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Care and Feeding of Your Library Collection Policy

Care and Feeding of Your Library Collection Policy

Throughout history, public libraries have been valuable community resources and important hubs in their communities. They provide a trusted gathering space and allow us to explore our world.

The question of what to include in a public library’s collection can be (and has more recently been) controversial. Well-intended people have honest disagreements about whether certain subjects, authors, and even specific materials should be included in the collection.

In this blog we’ll talk about the foundation of a sound collection management policy and how to implement that policy in a way that furthers the library’s mission while reducing some legal risks. We’ll also talk a bit about the difference in managing the collection in a library district compared to doing so in a library that is a department of a city or town.

What Is a Library Collection and Why do We Need a Library Collection Policy?

A library’s “collection” consists of all materials that can be accessed by the public in support of and to advance the library’s mission. Library materials selection and maintenance tasks (often called “collection development”) are typically delegated by a library board (or other appropriate governing body) to the library director, who may then designate qualified staff to participate in the process.

In Washington State, directors whose organizations serve a population of 4,000 or greater are required to hold a State Certification as a Professional Librarian (usually fulfilled through earning a Master of Library and Information Science degree). The delegation of collection development responsibility from board to director ensures that those tasks are being done by persons with professional knowledge and skills in information and organization, access technologies, intellectual freedom, and best practices in the field.

However, even with certified professionals in place it is critical to have clear policies delineating responsibilities, criteria, and processes, and how those meet professional standards and legal requirements. This transparency into how and why library materials are selected (or removed) encourages broader public understanding, mitigates confusion, and reduces risk to the library when selection choices are challenged.

Below are topics that should be included in any board-adopted library collection management policy, with some resources and suggested language.

Authority for material selection and management

This policy should include who is permitted to add and remove materials from a library’s collection. Any delegation, and the board’s approval of the process, should be addressed. For example:

The library director is responsible for the selection and management of materials. The director may delegate this function to qualified library staff members. Any material so selected or removed from the collection shall be held to be selected or removed by the library board of trustees.

Adding and removing materials from the collection

This policy should include statements on how materials are selected for the collection, addressing specific criteria for inclusion (i.e., critical acclaim, accuracy, community demand, support of the library’s mission, etc.) as well as for removal/weeding (i.e., poor condition, low/no use, obsolete information, etc.).

A statement should also be included that notes that the selection of an item does not imply endorsement of any particular viewpoint and that no item will be excluded based on the creator’s views or background. Other topics to be addressed here include scope/format, managing purchase requests from patrons, and receiving/adding gifts or donated materials.

Requests for reconsideration (challenges)

There has been a marked increase in challenges, or “requests for reconsideration,” submitted by members of the public to libraries in recent years.

In 2021, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded 729 efforts to remove 1,597 unique titles from libraries — nearly double the average number of efforts from 2018-2020 — and efforts to remove materials in 2022 are on track to set yet another record.

A library’s policy should provide a clear process for requesting that an item included in a library’s collection be reconsidered, including a patron’s required submission of a “request for reconsideration” form. However, the policy can also include specific parameters to ensure that library resources are used prudently. For example, patrons submitting reconsideration requests may be required to be residents of the library’s service area, and multiple requests directed at the same title can be considered simultaneously.

For more information and guidance on developing a responsive, successful reconsideration process, see the ALA’s Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit.

Who Approves the Policy if the Library Is a City or Town Department?

Most general-purpose public libraries in Washington State are districts organized under Chapter 27.12 RCW. However, several libraries are departments of their city or town (e.g., Seattle, Tacoma, Mount Vernon, Port Townsend, Pullman, Anacortes, Puyallup, Aberdeen, Camas, Liberty Lake, and others).

There is a recognized and unresolved conflict between the authority to run the city or town library as a department and the historic independence of library boards to control matters related to the operation of the library’s collection. This conflict between RCW 27.12.210, which gives authority over the library to its board of trustees, and the broad powers of code cities in Title 35A RCW, tends to get resolved in favor of 35A. Informal guidance from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office (AGO) over the years has resulted in some code cities adopting library structures that differ from the structure in RCW 27.12.210. For example, see the City of Kelso’s Library Advisory Board and the City of Port Townsend’s Library Department.

However, the AGO guidance that code cities rely on, a 1994 AG memorandum by Jean Wilkinson, has also come under criticism because it fails to acknowledge RCW 35A.27.010, which provides that:

(e)very code city may exercise the powers relating to the acquisition, development, improvement and operation of libraries and museums and the preservation of historical materials to the same extent authorized by general law for cities of any class...

The provisions at chapter 27.12 RCW apply to all other classes of cities and therefore should also apply to code cities. 

And in 1950 (prior to the adoption of Title 35A for code cities), the AGO issued an opinion regarding whether a council-manager form of government could abolish or disband its library board. That AGO concluded a city library is legally required to have a library board, stating:

The board is thus an integral part of the library by law, and no city government, be it council, commission, or manager, has authority to abolish or reduce its functions except as authorized by law.

See AGO 49-51 No. 274 (1950). See also the FAQs from a wiki serving Washington public library trustees (scroll to nearly the bottom of the page).

Like code cities, first-class (charter) cities have broad home-rule authority. Seattle and Tacoma’s charters specifically incorporate state law. Aberdeen’s Library Board is advisory to the mayor and council. Everett’s board has specific management and hiring responsibilities set forth in its charter and code. In contrast, second-class cities and towns do not have broad home-rule authority. They are limited to powers specifically granted or necessarily implied by statute.

That said, the AGO guidance is all we have and there have been no court decisions that address this conflict. So, while the question is less clear for first-class and code cities, second-class cities and towns likely fall under the provisions of Chapter 27.12.

Should I Be Worried?

To quote Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic!” But it’s never a bad time to review and update your library collection policies.

Whether a library/library district approaches its own governance based upon Chapter 27.12 or Title 35A, a collection management policy addressing selection authority, criteria for inclusion/weeding, and the process for handling requests for reconsideration is critical to keeping the public’s trust through transparent, consistent decision-making. It also reduces potential harm to an entity’s image or reputation by providing a clear, efficient path to conflict resolution when patrons wish to voice concerns about items in a library’s collection.

Helpful Links

The links below include general resources:

As well as sample local library collection policies:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Steve Gross

About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.

Photo of Tamara R. Meredith

About Tamara R. Meredith

Dr. Tamara Meredith has been the Director of the Jefferson County Rural Library District since October 2017. She has worked in library administration and education for over 17 years, including public, school, and academic libraries in Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington. Dr. Meredith's work focuses on digital literacy and equity in rural areas and intellectual freedom in public libraries. She holds a Master of Library and Information Science and PhD in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas.