Between the books on her nightstand and on her tablet, Nan McMurry is making her way through nearly a dozen books, from an Agatha Christie mystery and a young adult novel to nonfiction volumes on topics from the environment to linguistics to psychology.
Her eclectic interests—which led her to earn a master’s degree in music and a doctorate in the history of medicine in addition to her master’s degree in library sciences—come in handy while she leads the UGA Libraries’ efforts to build its collection of books, databases, journals and other research materials.
Since McMurry joined UGA as a history bibliographer in 1988, the number of volumes held by the University Libraries has grown from 2.6 million to more than 4.4 million, and that doesn’t include the growing numbers of e-materials available for the university’s researchers and students.
Building a library collection, especially for a large academic research library, is a team effort, and McMurry says the philosophy for her collection development department is to rely not only on librarian expertise but also to include patrons in the process.
“You might know what you are reading now and maybe what you want to read next, but not many people know what they want to read in a year. It’s hard for us to predict that, too,” McMurry said. “It’s a fiction that we can buy everything, so we want to prioritize the titles that will really be used and ensure that our collection includes a diversity of authors and scholarship.
“We welcome requests on our website, and we have some interesting new programs running behind the scenes where just by clicking links to ebooks in the library catalog, users are helping to guide and build our collection,” she added.
In addition to research needs, McMurry understands how faculty can engage students through academic articles and books, since she teaches an upper level undergraduate course on the history of medicine through the history department. Instead of requesting that students purchase a textbook, McMurry assigns readings that are set aside through the University Libraries’ course reserve program. She also encourages students to take advantage of primary source materials available in library databases for writing assignments.
“Our libraries provide the access to recorded knowledge that underpins research, teaching and service at the University of Georgia. Dr. McMurry has been a driving force in this work, serving as our director of collection development since 2003,” said Toby Graham, university librarian and associate provost. “UGA’s faculty and students are always at the forefront of Nan’s mind as she leads the effort to identify the scholarly content of greatest relevance to users’ needs. The university is fortunate to have such a knowledgeable, deeply thoughtful and experienced librarian in her role.”
Library collection work reached a pivotal point in 2020, when the University Libraries closed for a three-month period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization’s cycle of purchasing and processing print materials ground to a halt, while UGA faculty and students relied heavily on the online resources available through the libraries.
Digital journals and databases have long been a strength for the libraries, and McMurry and other employees have worked to increase the e-book collection as much as possible while fulfilling requests and other needs. In 2018-2019, about 90% of purchase requests were for print materials, but those numbers flipped to about 70% e-book requests during the height of the pandemic. McMurry said that demand for print books rebounded somewhat in 2021, but demand for e-books remains strong, so the libraries continue to implement an e-book preferred policy, when the materials are available.
The process of purchasing books isn’t as smooth for libraries as it might seem to the average Amazon book shopper. On one hand, the purchasing power for new materials is down, but the secondary print book market has improved, allowing librarians to rely less on a “just-in-case” model and instead implement a “just-in-time” approach, McMurry said.
For e-books, it’s also tricky, which can frustrate readers who are used to downloading a book on their tablet in minutes. In some cases, publishers do not sell academic e-books, especially textbooks, to libraries, and often they impose restrictions on the number of users at one time and the length of time a digital edition can be checked out. Those negotiations are carried out by the employees in the acquisitions and serials department, and McMurry applauds all of the people across the University Libraries who play a role in building the general collection, from the librarians who act as liaisons with UGA faculty and students to those evaluating processes and engaging in cataloging.
With so many people across multiple departments involved in collections work, McMurry’s role could be likened to that of a concert mistress, setting the tone for multiple sections of the proverbial orchestra to tune their instruments and create a harmonious, balanced collection out of many moving parts.
It’s a role that fits McMurry, as she is a musician herself. She co-directs the music program at Friendship Presbyterian Church with her husband, Kevin Kelly, who recently retired as manager of the music library, and they also organize the Athens Chamber Singers and a recorder group.
“I’m fortunate to live and work in a community where I can continue to participate in all of these passions in my life,” McMurry said, “and be surrounded by books.”