Christine Middlemass—Libraries in an evolving landscape (EAC-BC meeting)

Christine Middlemass, now the Vancouver Public Library’s manager of collection and technical services, has been at the VPL (recently named best library system in the world by researchers at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf) for thirty-five years. Over that time she’s seen the library undergo massive change, and she joined us at the March EAC-BC meeting to give us a glimpse into that evolution, noting that developments are happening so quickly now that “what I tell you today will probably be different in a week.”

In the beginning, the VPL aimed to build a balanced collection at each branch. At that time, the time of the card catalogue, it wasn’t easy to know what was available at another location, so each branch was effectively independent. Print was king, with hardcover being the main format, and the library operated on a “just-in-case” basis, meaning the librarians had to anticipate what users would want. Back then, the library would also provide print-based reference services: “I, as the reference librarian, was the search engine,” said Middlemass. “It’s amazing to think about it now, but the information really was all in our heads.” The VPL’s focus was on a creating a product—this perfectly balanced collection—and the strategy “worked great for at least twenty of my thirty-five years.”

What changed? The short answer is technology: thanks to Google and the Internet, librarians don’t get the same number of questions. At the same time, they’re deluged in other ways, today having to consider the entire VPL system rather than focusing on an individual branch. They also have to review a mountain of information, including print catalogues, e-catalogues, databases, self-published authors, and many other sources, when adding to the collection. What’s more, the VPL is expected to buy the same content over and over again, in different formats: print, ebooks, audio, e-audio, DVD, Blu-ray—and all with more and more budgetary pressures. The library no longer owns much of its collection; licenses for ebooks and other electronic media are all different, and each has to be negotiated separately. For example, HarperCollins limits each ebook to twenty-six circulations, and Penguin offers licences limited to one year. “They’re making up their own minds about what they’re going to charge us. And they’re not always sharing the logic behind it.”

According to a January report from the Pew Research Center, 28 per cent of adults read an ebook in 2013 (up 5 per cent from the previous year). 47 per cent of those were under 30, and 17 per cent were over 65. “Part of my career was spent lobbying for quality books in large print,” explained Middlemass. But now people can simply bump up the font size on a tablet. At the VPL, ebooks make up 2 to 4 per cent of lending. Borrowing ebooks can be challenging: if the library has only one license for a book and someone else has borrowed it, you have to put a hold on it and sit on a waiting list for it to be available. Once you get it, you have a limited amount of time to read it before it evaporates off your device. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to most of us. With a physical book, sure, but with a digital resource?” It doesn’t help that some devices use proprietary file formats and many vendors insist on bundling their content, offering books you want only in packages including a bunch of books you don’t want. Bundling is something librarians and advocacy groups like ReadersFirst are actively fighting. “I don’t want to be using taxpayer money to buy books that people won’t use,” said Middlemass.

These days a selections team of seven librarians oversee acquisitions for the entire system, although each branch still has its own profile that the team keeps in mind. A portion of the library’s collection is “floating”; some items don’t have a permanent home. The VPL also collaborates with other libraries in the Lower Mainland via InterLINK to share collections, and patrons can access other libraries’ collections with an interlibrary loan.

The VPL has shifted from offering a product to a service: librarians now aim to get you the material you’re looking for, when you need it—and the material that people request reflects the library’s changing community. In the early days, The VPL carried mostly English books, with some French; it now offers fourteen additional languages and are figuring out how to add more. The library has strived to balance public demand with acquisitions made based on positive critical reviews and embraces patron-driven acquisition, where, as Middlemass explained, “‘suggest a purchase’ meets interlibrary loan.” Knowing that one of its strengths is its collection of local books, the VPL is strengthening relationships with local publishers, including self-publishers. If the library finds out about a local self-published book, it will usually acquire a copy. “Some authors can be naive and end up spamming everyone at the library,” laughed Middlemass. “But some self-published books are very, very good.”

The VPL is experimenting with different ways of promoting reading, advocating for readers, and bringing readers and writers together, from holding workshops on writing and on self-publishing to hosting writer-in-residence programs and book clubs. It is also promoting its physical spaces, offering quiet places for users to work and read, as well as venues for groups to meet. By the end of this year, the VPL hopes to open its Inspiration Lab, a digital content space that will support users as they generate their own content.

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