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library of congressThe days of the traditional library containing a front desk with row upon row of bookcases and file drawers is rapidly coming to an end. While some bookcases and files will remain, physical and virtual library collections are evolving.

Over the past century, a wide variety of information formats have emerged. While some formats like microforms, cassettes, and films are transitioning out, other options like DVDs and sheet music remain.

Although some people play Monopoly on their iPads, others prefer to check out traditional board games. The library will continue to be a place that circulates physical materials for a long time into the future.

Let's explore the various formats that comprise a library collection.

Print Formats

When you think of print materials, books probably come to mind. However there are many different types of print materials from books and periodicals to government documents and sheet music.


choose your own adventuresThe definition of a book is evolving. What's required for something to be a book? Does it need to be paper or can it be digital? Can it contain artifacts, maps, or other elements? Does it need to have pages? Does it need to be linear or can it be branched or chaotic?

For our purposes, we'll define a book as a published collection of connected pages or screens. Using this definition, choose-you-own adventure books and U-venture interactive reading apps are both books. A new generation of choose-you-own adventure books are being produced as illustrated editions and graphic novels.

Which will you buy for your library? Don't get caught up in the excitement of technology. Use your collection development policy and the needs of your library users as your guide for purchasing.

In addition to e-book considerations, librarians also need to weigh the value of hardback versus paperback versus large print versus audiobook. Or, do you get one or more of each with the more popular titles?

Your decision should be based on your collection analysis, user analysis, and collection development plan.

A senior living facility has recently been built close to the public library. In the past, few large print books were purchased. However there have been increasing requests for popular titles in the large format. Working with seniors and representatives of the new facility, a new "Pony Express Service" has been developed that matches large print books with the interests of seniors. This service includes a book drop at the senior facility and a regular pickup and delivery service.

pony express

In some libraries, particularly medical and academic settings, print book budgets are shrinking as electronic resource budgets grow. The costs of various formats must be considered.

It's also important to consider the reasons a person might prefer a print book over another format. For instance, e-book novels tend to be more popular than nonfiction works.

try itRead!
Moyer, J. E. (2012). Audiobooks and e-books: A literature review. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(4), 340-354.


Periodicals play an important role in a library. In some cases, clients come to your library specifically for access to magazines, journals, newsletters, and newspapers. Your library collection may contain a wide range of periodicals to meet the needs of specific users.

Periodicals are serial publications that are issued with the same title, in succession, over a regular or irregular period of time.

ODLIS defines periodical as

"a serial publication with its own distinctive title, containing a mix of articles, editorials, reviews, columns, short stories, poems, or other short works written by more than one contributor, issued in softcover more than once, generally at regular stated intervals of less than a year, without prior decision as to when the final issue will appear. Although each issue is complete in itself, its relationship to preceding issues is indicated by enumeration, usually issue number and volume number printed on the front cover. Content is controlled by an editor or editorial board."

Traditionally, libraries bind all issues for a given publication year into annual volumes. Or, these items were converted to microform. Increasingly, periodicals are being accessed electronically. This saves space, however it also requires an on-going commitment to purchasing an electronic subscription.

ODLIS defines journal as

"A periodical devoted to disseminating original research and commentary on current developments in a specific discipline, subdiscipline, or field of study (example: Journal of Clinical Epidemiology), usually published in quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly issues sold by subscription (click here to see an example). Journal articles are usually written by the person (or persons) who conducted the research. Longer than most magazine articles, they almost always include a bibliography or list of works cited at the end. In journals in the sciences and social sciences, an abstract usually precedes the text of the article, summarizing its content. Most scholarly journals are peer-reviewed. Scholars often use a current contents service to keep abreast of the journal literature in their fields of interest and specialization."

American History ReviewDepending on your library, you may subscribe to a wide range of journals. ODLIS identifies and defines the following journal types:

With thousands of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals to choose from, how do you make subscription decisions? Like all other collection development decisions, the librarian must refer to the collection development plan and selection policies established by the library. In addition, the librarian must stay in close contact with library users and check circulation statistics to see what materials are requested and used.

try itRead!
Walters, W. H. (2004). Criteria for replacing print journals with online journal resources: The importance of sustainable access. Library Resources & Technical Services, 48, 300-304.


From congressional records to government forms, government documents play an important role in many library collections.

The American Library Association produces a list of Notable Government Documents that can be useful in making selection decisions. For instance, the government publication titled Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States and Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867 were recent selections.

Bumble beesFreedom by the Sword

try itRead!
Sowell, Steven L., Boock, Michael H., Landis, Lawrence A., and Nutefall, Jennifer E. (2012). Between a rock and a hard place: management government document collections in a digital world. Collection Management, 37, 98-109.

fosterBeside government documents, your collection may house other types of documents such as legal documents, historical documents, and even sheet music.

Increasingly, documents are available through online sources. Think about how these online versions can be incorporated into your collection.

Many wonderful online digital collections are available for sheet music and musical scores. Sibley Music Library: Musical Scores and Library of Congress: American Memory are two examples.

Map Collections

Maps are an often overlooked aspect of a library collection. However some librarians spend their entire careers working only with maps. Whether providing topographical maps for hiking or old maps for historical research, maps are considered part of the print collection.

donkey reservoir map


Audio Formats

While some people gravitate toward the audio collection because they enjoy music or listening to audiobooks, others find the audio collection to be an essential tool for their work or research. Those with visual challenges may rely on the audio collection for both leisure and work.

Let's consider the range of audio formats from music and audiobooks. Historically, the audio format has evolved from wax cylinders to the giant Victrola records to 78-RPM phonograph disc records to 33 1/3-RPM phonograph disc records. Do we have any of those formats left in our libraries?

In the 1960's, eight track audiocassettes came out to be quickly replaced by four track cassettes that were a standard for a relatively long time. More recently, CDs came in to be replaced now in many library collections by MP3 and other download platforms.

The development of an audio collection requires an understanding of both the collection and the users. With rapidly evolving formats, it's important to consider how you will continue to meet the needs of those with older technology such as CD players as well as those who prefer to download audio onto their own devices. At what point do you deselect older formats in favor of new formats?

Understanding users is essential.

When working with a special needs teacher in a middle school, the librarian needs to discuss options for audiobook formats that meet the needs of students. If each student in the program has access to an iPod touch, it might make sense to provide downloads. However if student don't have their own devices, it might be more cost effective to purchase self-contained audio programs such as Playaways that can be preloaded.


Many library users listen to audiobooks in the car. While older cars may have cassette players, newer cars have CD players and MP3 inputs.

Video Formats

Movies have had a similar history to audio.

Libraries have gone from reel-to-reel movies to cassettes, but we hope they didn't jump on the Beta bandwagon before VHS arrived on the scene. The VHS cassette then became outdated when the more stable DVD format came out, but now libraries that are still purchasing DVDs need to make decisions about standard, Blu-ray, or 3-D movies. Many libraries have begun offering downloads of movies that may eliminate the DVD market soon.

Recently, pre-loaded, self-contained video devices have emerged. The Playaway View is a pre-loaded video player that can hold multiple hours of video content. These are being circulated at some libraries.

Courtesy of

The use of downloadable electronic materials is rapidly becoming the standard. Does that mean that you no longer purchase a physical copy of a book, movie, or music recording, and you begin to weed what you have?

try itRead!
Enis, Matt (November 15, 2012). DVD circ holds steady; even as streaming grows, many factors have helped libraries maintain DVD circulation. will it last? Library Journal, 137(19), 38.

Other Formats

cake panPuppets, board games, and even specialty cake pan collections are just a few of the many types of collections that may exist in your library. How do you decide when the time is right for a new collection?

Many libraries collections contain games. These may be board games, role-playing games, or electronic games. They may be designed for entertainment or educational purposes.

Many libraries collections contain models. From life-sized human skeletons to globes, these models are physical copies of an object. In many cases, models are smaller or larger than the original. For instance, a model of a cell may be much larger than the original while a model of the solar system would be much smaller. The mouth model shown is used to demonstrate proper procedures in brushing teeth.


Many libraries collections contain realia. Realia are three-dimensional objects from real life such as coins, textiles, natural items (rocks, shells, leaves, specimens) and other materials that don't fit into traditional categories.

Many libraries collections contain kits. From a set of musical instruments to a box containing magic tricks, kits are particularly popular with children and parents. Sometimes the kits contain electronic devices, books, and handouts with activities or web links.

Many libraries collections contain devices. These items may be tools, machines, appliances, or other types of gadgets. For instance, some science departments make scientific instruments such as microscope available for circulation. Programs involved with outdoor recreation or geography may circulate hand-held GPS devices. Early learning programs may purchase learning toys from Leapfrog.

Historical collections may contain a wide range of ephemera such as trading cards, pamphlets, postcards, and certificates.

As with all materials in the collection, special formats require careful thought. Is it the responsibility of the library to house and circulate these items? Who are the users?

try itRead!
Marquis, Kathy, Waggener, Leslie C. (March/April 2011). Historical collections. Public Libraries, 50(2), 43-49. Read about the issues in creating and maintaining historical collections.

Format Decisions

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media. Is there a fundamental difference between how a patron accesses information that makes it important to offer multiple formats?

K-12 and higher education have clung to print as the dominant learning format; however, research has shown that some students learn better through auditory or kinesthetic formats.  Do libraries support those learning styles? Is the standard play in print version of Romeo and Juliet the best way for young people to be introduced to Shakespeare, or would the movie or a graphic novel version be a better educational choice?


What about the needs of people with disabilities, particularly those who have reading disabilities or who can't hold or turn the pages of a book?

How do libraries decide when to take the leap to a new format? How do they stay ahead of the needs of their users without being on the bleeding edge? How do libraries continue to serve those who don't have or can't afford to keep up with the current technology while accommodating the patrons who always have the newest devices? And how do they do all of this on limited budgets?

At this point, many of you may be thinking that you would be better off just sticking with books because this is just too much bother. If libraries try to buy it all, are they setting up unreal expectations for patrons that everything will be available in all formats? In this age of 24/7 access to books, movies, and music from other venues, libraries must adapt or cease to remain relevant.

Decision Points

There are a number of areas to consider when making format decisions.

Demand. First is the demand from your community that you took into consideration when you wrote your mission statement and collection development plan. If you have a large older population, they may not want the latest technology and may need a strong collection of large print books; however, will you draw in a younger generation of new patrons with books, music, and movies that they can download 24/7? Also keep in mind that not everyone fits into the stereotypical categories. When it comes to formats, give them what they will use.

three users

Costs. Costs will also factor into the decision. Will equipment upgrades, staff training, and vendor license costs exceed your return on investment? Generally that is measured by the number of users, but you might also look to see if you draw in new patrons.

Connections. Know that you are not alone in the decision-making process. Consult with others through conferences, listservs, and professional organizations and read the literature. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, you must make informed decisions rather than going with the latest, best sounding format. Many libraries regret their purchase of Beta videocassettes and equipment after not taking the time for due diligence.


Format Selection Criteria


There are a number of specific areas to consider when looking at formats.

Content. First, look at the content.

collectionsPhysical Attributes. There are also a number of physical attributes to contemplate.

Multiple Formats. Increasingly, materials are available in multiple formats. Is it important to have more than one format for a given title?

The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is found in many libraries. However, it's also available for free, online.

try itRead!
Bobilin, E., & Pagowsky, N. (2011). Serving players through selection: A guide to videogame collection development. American Libraries, 42(11/12), 43. Think about the criteria for other formats.


The Real World

A format decision should be made in relationship to the rest of the collection. Is it new information in a new format or old information in a new format? Does it provide a new capability in terms of access? Does the item stand alone or enhance the whole of the collection?

Within the institution, the physical storage, shelving, shelving error, theft, overdue materials, holds, and the related staff cost issues are minimized when downloadable electronic resources are purchased. These factors should be included in the cost/benefit analysis along with patron use.

computer lab


Bedard, J. (2009). Ebooks hit critical mass. Online, 33(3), 14-18.

Bobilin, E., & Pagowsky, N. (2011). Serving players through selection: A guide to videogame collection development. American Libraries, 42(11/12), 43.

Enis, Matt (November 15, 2012). DVD circ holds steady; even as streaming grows, many factors have helped libraries maintain DVD circulation. will it last? Library Journal, 137(19), 38.

Kennedy, J. (2005). A collection development policy for digital information resources? Australian Library Journal, 54, 238-244.

Latham, J. M. (2002). To link, or not to link. Library Journal, 127, 20-22.

Marquis, Kathy, Waggener, Leslie C. (March/April 2011). Historical collections. Public Libraries, 50(2), 43-49.

Moyer, J. E. (2012). Audiobooks and e-books: A literature review. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(4), 340-354.

Schmidt, K., Shelburner, W. A., & Vess, D. S. (2008). Approaches to selection, access, and collection development in the Web world: A case study with fugitive literature. Library Resources & Technical Services, 52, 184-191.

Sowell, Steven L., Boock, Michael H., Landis, Lawrence A., and Nutefall, Jennifer E. (2012). Between a rock and a hard place: management government document collections in a digital world. Collection Management, 37, 98-109.

Tappeiner, E., & Lyons, C. (2008). Selection criteria for academic video games collections. Collection Building, 27(3), 121-125.

Twyman, Michael (August 2002). Ephemera: whose responsibility are they?. Library and Information Update, 1(5), 54-55.

Vignau, B., & Quesada, I. P. (2006). Collection development in a digital environment. Collection Building, 25(4), 139-144.

Walters, W. H. (2004). Criteria for replacing print journals with online journal resources: The importance of sustainable access. Library Resources & Technical Services, 48, 300-304.

Portions of this page were adapted from Collection Development & Management by Irwin and Albee (2012).

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