Collection Development in a Digital Age

One of my current obsessions is the changing nature of our relationship to information. I keep coming back to this topic. We’re currently witnessing the greatest change in how we use and value information since the advent of printing – and maybe even since the invention of writing.

(Yes, I’m being overly dramatic about it but I actually do believe this.)

I’m curious to see how collection development for libraries evolves in the Digital Information Age. Not just in terms of format and access changes, but more essentially – how will the Digital Information Age affect the techniques we use to determine what our patrons need in the first place?

In the world before WiFi and smart devices, if someone had a question, finding the answer required special effort. You needed to remember the question, first of all, and then go out of your way to access resources to look it up – either pulling a book off your shelf at home, or making a trip to the library, or asking your buddies at the bar. As a result, people prioritized their information needs. Some things weren’t worth making the effort to find out; some questions weren’t even worth remembering.

The essential job of any library is to try and fulfill the unique information needs of the community it serves. In the days before ubiquitous wireless access, the information needs of a community were largely implicit in their information-seeking behavior. If people went through the effort to look for something, it was a pretty safe bet that what they sought was important to them.

Now, though, we can find the answer to pretty much any question that pops into our heads, from pretty much anywhere. Just pull out your smart phone and ask Google. No longer is there any need for us to try and remember the question. No longer is there any need for us to make a special effort to seek the answer.

No longer is there any need for us to prioritize our information-seeking.

This means that we can no longer assume that the information-seeking behavior of a community necessarily provides an accurate picture of that community’s information needs. When all information – whether truly important or utterly casual – can be sought with relative ease, the act of looking for information has little implicit significance any more.

This is not to say that some needs aren’t still obvious in a community’s information-seeking behavior – for example, if there’s a high demand for job searching resources. But the enabling of impulsive information-seeking on a large scale, and a more casual relationship to information overall, does create a real challenge for librarians who need to separate what’s truly important from the merely whimsical.

[Editor’s Note: The preceding statement is not intended to devalue whimsy!]

This change in how we value and relate to information has already begun to make its impact felt on collection development. I think that part of the challenge we face in trying to envision the library of tomorrow is that we’ve lost much of the clarity that we used to have on what our users need (as opposed to what they want) – there’s too much noise in their information-seeking behavior now to see it clearly so we’re not quite as sure where they’re trying to go.

I’m eager to see how we adapt as we move forward!

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