Balanced Collection

Q: I’m not sure what to do when I’m considering selecting a book that is clearly about something controversial. What does having a balanced collection mean? Do I need to always provide a book with an opposing point of view?

That’s a great question.

A library’s collection policy typically outlines the community in broad strokes and states how the library strives to support that community’s informational and recreational needs and interests. It will usually affirm providing a “balanced” collection and/or materials that reflect a wide range of views or idea. It also generally provides specific criteria to consider when selecting materials.

Criteria for collection development do often include considering a potential purchase in light of what else already exists in the collection, but the purpose of this is to help ensure the collection is as comprehensive, responsive, and up-to-date as possible, not to ensure that every viewpoint has a counterpoint.

Collection development with an eye toward “balance” is served first and foremost by big-picture thinking, rather than binary, either/or thinking and the idea that you must provide a 1:1 equivalent when it comes to various points of view.

Think about the topic of climate change, for example. It is accepted as fact in the scientific community. For every informational book on climate change you purchase, are you expected to purchase one that denies climate change is real? You may very well choose to purchase a book that is built around the premise that climate change isn’t real, but chances are it won’t be placed in your non-fiction science but elsewhere in the collection.

Think about picture books featuring gay or lesbian parents, or a transgender child. Some may think that these books are “controversial” and that if the library has them, they should also offer books with “alternative” points of view. But how would they define “alternative”? The fact is that you no doubt already have dozens—probably hundreds—of books in your collection featuring children who aren’t transgender, and families with a mom and a dad.

In the end, a “balanced” collection is about making sure the collection as a whole offers community members the opportunity to engage with a wide range of materials and that explore varying perspectives and experiences. While you won’t rule anything out based solely on point of view, you also won’t necessarily purchase something based solely on point of view. You will consider the collection as a whole in light of your community.

Finally, don’t forget that even if your library doesn’t have something on the shelves, you can help the patron search the state catalog to see what other options may, or may not, be available.

October 2019

(Thank you to Merri Lindgren and Tessa Michaelson Schmidt for contributing to this thinking and response.)