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Turning Focus to the One-of-a-Kind

The Western Languages Division uses approval plans in concert with traditional collection development methods to expand the breadth and uniqueness of its acquisitions.

Approval plans can allow bibliographers to focus more energy on collecting unique or timely items, such as ephemeral materials produced in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015.

Current events can transition from the nightly news to libraries and archives in shorter time than ever before, as seen by the creation of such collections as an upcoming Charlie Hebdo Archive at Widener Library, and last year’s Strong Medicine archive at Countway Library. Part of this is enabled by approval plans, which aid bibliographers on mainstream acquisitions, freeing them to focus on primary sources and unique and distinctive collections.

Western Languages Division (WLD) head Lidia Uziel has seen enormous growth in the time she and her team can spend on curating primary sources and unique and distinctive collections by acquiring volumes through approval plans. “If we wanted to buy everything title by title, we would need to quadruple our collections development staff,” she said. “Yet, at the end of the day, we would not have built a better collection. Instead, we are able to leverage the subject specialists in the respective countries to provide similar attention to our collection-building needs and invest our staff to support other, high-priority faculty and student needs.”

Approval plans are one method that supports the acquisition of new library materials. A bibliographer works closely with the materials vendor to craft a profile of specifications, such as publisher and author lists, subject parameters, and other criteria governing academic level, edition, language and price. As new titles are published, the vendor reviews them to make selections on the library's behalf, following the terms of the library's profile.

Approval plans are very helpful tools to ensure the library acquires core materials as soon after publication as possible. It is important to buy high-demand titles, even those held by many of the Library's peers, in order to support immediate research and teaching needs on campus, and approval plans are designed to reduce the selection burden for easy-to-obtain commercial and mainstream publishing output, leaving bibliographers time to concentrate on more specific, elusive and difficult-to-obtain titles. In addition to time savings, approval plans often reduce the cost of acquiring materials by providing a significant discount on titles purchased through the plans.

But bibliographers are also supplementing approval selections with firm orders in many collection-building areas. “It is absolutely necessary in areas such as classics or medieval studies, where we are aiming at a highly comprehensive level of coverage,” Uziel said. “Approval plans are only one of many tools that we are using to achieve it.”

And "comprehensive" includes the unique—for example, for German-language materials, at the time of acquisition, around a third of the volumes the WLD purchases through approval plans represent unique volumes in US academic libraries; another third will have been acquired by only one or two other libraries.

The multi-pronged strategy for collection development has been responsive to the rise in demand for primary sources and unique and distinctive collections in teaching and learning; while the WLD collection-development budget remains steady, the number of items coming in has risen as staff members turn their time, language skills, expertise, and focus to build distinctive collections.

“We are spending time trying to acquire the items that our main vendors are not able to supply,” said Uziel. For example, in building the Charlie Hebdo Archive, the objective is to gather ephemeral materials produced in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015. The corpus is extremely rich as it comes in a variety of forms, including textual and visual materials such as posters, banners, graffiti or flyers; and ephemeral virtual forms such as tweets, websites, blogs, forums, digital photos or audiovisual materials.

While the challenge in itself has proven to be exciting for the team, these materials, once archived, would be made available to the entire Harvard community and beyond. “Through this project, we hope to build a strong partnership among Harvard librarians, scholars, teachers, and graduate and undergraduate students,” Uziel said. “The archive will serve as a database and resource for our faculty and students for the development of teaching materials for courses within a broad range of fields and subfields within the humanities and social sciences.

“This is what we should be doing,” said Uziel. “We are Harvard, we are building the best collection in the world, and we’re gaining a lot by bringing in those unique and distinctive materials—both for patrons and for our staff.”

Article published May 19, 2015.