The “critical” role of library outreach in collection development
February 28, 2022 | 6 min read
By Hannah McKelvey, Rachelle McLain, Linda Willems
Two US university librarians explain why it’s important to raise awareness about collections and share their best practice tips
In this article, Montana State University librarians Rachelle McLain and Hannah McKelvey run through the steps they have taken to increase community understanding around collection development at their institution. They also share the lessons they’ve learned along the way and discuss plans to expand on their outreach work in the months ahead.
Why we chose the outreach route
Those of us in collection development units work diligently to ensure that online resources are seamlessly accessible to our communities. This involves countless conversations with resource providers to discuss options, request trials, negotiate acceptable terms and yearly price increases, and troubleshoot user access issues. However, for our patrons, collection development remains a confusing topic and they often have questions. We are continually explaining that eBooks do, in fact, cost more than print books; that, a lot of the time, an eBook version of a title does not exist; that some eBooks allow for only one simultaneous user, just like its print counterpart. We must also explain that the Library does not have access to a certain journal title because it costs $20,000 (or more!).
These experiences led us to consider the role that outreach plays in collection development. We are familiar with the concept of marketing electronic resources,(opens in new tab/window) however, outreach is not often linked to collection development. We are all so busy acquiring resources, staying on top of invoices, activating new resources so they are discoverable and accessible, cataloging new resources and processing materials, deselecting items to make room for newer items. It seems impossible to find time for outreach, yet we have come to believe that it is a critical part of collection development work.
Montana State University (MSU) has a medium-sized library with an undergraduate FTE of 15,013 and approximately 600 tenurable and 700 non-tenurable faculty.
Like many other academic libraries, MSU spends most of its collections budget — which, for the financial year 2022 is $5,770,550 — on purchasing and subscribing to electronic resources, with the focus on print materials reducing each year.
How we got started
In the summer of 2020, inspired by our colleagues at Vanderbilt Libraries(opens in new tab/window), we decided to create a workshop series targeting MSU faculty titled, The MSU Library Revealed: A Learning Series for Faculty. The goals of this series were to create:
Transparency: highlight invisible workflows and seamless access to resources
Engagement: encourage our community to inform us about their use of resources
Understanding: help our users understand why and how we make decisions
Support: create support for the Library’s decisions (such as walking away from certain publishers)
Awareness: generate awareness of our work and create avenues for faculty to communicate with us
Together with other library faculty, we developed themes, descriptions and titles for six workshops:
The MSU Library Collections Budget: An Overview of How We Spend Our Money.
Accessing and Using Library Resources
Teaching with Library Resources
Eliminating Barriers to Information Access
Advancing Research Through Library Collections
Thinking Inside the Box: Supporting Transformative Learning Experiences for MSU Students
On our website dedicated to these workshops(opens in new tab/window) you can view full descriptions, watch recordings and access the associated slide decks.
Reaching our audience
Our Associate Dean encouraged us to work with the campus’ Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE)(opens in new tab/window). It is a small unit but seems to have a big reach. The CFE sends out biweekly emails advertising workshops and learning opportunities available to MSU faculty; those who attend a certain number and type of workshops receive CFE membership and certificates.
The CFE offered us use of its attendee registration system and inclusion of our workshop information in its emails. In addition, for two of our workshops, CFE offered credit towards their certificates; and offered credit toward CFE membership for those that attended any of the workshops. We also leveraged the Library’s social media accounts; MSU Today, a campus-wide newsletter that is sent out via email each morning; and created a dedicated web presence for the series, along with assessment surveys.
Our 4 key takeaways
By the end of fall semester 2021, we had completed three of the six sessions and learned quite a bit about working with faculty on our campus and outreach in general. In total, we had 15 unique participants attend all three sessions — a much lower turnout than we were hoping for. This forced us to take a critical look at how we had approached the project and we discovered that:
External partnerships don’t always yield the results you think they will. We were very excited to work with the CFE and felt certain that its promotion of our workshops would ensure a high level of interest. Unfortunately, that was not true. While we think this partnership is valuable, perhaps collection development-outreach and CFE is not a partnership that meshes well.
Timing is key. While we do not have hard data to support this, conversations with colleagues within and outside of the library suggest that most continue to feel the effects of the pandemic. We often hear the word “overwhelmed”, which may have something to do with their motivation to attend a workshop, either in-person or virtually.
Even small interactions are important. We believe that even the smallest of interactions with our faculty and other employees on campus are important and can lead to very satisfying outreach experiences
Outreach is an experiment. There are so many factors that impact outreach. What we are learning is that different things will work better (or worse) at different campuses/institutions, so be willing to try new approaches.
Based on our findings and insights, we will make some changes to the spring 2022 workshops.
Instead of holding a 45-60 minute workshop, we have asked each presenter to limit their session to 20-30 minutes (including questions).
Instead of two workshops for each topic, (one in-person and one virtual), we will hold one session only, which will be recorded and uploaded to the workshop website for later viewing.
For promotion, we will continue to use the CFE emails; the MSU Today announcement features; our own internal library event calendar; social media; and an email sent out to our known library users. We want our community to engage more with our work as we believe it is important and it does impact them. But one of the questions we will pose to ourselves as we move forward is how do we create engagement if there is no demand? Be sure to keep an eye out for a follow-up article in Library Connect at the end of this summer. We will share what we learned from the changes we made to the spring workshops, and whether those changes resulted in higher levels of faculty engagement and attendance.
Out-of-the-Box Library Marketing: Examining Third-Party Materials that Promote Electronic Resources(opens in new tab/window) McKelvey, H., & McLain, R. (2020).