Monday 8 May 2023

What is a Collection Development Policy and how do you create one?

I was at a recent CPD event with school librarians and the discussion turned to book banning in US schools. It was interesting how many of them had never heard about this but, I guess, if you don’t spend a lot of time on social media then it’s possible the current situation may not have crossed your radar. However, I was also surprised at the number of librarians who didn’t have a collection development policy. There were lots of reasons given for this: they had never felt they needed one; they used to have one but no one looked at it; nobody had asked for one; and, the most common, they didn’t know how to write one or what to include. Hence this blog …

It is understandable that, if you are never asked about your collection development policy and any mention of “maybe we need a collection development policy” is met with blank looks, you are unlikely to spend time writing one when you have a myriad of to-do things on your list.  But a robust policy will guide the strategic development of the library, providing clear guidelines and criteria for the selection of material as well as allowing you to make informed decisions regarding deselection, funding and purchasing. It will align the library goals with those of the school, ensuring resources are diverse, inclusive and of relevance to the school community, support intellectual freedom, reduce bias and censorship, and give you a clear structure to follow in the case of any challenges to resources, taking into account both legal and ethical respects.

So what do you include in your policy? Some considerations:

A clear and concise mission statement: this should reflect the educational values and objectives of the school, and determine the purpose and goals of the library collection. Such as:

“The mission of the school library is to foster a love of reading, inspire intellectual curiosity and engender students to become critical thinkers and lifelong learners. The library supports the academic, social and emotional growth of all students, providing an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity and respect for different perspectives with material that allows students to explore a wide range of ideas and voices.”

“The mission of the school library is to provide a welcoming and inclusive space where students can explore, discover and learn. It supports the academic and personal growth of all students by providing a wide range of resources, fostering a love of reading and supporting the development of media and information literacy skills.”

The selection criteria for all resources. This should state that the collection will reflect the school curriculum and interests of the students as well as providing resources for recreational and academic reading, wellbeing and social development that are relevant, accurate, up-to-date and current. It should also say that resources will support cultural diversity and a wide range of ideas, opinions and viewpoints.

Incorporating the Equality Act 2010 into your policy ensures it aligns with the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion – be specific and identify the protected characteristics as not everyone may be aware of what they are; the DfE have produced useful information relating to the Equality Act and schools. You can then say that resources will cover and represent all protected characteristics. The Equality Act 2010 states that a school cannot “discriminate in the way it provides pupils access to any benefit, facility or service.” It also cannot employ indirect discrimination, for example, by not having any books with LGTBQ+ characters or that mention LGBTQ+ relationships, as this has the effect of putting people with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage with the school is failing to provide equitable access to information. Nor can one group deny the needs of another.

Librarians use their professional judgement and experience when buying resources, taking into account the needs of the school community to ensure that they have a wide range of material for all ages and abilities.  Maintaining this book knowledge requires continual CPD as well as an awareness of resources that are being promoted on social media amongst teens and young people and what may be deemed controversial but this can change with time. The rewriting of Roald Dahl books is evidence of this; my Year 1 grandson told me that his class reader was Matilda but “the old one not the new one” – I’m not sure if he is even aware that they’ve been rewritten but his teacher obviously felt that she needed to emphasise this in case parents questioned which version was being used.

Format of resources held such as hard copy and ebooks, audio and visual resources. These will vary from school to school.

Access to the collection. This section will detail how students and staff can access library materials and, again, will vary in each school. It will depend on how library resources are categorised within the library and the ages of your students. In some libraries, resources are kept within one large collection allowing students to borrow from anywhere in the library whilst others have books in different sections, such as a sixth form collection, senior fiction, Year 9 and above, etc. and restrict borrowing to those groups, with exceptions being made if the student has parental permission. Some schools operate an opt-out rather than opt-in system for this. In other libraries, stickers are used on books to denote more mature content and the Library Management System (LMS) can be used to restrict access to any resource. Regardless of what system you use there will always be anomalies but you may find it useful to include a statement such as “The library will not knowingly hold resources that are felt to be discriminatory or inappropriate but parents should recognise that material with challenging content or adult themes will not be censored or excluded.”

I used to have a senior fiction collection which contained books for older readers, some of which were published as adult books, for example, Stephen King. However, I had two copies of some books - for example, Lord of the Rings – one in the main collection and one in senior fiction, and I also placed my classics in senior fiction as I felt they put off younger and reluctant readers from browsing the shelves but allowed any students to borrow them.    

School librarian, Carol Webb, has created a book plate that she uses in the front of possible problematic classic texts, for example, The Secret Garden, acknowledging content and providing a range of questions for discussion. This is done with the hope of creating awareness and discourse.

Books have no legal age rating; they are simply published as either children’s or adult books. Some of the former may have recommended ages on them but, unlike videos, these are not legal requirements and there are many adult books that would be perfectly suitable for children assuming they had the reading maturity and stamina to get through them. Additionally, parents and carers need to understand that, in a school where students range from 11 – 18 years and share the same library space, there will be resources aimed at older students that may not be suitable for the younger ones. Assessing each book’s suitability can be difficult involving the reading level of the book, the contents, the themes covered and in how much detail, inferences within the text, as well as taking into account the individual student and their maturity and personal circumstances. Those who are part of any school librarian community will know that there are constant discussions about age appropriateness for various titles and, as it’s not possible to read every single book, we need to rely on the knowledge of other professionals in the field. The placement of a book is also not set in stone and many librarians will move books from one section to another.

Collection maintenance. Any collection needs to be evaluated and weeded regularly to ensure it meets the evolving needs of the school community, which do not remain static, as well as societal and cultural changes regarding language and ideas. Students’ interests change, authors wane in popularity, and every year there are new books published and award winners to be read. Genres also go through phases of popularity as those in school libraries during the Twilight films will attest to. The criteria for purchasing items should be applied when you are weeding your collection; is it relevant, accurate, up-to-date and current?

The procedure and criteria for accepting donations needs to align with that of selecting resources. Most school librarians are happy to accept donations; in fact, with some budgets being almost non-existent many rely on these to increase their stock. However, not all donations are suitable – many is the time I’ve been presented with a large box of books, all published over thirty years ago or they’ve been titles that I know will just sit on the shelves and never borrowed. School libraries have limited shelf space and every book needs to earn its place. It is, therefore, important to state that unsuitable donations will be given to charity or recycled.

The procedure for book challenges should be part of the policy. If a parent/carer is unhappy with a book their child has brought home and they feel it is inappropriate or unsuitable for their child they need to know who to contact and what will be done about their concerns. Communication should be open, with everyone able to express their viewpoints and perspective but, whilst individual values and beliefs should be respected, the library has to provide a diverse range of books and one person should not be able to dictate what other students can or cannot read and you may have to explain the Equality Act to them, referencing the school’s policy on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). There are options: often the assurance that their child will not be able to borrow such books in the future is enough to reassure them but you may want to assess the book to determine whether it should be moved to another, restricted, section of the collection or removed. Whatever decision is made should be based on educational and professional judgements not personal bias and the rationale should be given. This process needs to be fair and consistent – even if your favourite book is challenged!

Things to consider:

·         Ensure you are familiar with the Equality Act and how it relates to resources and services in schools.

·         Ensure you, as the librarian, have responsibility for collection development and management but also consider who makes the final decision in the event of any challenges. Will your professional judgement and experience (and that of other school librarians) be taken into account?

·         Ensure you are familiar with the CILIP, CILIP SLG and SLA joint statement on censorship and intellectual freedom in school libraries. Add it to your library handbook and put a link on your library website. The SLG & SLG are running a series of webinars on censorship in May which will be available to members on their websites; these will provide useful CPD on this area.

·         Think carefully about adding trigger warnings. Some books have these already on the back and they can be added to the LMS as keywords or noted in the front of the book. However, it is likely that you will miss some and so students need to be aware that not all trigger warnings may be covered in every book.

·         Decide what your policy is for students who bring in their own books from home that are not suitable for their age group. This has become more of an issue since the popularity of BookTok and most librarians ask them to bring something else to read.

·         Involve stakeholders in creating your policy. This gives them ownership and the multiple sources of input will likely result in a more balanced document. If you can include a member of your SMT, even better! But don’t worry if you don’t get much interest – don’t let this stop you from writing your policy.

·         If you already have a policy, review it and revise, if necessary, to incorporate commitment to an inclusive collection that underpins the school’s commitment to diverse perspectives and intellectual freedom.

·         Put your collection development policy on the school website. This is where other school policies can be found and, likely, will be the first place parents look when wanting to contact the school about an issue.

Remember, writing a collection development policy should not be a long and complicated process; in fact, it should be clear and concise document. It can (should) be revised and updated so it is better to have something rather than redraft and redraft until you feel you have the perfect policy for publication. If you wait until you think it’s perfect, it will never get done (a bit like this blog – I’m sure there are other things I should and could have mentioned)! It’s also easier to engage people if you have a draft for them to work with.

Finally – I’ve occasionally met the attitude “I don’t want to mention book challenges in case it gives people ideas” – a sort of hide your head in the sand approach. However, recently a school librarian said that they mentioned the US situation to their Head who was appalled and immediately got on board with having a collection development policy; forearmed is better than being unprepared.




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