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Collection Development

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It's not that Book hasn't read the advice. It's that the advice doesn't help.

First conferences are hard. Plan ahead. Don't plan too much. Go to the exhibits. Make the most of every session, don't miss anything. Don't get too much swag. Get all the swag, you can ship it home. Look professional. Wear comfortable shoes. Choose sessions by topic, not presenter. Choose sessions based on the presenter, some people are jerks.

Network, network, network. (Why did you spend all the money getting here, don't you know how tight budgets are these days? Make the most of every penny.)

How do you make that all fit together?

Book knows there are parties, and social events, and special dinners. Somewhere. But everyone seems to know each other, they all have history going way back. (And it's history that Book doesn't know, isn't written down, isn't tidy, accessible to her.)

Some of the advice talked about the bar. Get a drink. Sit. Watch people. Maybe chat. People here for the conference are labelled, after all. Nice big tags, with colours that make it clear if someone's a book or a computer or a catalogue, or even an archive or library. Though Book is pretty sure that archives and libraries don't have time to sit down in the bar and just chat.

It's less scary than a party. Mostly. And this bar's not bad. They even have one of her favourite historical beers, from a recipe nearly three thousand years old (and people say historical research isn't practical!)

Book is about history, she likes understanding how things fit together, where they connect. Her thoughts wander, then, to the history of alcohol and story telling, and this really great joke about the Byzantine empire that she got told last month that basically no one else gets.

Book is so lost in thought that it's a moment before she realises that someone, maybe five years older, has settled down in a chair. A computer. (Not a computer she knows, but Book doesn't know many.)

"Evening." Computer is remarkably cheerful.

Book manages a "Evening." And then, because Book is curious about things, and curious about stories, there's a "Where're you from?"

Computer grins, easy and relaxed, someone who knows what they're doing. "Place called Neptune. Mid-sized city in California. Been there about five years. You?"

Book says, promptly. "Mid-size public library. Springfield. One of them." And then a pause, and a more shy. "I'm about history. It's my first conference."

Computer nods. "You looked a bit out of your element. Mind if I join you? Maybe a couple of other people, if they get a chance?"

Book shakes her head. "Not if you don't mind." And then she hates how that comes out, like she doesn't have anything better to do, like she's too eager to please, like she's a bother. Maybe the beer was a bad idea.

Computer just grins - Computer seems very easy-going, really. "So, what've you been to today?"

Book considers. She actually hadn't really liked the keynote much, way too much about the future of libraries from some guy who had something to do with futuristic whatevers. But she's pretty sure trashing the keynote speaker might not go over well. She then says "I went to that session 'Above Average: Collection Development Advice from Lake Wobegon'. Way smaller library than the one I'm in, but I learned a bit."

Computer settles back. "Me, I figure that if I get one really useful session a day at these things, I'm doing well. More than that's just extra."

Book blinks. Only one session a day seems low, for all the expense of getting here, and the fuss, and the bother and the people. Book's still thinking about that, when Computer clearly sees something, and calls out "Hey, over here!"

This gets the attention of the someone ordering a drink at the bar - maybe another ten years on Computer, Book's not that good with ages, who immediately snags a drink at the bar and comes over. "Evening! Hoped to catch you."

Book introduces herself, and gets a pleasant nod, and then the Catalogue looking her up and down. "Oh, I've seen you!" And that's got a sound of pleasure in it. "New, been out just about nine months, right? All about how history's developed over time. Like that Bill Bryson book did for science, ten years ago. Haven't had a chance to read you, yet, but our catalogue includes reviews, and you've got some really good ones. I could send them along when I get home if you like."

Book blushes - she's nowhere near the kind of bestseller Bryson's books are, but she knows she's got a fond following. That's why she's here, because her library thought she could make connections with other books, maybe recruit to build up their history section a bit.

Catalogue is opinionated. It's only a minute or two more before he's on a rant about the keynote session, about how it was so annoying to hear yet again that libraries have to get with the times, have to change for the future. All things that anyone who keeps up with the field knew years ago, nothing new. It's a fairly good-natured rant, but pointed.

Book finally says. "So - it's okay I didn't like him? I thought he was just - ugh." She's a little nervous, saying this out loud, because what if they know him, like him. But critical thinking, also her thing.

Catalogue laughs and laughs. "Have you ever heard of keynote bingo?" he asks. "The actual sessions at these things usually aren't bad, if you pick right - me, I like to pick the people I know are really good, even if I don't know or care much about the topic. But the keynotes can be horrible. Stupid pontificating from people who wouldn't know a library if it bit them."

There's a voice behind the three of them, then, a wry. "Thought it was the librarians who bite?"

Catalogue says "No, that's Night Vale, and you know they don't come to these, librarians or library. Easier on everybody. Come on, sit down, rest your feet." He leans over and says to Book. "She's the archive in Newford. Really interesting cataloging challenges."

Archive is older, clearly long comfortable in her own skin. She nods at Computer, peers at Book's nametag over the top of her glasses, and then settles back with her wine.

"Was he on about keynotes again?" she asks, and Book nods. Archive shakes her head. "Me, I'm too tired to rant like that."

Book raises an eyebrow, and Archive shrugs. "Been around a long time, and I'm from a place called Newford, heard of it?" Which Book has, they have really fascinating history there. Most of it not written down, of course.

They fall into a conversation about sessions they've gone to, and sessons they recommend Book go to. Catalogue swears she has to go to "How I Derailed A Plan To Replace Me With A Prefab Brutalist Concrete Block: A Case Study" even though it's not at all relevant to her, because how that library presents will fascinate her. Archive recommends "Negotiating with Isis and Osiris: Improved Shelving in Archival Spaces" as a talk that'll give Book some great ideas to take back to her library, even though they don't really have an archive.

Apparently "The Lessons of Sunnydale: Creating Succesful Disaster Management Plans" is going to be hilariously funny, that the presenter does one of those, with a different case study, every year, and people bring popcorn and share, and swap the best stories afterwards, in the bar.

"Oral histories!" Computer says cheerfully. "You can't miss that. And if you're in the presentation, you can just come along with us tomorrow, not feel nervous." Computer, clearly, is both an extrovert and entirely at ease carrying shy books along in their wake.

The conversation turns to other things for a while, but then someone brings the conversation around to why they're at the conference. Archive is there because she's looking at how to manage new kinds of material in her collection, and wanted to talk to some vendors and some other archives about what they're doing. Computer likes meeting other computers face to face rather than just swapping emails. Catalogue has a series of meetings about standards, in and around the rest of the conference.

Book feels like her reasons aren't very good ones, and she sort of stammers about it, a "My library wanted me to come, but I don't really know what I'm doing. I'm still pretty new there."

Archive settles back in her chair, and says, thoughtfully. "I bet you've already thought about some of this. You're the kind of book who pays attention to the profession, not just someone who wants to go into work, do your thing, go home."

Book nods. She's curious about things. How they fit.

"How'd you end up at your current library?"

Book shrugs. "Same way a bunch of books do. Sent out loads of resumes and applications. Some places had room for a book like me, some places didn't. My library's very ordinary, really. Nothing unusual." Not like Neptune is, the stories that Computer has told and Archive clearly is in a rather odd sort of city in some ways.

Archive tilts her head, and she's clearly trying to figure out how to explain something.

"You know there are lots of different kinds of libraries, right?"

Book knows that, of course. She had to spend time in a bunch when she was learning how to be her kind of book. So she nods, and just says "Of course."

"Not every library wants a book like you." That comes out of Archive's mouth, and then she laughs. "I don't mean it like that. You're a lovely sort of book. But you don't fit everywhere. No book does, except national libraries, depository collections."

Book nods. She's following so far.

"But you wouldn't be a good fit in, oh, a school for younger children. Or in a library that mostly serves an immigrant community, that wants materials in their own langauges. And you're a popular work, so even some academic libraries might give you a pass."

Book nods. "I could fit some places - a good high school collection, maybe. Public libraries, like mine. Maybe some colleges. But not everywhere. Found that out real quick when I started applying places." It's hard not to think of the parade of rejection emails she'd gotten. Or worse, the places she'd sent an application to that never said anything back at all.

Archive nods. "Exactly. But did you ever think about what the libraries are trying to do?"

Catalogue picks up here, amused. "I sit on our selection committee, because I've got the best idea of all the different things we cover. And when we're looking to add new books - outside the routine things we know we're going to make an offer to - there's two kinds of things we look for. And they're totally opposite."

Book blinks. "But isn't a good book a good book?"

Catalogue waves a hand, and Computer chimes in here. "Different books - and different computers, don't think I'm any different - are better for some things than others. I'm a great workhorse, if you want a solid desktop machine who can do higher-end processing. But I'm not very portable, tied to my desk, not like some of the newer models, the netbooks and tablets."

Book tilts her head, and since she still looks confused, Catalogue continues. "So. I am here looking for books, too. Sometimes, when we know we have spaces to fill in our library, we want to replace something that's moved on - left, gone to a different library, whatever. And so we want something that's going to be like that, say the same kinds of things, bring the same kinds of skills to the library."

Book nods again at that. "So sometimes you'd just get another of that same book, right?" she says. "That happened to someone I did research with, the original ended up running off with a reader, and the replacement was real nice, had the exact same sorts of skills."

Catalogue nods. "I mean, there's something magical when a reader falls in love with a book, romances are so much fun sometimes, but it does leave gaps in the library for everyone else if the book just runs away, and then none of the other readers get to know that book. And the books that get stolen are - well, that's just sad." And then he lets out a breath. "Anyway, the other kind of book we're looking for is a book that does something new for us. The stuff we don't know we need yet."

Book blinks. "How can you not know you need it?"

Catalogue shrugs. "That's the thing. We're just catalogues and books and libraries and computers. We know a lot of things, but we don't know everything. At least not by ourselves. Not when you're talking the number of people who fit in a meeting room."

Archive picks up "Or even what fits in your ordinary average library. Almost every library picks and chooses what's on its shelves. Even the biggest ones, with the most space, some things are in storage off-site. Certainly, we don't all fit around a table together.

Book nods slowly. "Well, yeah." she says. "But I don't see where this is going."

Catalogue spreads his hands. "When we're looking at all the applications from books - all their reviews, the recommendations, the blog posts and so on, we're looking for books that do something new. Maybe we've had a big run of historical fiction about World War I."

At which point everyone - well, everyone but Archive - choruses "Downton Abbey effect." and Archive snorts. "I get it too." rather pointedly with a little grumble that's not quite audible about people wanting her photographs and her records and her census data.

Catalogue goes on. "Anyway. We know people want more books about that time, and we're all looking for books that will be interesting to the people who use our libraries. But some books are going to fit better than others. Do new things, different things. If we have a lot of books about fighting in the war, maybe we need some about life in England during the war. Or something about different social classes or medical advances. A really well researched historical novel that makes the time come alive for people who wouldn't read a history book." He raises his glass to Book "Even an excellent history book like someone else from your publisher might be."

Book chews on this for a little bit and then says "But all those books are different. And... " She's feeling her way out. "When I started at my library - we're not that big - they only got in about twenty history books when they made me an offer. And they're about all sorts of things. World War I, of course, it's timely, or that new one about Lawrence of Arabia, he - " She cuts herself off before she says something bad about him, that's not professional even if he does bluster and take over every conversation ever. She hurries on with "Or that one about plants that make alcohol, Drin's a great friend."

Computer nods. "Exactly. You're all about lots of different topics. So if a library's going to make an offer to just one or two books about a topic, the choices they make stack up over time. So that each library's different from every other library."

Catalogue nods. "Because a library's not just about the individual books. It's about the conversations you have with each other over lunch, or sitting on the shelves. It's about people taking you out together, in different combinations. All sorts of things."

Book gets really thoughtful. "So - I'm a different book than I would be at a different library?"

Catalogue nods. "Over time, yeah. You all start out the same when you leave the publisher, right? But as you get more experience, or as you're in the library, you'll interact. Draw a reader's attention to something else near you on the shelves. Some books pick up notes or slips of paper with other things to read."

Book had always considered that a vaguely distasteful sort of act, but now she can sort of see why some books do it. A way to add extra, help readers that tiny bit more. (Not being written in, the thought makes her shiver. But a slip of paper, that might be okay.)

Catalogue nods. "Now, mind, things are changing a bit because of interlibrary loan, and shared catalogues and all of that. Where people not in your library can get access to you. And that's great, but it builds a different kind of connection."

Book nods again. "But browsing the catalogue's different than wandering through shelves." she says. "Less synchronicity. Less - chance, someone seeing me on a display, or while they're looking for something unrelated, I'm just nearby on the shelves."

Computer nods. "It's not that that's bad. It's just different. And some people browse on computers, or of course I get to help people make connections between different things in other ways. Hyperlinks for the win."

Book laughs at this, then looks at the other three and doesn't know what to say next. To keep things going.

Archive's been watching her for a bit, and she says, softly. "It's a lot to take in, right? Knowing that you are doing something unique, and at the same time, something that you share with libraries and books and catalogues and computers all over the world. That's the power of a library. Or an archive. Bringing things together in a way that's specific to that place, that time, that collection."

Book nods again. "I guess." She pauses. "I guess the best I can do is - pay attention? Look for those connections. So that if I can't answer someone's question, maybe I know who will. Or something."

Archive nods. "And that, in a nutshell, is why we go to conferences." she says.

"And write blog posts." Computer chimes in there. "And tweet and make wikis and hang out in chat rooms."

"And argue for hours over cataloguing standards so we can all share information. Even if I'm still not sold on RDA."

Book holds up her hands. "Point made." And then there's a grin, and a "So. Tell me more about this keynote bingo thing. Since clearly, that's also a way to connect."