Q: When you start an order or list for your middle school collection, where do you begin?
MICHELLE: My suggestion box; I also hear about new releases through Instagram accounts I follow, and I look at the ALA, MCTBA, MCBA, and Walter Awards lists.
JENNIFER: I start with student and faculty suggestions, School Library Journal and Kirkus/Publishers Weekly reviews, and book/school library Instagram accounts. A couple times per year, I go through awards lists and “new release” or “best seller” lists from vendor sites like Ingram.
LUKE: Almost anywhere. Students, a lot of times, tell me what I should order. Teachers too. Plus I scan SLJ, Horn, and Kirkus and the State Databases for hot books. I also check the award lists, like Jennifer, and have an assistant (Thank you Susan! – I don’t say this enough!) who is super active on social media and helps out a lot by notifying me of new sequels and releases from popular authors.
I pretty much follow the same process with my own collection development. I definitely rely on some of my most frequent readers for suggestions in their favorite genres. Also, when my budget is spent, usually by the early spring, I start adding to lists for the summer and fall to keep on top of the latest awards or starred reviews.
Q: When curating a collection for middle school students with such a wide range of ages and interests, and exposure and development areas, what do you find is the most important to consider? How does your emphasis change with a tighter budget?
MICHELLE: Interest; students won’t read what they’re not interested in, especially for pleasure/choice reading. I try to find books that will appeal to the students, even if they don’t know about the book yet. Sometimes it’s successful; other times not as much but I feel good about having a wide range of genres, formats, and characters.
JENNIFER: In an information climate where young people can “curate” their experience of just about everything, I know I must build a collection that is responsive and that gets them excited to start– and continue– reading. As a librarian serving grades 5-8, I have to consider what my youngest readers will gravitate to while still acquiring titles that the most mature 8th graders will find engaging. That being said, it's my professional duty to to grow students’ knowledge of the world, so curating means including a wide variety of genres, formats, perspectives, and characters. Budget doesn’t really change these considerations.
LUKE: I totally agree with Jennifer’s “curate” model of culture– the filter bubble is real, but it can yield a lot of information about what books to get. Everyone’s watching Stranger Things and Wednesday so we’ve revamped our horror section, for example. Kids are interested in true crime and urban myths? Buy it, and for both middle grade readers and YA readers. What’s interesting is since these things come in cycles, everyone’s buying new editions of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Choose Your Own Adventure. There really is something to the Friends sweatshirts and Nirvana tees that 6th graders are suddenly wearing… My budget has not fluctuated but I have been doing grant writing more than ever, and that’s been great.
It really is a fine balance. When we were just a 7th and 8th grade building, the students' interests felt similar. When we added the 6th grade, half a dozen years ago, it felt like it was coinciding with an explosion of middle grade fiction and I definitely was ordering so heavy in this area that I spent this year trying to hone in on the requests of the oldest students, which this year happen to lean towards mystery, but it’s always changing.
Q: What criteria do you consider when purchasing and weeding general non-fiction and biographical books
MICHELLE: For purchasing, I use CREW criteria. Although it is intended as a weeding tool, the guidelines for whether to keep a book are useful for deciding whether to acquire a book also. I also try to get a sense for how the topic is handled and what perspectives are included or excluded. I look at date-published and reviews, especially from Kirkus and SLJ. I will sometimes read a book from the public library before purchasing to make sure it is not harmful or too “old.” For weeding, I also use CREW criteria (General Guidelines start on page 19), including weeding books with inaccurate or misleading information (such as implying that there are no more Native American people living in North America or referring to Pluto as a planet). When I am unsure, I will read the book and look at the reviews, depending on how old the book is.
JENNIFER: For non-fiction and bio purchasing, I focus mostly on student interest and curriculum tie-ins. If I know a student or group of students are particularly interested in animals, or soccer players, or World War II, I will definitely focus on building those areas. I try to support content area teachers’ units by surveying them (both informally and occasionally with a Google survey) to find out what topics they are covering. I have asked teachers to come into the library to survey the collection with me as a means of seeing gaps and getting recommendations. Regarding weeding, those teacher consultations are also helpful. I also use the CREW (Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding) criteria, and I find myself being pretty merciless in both NF and bio sections. The amount of reliable, up-to-date information about a variety of NF topics available on our online databases simply surpasses my ability to keep up with purchases, as well as the space I have on the shelves– and a lot of this info tends to be more useful and palatable for students when consumed online.
MICHELLE: Yes, I also consider student interest and curriculum. I recently had a vendor come show some teachers a few different publishers’ versions of curriculum material, and that was very useful. I also try to highlight new books that might fit into a unit. I have also talked with Social Studies and Science teachers about the MLS databases, to which we got access last year, and about possibly purchasing additional ones.
LUKE: I could use some more merciless-ness when I am weeding. I am good at getting rid of things that the databases cover, too. Lots of the nonfiction is driven by programs, curriculum, and, especially, collaborative projects. If I have a successful collaboration, I want to buy some materials to make it sustainable. I have had fruitful collaborations with our 8th grade team’s capstone research project, the science department’s ‘Science and Society’ book list, which we expanded to purchase more titles in our class set library; and the Health classes. Shoring up these areas of nonfiction brings new, exciting titles into the fold that can be used in my 5th grade general research class. It’s curriculum-minded, but concrete in its application: what will jump off the shelf? There are a lot of biographies of T Swift out there.
Our collection skews heavily in narrative nonfiction, this is in part because I had to do such a large weed when moving buildings and adjusting to a new space. I recently had 6th grade science teachers request some more titles to supplement their curriculum. I contacted our Follett rep with the specific content they were looking for and she curated a great list for the teachers to review and they picked out the books that matched their needs for me to order.
Q: What are some ways in which you talk to younger middle school readers and/or their families about the more mature titles they might encounter on the library shelf? How do you manage access to mixed age materials
MICHELLE: If a student wants to check out a book I think might be more mature than they might be ready for, I will explain that it is written with older readers in mind and that there might be some [insert CW here, such as “violence” or “sex scenes”] that could be disturbing. I suggest that if they come across something that makes them uncomfortable, they should just stop reading the book and come get something else. For adult caregivers who request that their students not check out certain materials, I tell them that I will do my best to direct the students toward materials that the caregivers prefer to read and not recommend titles they want them to stay away from. I do not sign up to restrict checkouts because I believe in the Freedom to Read, and we have self-checkout available anyway. If a student comes to me to check out a book that their caregiver has told me they don’t want them to read (and I remember), I let the student know that and let them make the choice because that’s between the caregivers and the students.
JENNIFER: I try to look at book checkout as an opportunity for students to learn and practice critical thinking, personal advocacy, and self-care. I begin every library orientation with a clear statement that students have the Freedom to Read, which means that they have the right not only to select but also to return books at any time if they find the content uninteresting, confusing, or uncomfortable. Since our library is arranged by genre, not by age group, books with more “mature” middle school content may be mixed in with books that some would classify as upper elementary. (I do have a “Quick Read” section which focuses on shorter chapter books, and I have considered adding a “YA” sticker to applicable fiction items, but I’m not sure that would change my checkout policy or process). I find that students self-select pretty comfortably, based on their own personalities, family values, interests, and experiences of the world. If a book choice seems like it could be challenging for a student, I inform them of that upfront and remind them of their right to stop reading and return it whenever they want
MICHELLE: I like that, freedom to stop reading!
LUKE: The critical thinking / advocacy / self-care angle is great– and kids enjoy self-selecting. I do have YA stickers on YA titles. Our website says we have both YA and MG books on the shelf and that “YA books allow for profanity, graphic violence, and romance and sexuality, though not all YA books contain these topics. Any YA book containing these mature topics will be designated with a YA STICKER ON THE SPINE. All books in your library are available for check out, but our 5th and 6th grade patrons will need to have approval to take out YA books…” Such approval is quite informal. I have a few that come to get YA books specifically because they are 5th and 6th graders, but oftentimes it’s diffused pretty quickly when I just say– if that’s the book you want, let’s check it out– it comes back unread, sometimes returned to a bin that same day. Most students who have come for a YA book in this age range let me know that their parents allow them– this is of course impossible to verify. Lots of it is based on relationships: seeing what students have brought in from home or the public library, hearing about what their parents gave them to read (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Jane Eyre manga); or remembering what they have been researching in my class. If they ask for a book we don’t have, I encourage them to sign up for a public library card. If I see a student reading a book that wouldn’t be appropriate for our middle school collection, One time an English teacher went wide-eyed upon noticing a 7th grader’s backpack with Sally Rooney’s Normal People poking out. In this realm, I feel I am here to balance the support of parent and school committee decisions alongside space for respectful, slow, and critical digestion of topics of student interest– i.e., seeking out answers to questions in a book, and not another form of media. This is without a doubt the stickiest part of the day-to-day of our job and contains so many variables.
All of this. It feels like we have similar approaches even with our varied populations.
I’d like to extend a big thank you to Jennifer, Michelle, and Luke for their insights and for taking this column in a new, unique direction. Because each and every school, scenario, and climate brings a different situation, it is clear there is never a correct answer. Collection development is built on the shifting foundations of library science and the changing educational landscape. To this, add the post-COVID logistical challenges and opportunities, new areas of geopolitical pics and media, social-emotional research, and, well, anything you see fit. Collection development is an area where your practice becomes a reality and a legacy.