Primary Sourcing: Traveling for Collection Development

August 24th, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

Primary Sourcing: Traveling for Collection Development

James Simon, Center for Research Libraries
with Holly Ackerman, Duke University, and Pushkar Sohoni, University of Pennsylvania

At the 2013 Area and International Studies Librarianship Workshop at Indiana University, Jeffrey Garrett, Northwestern University’s AUL for Special Libraries, provoked the audience with a discussion on “The Future of Area Studies Travel in the Age of Virtual Ubiquity.” His full remarks are viewable on the proceedings of the conference site. Jeff’s lighthearted-yet-serious Top 10 (well, Top 8) lists of “why international travel is no longer necessary” and “why international travel remains relevant for Area Studies librarians” provoked a series of questions among the IASC21 group, foremost among them being “is there still a value in promoting acquisition trips for our subject specialists to build collections?”

Around the same time, we were alerted to two insightful and thought-provoking acquisition trip reports: one by Pushkar Sohoni, South Asia Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania; and the other by Holly Ackerman, Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino Studies at Duke University Libraries. Pushkar’s experiences in South Asia were documented in his excellent post on the “Unique at Penn” blog, and while Holly’s trip to Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto, Portugal was not formally published, her insights (shared in part below) provided ample demonstration of the continuing value of international acquisition trips.

I took the opportunity interview the two together to “compare notes” on their assignments, explore best practices, and discuss ways in which libraries may more effectively exploit acquisition trips to enhance local resources and build the national collection.

James Simon (JS): When advocating for an “extended buying trip” (generally two weeks in length, attending book fairs, meeting with publishers and local vendors, visiting major publishing centers apart from the capital), how do you pitch this to the administration in terms of the usefulness and the case for doing it?

Pushkar Sohoni (PS): This kind of trip keeps you in touch with trends of publishing beyond that which makes the attention of vendors. In India, there is a profusion of presses and a completely unregulated publishing market that you would never discover through regular acquisitions channels. Once you are there, you see what a big bazaar it’s become. Even when vendors are sending you lists, they are leaving out some things. And you want to assess what is being selected against what is available broadly.

Holly Ackerman (HA): I’m lucky at my institution in that I don’t have to “sell” the idea. We have a reasonably large department of Area and International Studies, and they recognize the need. At the same time, there is always a pressure to diminish funds. So you have to remind people of what the value is in this. It is important to monitor publishing trends. Also, the trip may allow you to identify experts and alternative bookstores whose owners/staff are experts in particular areas. In Porto we discovered that a bookstore that has been a mainstay for U.S. academic libraries has become seriously limited by the declining health of its owners. We were able to locate new stores in Porto and to identify 25-30 valuable works published in Coimbra and Porto that did not circulate beyond the region. The extended model proved its worth in allowing us to visit these regional publishing centers.

JS: About the value: do the benefits outweigh the expense and effort of travel? And, what are those benefits?

HA: Book fairs do a lot to encourage librarians from the United States to attend, often including travel incentives. When you get down to the cost of the purchasing, if you buy in volume at a book fair, the savings become quite cost effective: the purchase price is less, the shipping cost are less, and you can find other ways to save (like boxing and sending your own shipments). When you add in the possibility of collateral visits—being able to go to other cities nearby, or cultural events in the city—the savings start to add up. Some of the publishers’ and vendors’ warehouses have thousands of unsold books that we might want. If you buy a volume of things and ship all at once, you save on cost. Plus, they sell their backlog at discount prices.

PS: It is difficult to put a value on the types of library acquisitions that we would never be able to collect had it not been for a visit to the field. The purchase price of material may not be expensive, but the research value of obtaining materials from publishing institutions with no distribution, out of print material, or publications not deemed marketable by vendors is enormous.

JS: What kind of material is falling through the cracks? What would we be missing if not for these trips?

HA: There are some formats in Latin America where the vendors do not systematically collect, like DVDs. The same goes for music CDs. So, on buying trips, you can do collateral buying. What you don’t find at the book fair, you can find in video stores in town in Guadalajara, or Buenos Aires, or Bogota. And in some cases, librarians (such as Adan Griego at Stanford) go out every year and systematically buy items like popular movies.

PS: Especially for ephemera, there are no distribution mechanisms that can substitute for being on the ground. A lot of material is passed along person to person: you cannot acquire them through commercial channels. Certain kinds of right-wing literature, for example, cannot be ordered.

HA: And then there is the issue of cartonera, handmade books made exclusively as street literature.

JS: So, acquisition trips are an important “ground check” on local publishing, as well as on what the vendors are identifying?

PS: All countries used to have some kind of legislative framework by which all publications were to be deposited at the national library. I don’t think deposit legislation is effectively being enforced anymore. There are tons of books that do not show up in national bibliographies. Publishing has become the same as printing now, where local presses just print books—not technically published—in very small runs. And if it is not a well-known press, your vendor is not likely to get them, even though they are still important.

HA: The last time I was at the Bogota book fair, I went to one of the local bookstores and wound up spending $3,000 on publications on human rights, drug issues, and literature that we didn’t have, and in many cases weren’t even in WorldCat. I’m not sure how these slip past the vendors, because these are items that definitely would be part of a profile for us. Somehow, it just doesn’t get collected.

JS: How can these trips help inform our vendors that may miss or disregard materials of importance?

HA: Spending personal time with the vendors gives you an opportunity to let them know what your curriculum is like, who your faculty members are. There is a big difference between telling a vendor to collect “human rights” and to immerse them in the theoretical approach of people doing the work, discussing current interests of graduate students. When they have that more specific knowledge, they can pinpoint materials that may be of use to a particular student. And they are willing to look for and acquire things that they may not have looked for otherwise.

PS: The Library of Congress and other local vendors play an important role in our collecting efforts. But the selectiveness of these agents is shaped by their own interests and notions of what is of value. Wherever I travel, I make an effort to get in touch with academics at a number of local institutions to find out where they buy their source books, and make an effort to follow up.

JS: What do you do to prepare and arrange for these trips? What kind of advice would you give for those just getting started?

HA: Talk to librarians who have traveled more often. For book fairs, look at the program in advance; talk with the local vendors and others who may know that particular book fair. Perhaps travel with other librarians, to share knowledge and spread out investigations. Let the faculty at your institution know that you’re going.

PS: With our faculty, I have standing instructions that if they are buying materials while in the region, in addition to the personal copy they should certainly buy one for the library. I’ve set up arrangements with our vendor to accept boxes of books from any student and have them shipped over. We know the material is useful and will be used. And it guarantees that any citation made by a student is findable within the library. I think it is important to have at least one copy of an item in the U.S. that is cited by a student in their work.

JS: What, in your view, is the “future of area studies travel?” How can we continue to promote the value and enhance the impact of these trips?

PS: One way these trips might be more cost effective is if we were to pool the interests of a group of institutions. Not every institution can have a dedicated librarian for South Asia, nor to fund extensive travel. If we were somehow able to pool requirements, the costs of acquisition can be extended—or perhaps federated—to a number of institutions. In many ways, this is an extension of the shared subject specialist model. Even a small amount of money allocated can go a long way to offset costs of acquisition.

HA: This is happening in a way with the Ivy Plus Libraries [a loose federation of thirteen libraries exploring collaborative initiatives for sharing library materials]. Each institution has faculty working on Brazilian themes. We discovered that even though we have vendors who go all over the country and buy, what we’re getting are mostly things that are published in São Paulo or Rio. So, the group had vendors estimate the costs of the annual academic output for each state of Brazil, and we divided the states among the collective. Some of us are able to make visits to the region for our part of the collecting, and hopefully there will be a real boom of availability of material from all over Brazil.

JS: The idea of extending distributed collecting into “distributed buying trips” is an interesting notion.

HA: Stay tuned.


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