly what courses are being taught or considered. While acquisition funds remain under the library's control, and may be structured through a system of departmental allocations, input from members of the faculty is a key component in putting the best selection of monographs on the shelves.

Such a function is too important to be carried out without evaluation and efforts at improvement. One approach to such an evaluation seeks to measure the quality of the outcome: in other words, have faculty suggested the "right" titles for purchase? Such a determination involves complex issues including the balance between teaching and research in the college setting, and deciding whether visible evidence such as circulation figures indicates the relevance of a book collection to the library's mission.

A second approach looks instead at the quality of the process, by determining whether patterns of faculty participation in book buying fit the expectations and needs of library staff. While less ambitious in scope, this approach benefits from working with simpler evidence of faculty performance, such as numbers of book orders submitted.

The present study is an effort of this second kind: one that examines the quality of the process rather than the quality of the outcome. To determine the regularity of book selection, the Humanities Librarian assigned to several teaching departments at a liberal arts college kept track of all book orders submitted by faculty. Each order was associated with an initiating individual, and with a specific month during the three years of the study. The resulting figures demonstrate ways in which inconsistency enters the collection development procedure through faculty behavior. Knowledge of those inconsistencies suggests compensating practices by which college libraries can sustain sound collection building.

Literature review

Numerous studies have analyzed the role of faculty members as book selectors for academic libraries. That literature can be divided into studies of larger (university) and smaller (college) libraries. Differences in the mission, resources and book selection methods of research and undergraduate institutions translate into differing approaches to collection development as a joint faculty-librarian task.

Until the professionalization of American librarianship after 1876, faculty members managed academic libraries. In the late 1800s, professors increasingly delegated administrative and technical responsibilities to librarians. Faculty commitment to the selection and purchase of books has remained high, however, because faculty members rely on library materials to support their research and teaching. At the same time, librarians have relied on teaching faculty for assistance in identifying important publications. Librarians have been writing about the ensuing relationship for at least a century.

Those seeking an overview of studies, proposals and results can turn to a number of summaries, including those by Danton (1963) and Lane (1968). Fonfa (1998) has recently reviewed historical trends and major publications in this debate, tracing issues from the earliest years of American higher education up to the 1970s. According to Fonfa, the 1960s concluded "the shift from faculty to librarian control of selection of materials in university research libraries" (p. 22) where the use of subject bibliographers became the norm. Subsequent studies of book selection in university libraries have gauged the success of this model. Sellen (1985) surveys faculty attitudes. Vidor and Futas (1988) compare the circulation of titles selected by librarian subject specialists to that of books picked by faculty. Walden (1990) describes how librarians worked with a university German Department. Dittemore (1992) examines the shift from faculty to librarian selectors at one institution as a case study. Chu (1995 and 1997) has written several studies of the collaboration that underlies successful working relationships.

Despite its popularity in the university setting, the subject specialist model presents problems for smaller academic libraries, especially those serving undergraduate colleges. The staff at such libraries will not be numerous enough to provide a separate bibliographer for each major discipline. Because collection development librarians in colleges typically assume a liaison role with multiple departments, they often work in subject areas for which they lack background or formal credentials. College library collection development is also complicated by competing demands for limited resources. Selectors must balance support for the curriculum against support for the research needs of faculty members who may be involved in specialized projects without direct connections to courses taught on campus. Hardesty (1991) has summarized concisely the historical and contemporary aspects of this problem, which he believes has grown more acute due to the increasing demands for research and publication placed on college faculty members.

Because college libraries continue to rely on their faculty as collaborators in book selecting, there is an extensive literature regarding ways of measuring and/or improving the job done by professors, and the relevance of selected materials. Massman and Olson (1971) list factors that hinder the work of faculty book selectors, including lack of time, inexperience, and a narrow understanding of the mission of the college library. Miller and Rockwood (1979) emphasize the competition between the research needs of faculty and the instructional needs of students, and defend the rationale for student-centered collections. Dickinson (1981) reminds librarians that faculty expertise brings real strengths to the selecting process, but does not explore how subject knowledge has led to specific acquisitions. Two articles written in the mid-1980s summarize recent studies: Sandler (1984) reports that faculty members still select most of the books for American college libraries, while Gardner (1985) expresses the hope that increased inter-library cooperation could extend tightening budgets.

In the latter 1980s, several writers attempted to measure or compare the quality and suitability of works selected by classroom faculty on the one hand and by college librarians on the other. Millson-Matula (1985) examines the circulation of specific titles, finding that differences in the kind of books ordered by the two groups interfered with meaningful comparisons. Hardesty (1986) reports that teaching faculty lacked clearly defined criteria by which to assess the quality of collections in small libraries. Jones (1989) points out that librarians have been subject to the same kinds of problems that have marred the selecting practices of faculty. Hannaford (1990) sums up a number of these studies without being convinced that there were measurable defects in the quality of book selections handled by faculty. Ultimately, efforts in quantifying the "quality" of ordered materials have remained inconclusive.

An alternative thread in the literature of college library book selection has tried to avoid such elusive judgments, by instead examining strengths and weaknesses in the step-by-step process by which faculty input leads to book acquisitions. Ryland (1982) reframes the criticisms raised in 1971 by Massman and Olson by noting the absence of enough consistent, systematic structures to promote sound decision-making. He suggests greater reliance on book reviews and national bibliographies, and procedures to reduce the number of incomplete, illegible or inaccurate order forms that have interfered with efficient work by acquisitions units. Writing from a faculty member's perspective, Dukes (1983) endorses better orientation for faculty selectors in order that irregular attention, excessive use of "Rush" orders, incomplete forms, and neglect of basic procedures might interfere less often with the selection and acquisition process. Willmert (1984) and Worley (1988) endorse budget allocation formulas in order to balance the number of titles ordered by individual departments. Scudder and Scudder (1991) discuss how liaison librarians can ensure equitable use of such departmental funds.

Several recent studies of small academic libraries have relied on numerical tabulations of faculty participation. Arnold (1993) surveys the frequency and extent of faculty book selection. Forty-four percent of respondents in her study reported ordering five to ten books per month and identified themselves as "regular" participants in selection. This figure reached 71% among Liberal Arts faculty. Jenkins (1999) compares the number of titles requested by faculty in several departments from Choice review cards as opposed to those from other sources. Kuo (2000) measures the proportion of book orders received by the library from faculty in four subject areas. The researcher found that the largest share originated with faculty in the Liberal Arts, although not necessarily in proportion to their standing as the largest group of campus faculty (Kuo, 2000).


The present study extends our knowledge of faculty book ordering behavior by tracking the frequency and number of all book selections submitted by 46 faculty members in five humanities departments during a three-year period. These instructors involved in the study teach at a liberal arts college with a selective student body of 1,200 undergraduates. Library resources are substantial, with a book collection of 700,000 volumes. Faculty participation in book selection has been a long-standing practice, although librarians have controlled book funds and approved all orders. The college library has relied upon the expertise and perspectives of instructors in assembling an appropriate and up-to-date collection.

Rather than measure the quality, relevance or appeal of books ordered by faculty members, this study examines the regularity with which individual faculty members have carried out their function in the collection development system, and notes the impact of their habits on the selection and technical services duties of library staff. As each order card, initialed Choice card, annotated publisher's catalog, or book review crossed the desk of the Humanities Librarian, it was logged with a date under the name of a faculty member and his or her department. During the three years of the study, about three-quarters of monograph orders in the humanities were selected by faculty. The Humanities Librarian selected the remainder. Monograph selection has been particularly important for these humanities fields, where journal articles play a less important role than in the hard or social sciences. At the time of this study, there was no approval plan in place for the humanities area.

Five questions were used in order to assess actual levels of faculty collaboration with library staff in comparison to ideal practices:

  1. Do all faculty members take part, applying their knowledge to selection of the best works in their subject areas?
  2. Do individual faculty members take part each year, so that recent publications are identified promptly and thoroughly?
  3. Do all members of each department select similar numbers of titles during each year, in order to maintain balanced collection coverage of all major subdivisions within a given discipline?
  4. Are a similar number of titles charged to each department's account each year, so that actual expenses for department materials funds were close to projected figures?
  5. Are similar numbers of titles selected by the faculty from month to month, so that workflows and workloads in technical services areas remain regular and steady, avoiding slack periods or backlogs?

During each month of three consecutive academic years (beginning in July and ending in June) the Humanities Librarian noted the number of valid title selections submitted by each eligible faculty member. A selection was "valid" if the work was not already in the library collection, on order, or represented by a duplicate order. All faculty members and instructors were "eligible" to act as selectors. Individuals who were not employed by the college during all three years were excluded from the study. In practice this decision eliminated adjuncts and temporary faculty, who tended not to order books. Faculty members on leave remained eligible to order books (and some did so, even from overseas using email). Two other departments had to be dropped from the study because an assigned representative submitted all book orders, rendering specific suggestions anonymous. Forty-six faculty members in five departments met these conditions. Two of these departments included a dozen participating members; one had eight participants; and two had seven participants. During a three-year period, these individuals submitted 5,047 book orders.


Q1: Did all faculty members take part?

Most took part. As indicated in Table 1, not every eligible faculty member ordered books, but a high proportion of them did. Forty-one out of 46 faculty in these five humanities departments (almost 90 percent) submitted at least one title for selection during the three-year period. In three departments, everyone was at least minimally active. In each of the separate years studied, well over half of the humanities faculty were active as selectors.

Q2: Did individual faculty members take part during every year?

No more than half of the members of any one department, or of the humanities faculty as a whole, were able to be active in all three years (see Table 2). About three quarters of all the humanities instructors were active in at least two years out of three. About one out of ten faculty members were completely uninvolved in ordering books; all of these came from the two largest departments. In many cases, faculty members stopped participating temporarily for sound reasons such as sabbatical leaves or illness. From the point of view of the library, however, the impact was the same: faculty advice about important purchases stopped.

Q3: Did all members of each department select similar numbers of titles during each year?

Not all instructors were equally active. In all five departments, participation in book selection was extremely uneven when measured by the number of titles, and a few individuals dominated the process (see Table 3). On average, the two most active selectors in each department submitted more than 6 out of 10 orders; the most active four selectors in each department typically accounted for more than 8 out of 10 orders. Over time, such an imbalance in book orders obviously will lead to an imbalance in the library's collections, unless recognized and corrected.

Q4: Were a similar number of titles charged to each department's account each year?

Departments did not request equal numbers of titles every year. Faculty members could be on leave or otherwise inactive in any given year. Since some faculty members were more active as selectors than their peers, their absence had significant effects on the number of orders. As a result, the number of books selected by a given department could fall short of an average figure in one year, and then exceed the average in another year, as individuals left campus and returned. Table 4 indicates that extreme variations were common. The actual number of titles ordered by departments in a given year ranged between 56% and 156% of an average for the three-year period. In more than half of the cases, the actual title count was more than 20% above or below a three-year average.

Q5: Were similar numbers of titles selected by faculty from month to month?

Faculty book ordering varied substantially from month to month. A steady flow of book orders from selectors to the library is ideal for a variety of reasons. A regular flow makes it easier to notice unusual buying patterns, so that book funds can be shifted between accounts if necessary. Consistent ordering benefits technical services operations: if library staff have the same amount of work at all times, they can avoid backlogs on the one hand, and awkward periods with insufficient work on the other.

As indicated in Table 5, book orders arrived in the most active months at a rate more than five times the rate seen in the slowest months. Within individual departments, the variation between peaks and troughs was even more extreme. High-volume selectors sometimes worked in fits and starts: one individual submitted 115 out of 117 orders during a single month out of the 36 months that made up the period of study.


Many of the monthly variations charted in Table 5 resulted from competing demands on the time of faculty members, or were related to the academic calendar. Some active months coincided with preparations for upcoming semesters, as instructors "Rush" ordered books to place on Reserve. Very few orders arrived in August, a month in which the faculty traditionally took vacations. The period around Christmas, Hanukkah and the New Year, on the other hand, was an active period for book ordering, because many faculty members were submitting "Rush" orders for Reserve books for the coming Spring term.

Fortunately, variations across departments tended to cancel each other out so that workloads spread evenly across the year. Except for a drop during the summer months, the total number of titles requiring attention by Technical Services was consistent when viewed on a quarterly basis: 1,309 during October, November and December; 1,358 during January, February and March; 1,350 during April, May and June; and 1,030 during July, August and September, with vacation time in August accounting for the summer season decline.


In their book ordering practices, faculty book selectors deviate from ideal behavior in two ways that present problems for college librarians. First, disparities between very active and less active participants can lead to a lack of balance in the book collection, and the absence of important works in some areas. Second, irregularity in the level of faculty participation from one month to another can lead to workflow problems in technical services units.

The first problem - lack of sufficient coverage for certain subjects - can be addressed by collection development librarians assigned to coordinate book selection in departments or groups of departments. When faculty members representing certain areas of study are not taking part in book selection, librarians can work with notices of publication, book reviews, or retrospective tools such as Year's Work in English Studies to make sure that important publications are not overlooked. Approval plans can guarantee a basic level of acquisition automatically. Libraries can consider ordering most of the titles noted in Choice, in addition to circulating the Choice review cards to departments. Fund allocations, based on published formulas, provide a hedge against imbalances in spending between departments.

The second problem - lack of consistent spending by specific departments, either within a given year or from one year to the next - can be addressed through these measures and others. Approval plans and proactive book ordering by collection development librarians can produce a steady flow of orders and books into acquisitions, cataloging and processing. Book funds can be adjusted to reflect conditions. The dollar levels assigned to support departments need to be realistic and flexible, and based on averages that reflect a span of years. To meet unexpected high or low demand by any one department, someone in the library must have authority to shift money from one fund to another, or even from one group of disciplines (such as the humanities) to another. Making fund adjustments effectively will require timely awareness of expenditures and encumbrances, and regular communication between librarians assigned to collection development and those working with the acquisitions budget. Variation in the volume of orders to be processed can be managed if technical services units can assign work to available staff independent of the subject matter of the books needing attention. Anticipating occasional peaks and troughs in the workflow, staff also can be prepared to work on backlogs or special projects that have flexible deadlines.

It is unlikely that smaller academic libraries can do without the book selection advice of faculty members, and it is unlikely that faculty members will perform this function in ways and at times that perfectly suit the needs of libraries. However, by expecting the unexpected and adopting compensating strategies, librarians can minimize problems and derive the greatest possible benefit from faculty participation in collection development.


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Published in MLA Forum, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2002) ... an open access online journal of the Michigan Library Association, ISSN 1539-4123

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