The Art and Science of Collection Development

Collection development is a science and an art that certified school librarians are specifically trained for. In addition to the preparation provided during graduate courses, school librarians continue to learn about collection development via conference sessions, webinars, journal articles, professional connections, and more.

School library collections are carefully curated and thoughtfully inclusive in content and perspectives to support the curricular and developmental needs and interests of students with the goal of inspiring lifelong learners and readers. It is not a responsibility that school librarians take lightly. We are highly invested in curating quality collections that speak to our students and connect them to the world around them.

Book selection can take weeks or even months to curate a list of high-quality books that represent a wide range of authors, genres, topics, views, and experiences that also meet students’ needs and interests. Making decisions about what to purchase requires time for thoughtful deliberation that many school librarians are not able to do during the school day due to busy schedules leaving collection development to happen during off-duty hours. This is especially true for those who manage collections for multiple buildings.

No matter how a book order comes together, most school librarians begin the same way. First, know your budget and consider possibilities for additional funding if needed. Then, determine which vendors you can, and want, to use. Also, check to see if your school/district has a selection policy in place that you need to follow. If not, you can learn more about selection, deselection, and reconsideration policies here.

Once you have determined these critical items, there are a few steps you can take to determine which books to purchase that both meet the unique needs of your student body as well as fit within your school library’s budget.

  • Know your student body’s demographics and learner needs. Make sure you have books that not only allow your students to see themselves but that also reflect the experiences of others . Determine the range of reading levels represented in your school, languages spoken, and any sensory needs students might have.
  • Explore the required curriculum, especially for core classes. Are there any specific assignments or standards that might benefit from additional print or digital books to supplement the current course offerings? Maybe a textbook is out of date or does not cover a required standard in depth. Talk with your classroom teachers to enlist their input to help decide what will be used before you purchase it.
  • Conduct an audit of your current collection. While you cannot update every section at once, you can make a plan to update specific sections each year. Audits can help you decide what to prioritize and can include any of the following:
    1. Examine the age of the collection. Some vendors can run a check and break down the average age by Dewey range or genre.
    2. Determine the diversity of representation. Again, some vendors provide this service and assess the diversity of sections of your collection based on tags they have assigned to titles. You can learn more about how to conduct your own diversity audit here. Something else to consider is running a diversity audit of the books on your book order before you submit it.
    3. Check for missing items from sets or series. Are there any popular series that have holes in them? Maybe a series isn’t being checked out because book one is lost. Or maybe you need the latest in the series. If possible, run a lost or missing books list from your catalog system to help locate holes in series as well as other books that may need reordered.
    4. Pay attention to what your students are asking for that you aren’t able to currently provide. For example, over the past two years, I have had a noticeable number of students looking for books about cars and true crime. I looked to see what we had available, and our offerings were minimal or lackluster, so I knew I wanted to focus some of my purchases on those areas.
    5. It can be helpful to weed the sections you decide to prioritize for ordering. This can make space for new books, but it can also give you an idea of what needs replaced due to condition or age and what might be missing from that section overall.
  • Once you’ve determined what areas to address, now you can build your “to buy” list. It is not easy to determine what to buy out of the hundreds of thousands of items published each year, but these tips may help.
    1. Look to book award and “best of” lists for inspiration. Many times these lists are curated by other librarians or book experts. Amanda Jones compiled a substantive collection of these lists in this Knowledge Quest blog post. Also, don’t just look at this year’s list if you haven’t explored a particular one before as titles from the past 5 years can also be of benefit.
    2. Check out webinars from publishers and library publications or associations. Booklist provides frequent free webinars about upcoming titles. The free, virtual School Library Journal offerings of late have also included panels filled with authors of recently released titles as well as access to recommendations from publishers and vendors.
    3. Seek out what other school librarians are talking about in your area or on social media. Recommendations from colleagues are always helpful.
    4. Once you know what books you are interested in, read professional reviews. Many vendors include reviews for products when available within their ordering system, though it can be easier to find them for fiction than nonfiction. You can also frequently find professional reviews on sites like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Reading reviews can give you insight into the material that reading the description provided by the vendor cannot.
    5. Pay attention to the possible bindings. Large book vendors may have options beyond paperback and hardcover. Decide what will work best within the budget while also considering longevity. Also consider if the book needs to be purchased as print, e-book, audio, or all three.
    6. Think of your public library or other schools in your district as extensions of your collection. You cannot order everything, so focus on the needs of your particular students. You can always support unique interests with items from other local libraries.
  • Always keep a book list going. Whenever a student or teacher suggests a book title, open up your order and add it to the list so you don’t lose track of the scrap of paper you wrote it on . Whenever you run across a recommendation or hear about a great title, add it to your list right away. Sometimes money becomes available unexpectedly, and always having a list going can come in handy if someone asks you to help them spend some extra funding.
  • Do not sit on the list for too long. Don’t hesitate to hit submit simply because you know you can find more books to add. You will always find more books to add. Instead, if you can, submit multiple lists throughout the year, which will keep the flow of new books constant.

Overall, know that you have the best interests of your students at heart. Your carefully curated list is a reflection of your commitment to your students. While order creation is time consuming and difficult, it is also joyful, because when that book order arrives, you know that what you have thoughtfully selected could very well be the spark that helps a student fall in love with reading and/or that provides them with the information they need to be successful, thoughtful, empathetic humans.


Author: Courtney Pentland

Courtney Pentland is the high school librarian at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is adjunct faculty for the University of Nebraska-Omaha School Library program and has served on the Nebraska School Librarians Association board as board member at large, president, and chapter delegate to AASL. She is the 2023-2024 AASL President. Follow her adventures on Twitter @livluvlibrary

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