The P-D-A of It: Chicago Public Library's Patron-Driven Acquisitions Pilot, Part 1

By Andrew Medlar, Diane Marshbank Murphy, and Stephen Sposato

October 2014

“Give the lady what she wants” is a customer-service mantra attributed to Marshall Field at his eponymous Chicago department store. 1 We live in an age that’s decidedly less gilded than his, but libraries continue to embrace this belief. In an effort to increase our ability to give customers at Field’s own hometown Chicago Public Library (CPL) just what they want, we have begun a patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) project with a grant of $300,000 from the Illinois State Library (ISL) to enable ladies (and gentlemen, kids, and teens, too) to have more direct input into what titles are added to their library’s collection. During this initiative, implemented in fall 2013 following a nine-month planning process, we intend to experiment with applying the PDA concept to public libraries on a large scale. The length of the project is two years from implementation or until the expenditure of all the funds, whichever comes first.

What We Are Talking about: Definition and Historical Context

Usually considered the bailiwick of academic libraries or electronic materials (the contributors to Wikipedia’s article on PDA refer only to digital content) the idea of patron requests determining public library content acquisition is certainly not novel. 2 Baltimore County Public Library’s “give ‘em what they want” maxim of the 1970s was a natural successor to Field’s innovative 1800s philosophy, and in early 2013 Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains Public Library in New York, asked in Publishers Weekly, “So, why not turn over part of your budget to your public—you know, the folks who actually pay the bills and use the product—and let them decide what you should buy?” 3 Smaller-scale experiments have happened—Kenney goes on to talk about his library’s “you ask, we buy” practice—and many public library websites enable patrons to submit requests. CPL users, for example, upon finding no results from a catalog search are encouraged to “suggest a purchase” and a link to the form is always available under “Services” in the site’s footer. 4

The elements affecting which of these requests turn into orders range from “does-it-even-really-exist?” to “can-we-afford-it?” After many years of a hybrid system of partially centralized collection development, for the last few years CPL’s material has increasingly been selected and ordered by the collection development team of three adult materials librarians and two youth materials librarians, and then procured by an acquisitions department, which is part of a finance team. (Accordingly, the CPL leads on this PDA project were quickly identified as the assistant commissioner of collections, previously the youth materials specialist; the director of acquisitions; and the manager of adult materials selection.) Exceptions to this centralization include subject area divisions in the central library, Harold Washington Library Center, and some topical lists for librarians in the 77 neighborhood libraries for occasional selections. Also, serials subscriptions have begun to be decentralized and branch staff is able and encouraged to request specific titles or topical needs on an ongoing basis. But considerations still remain about the most efficient and economical ways to meet 2.7 million citizens’ needs, and as it turns out, the opportunity to experiment with a systematic way to do this was only a phone call away.

Always Answer the Phone: Illinois State Library’s Proposal for CPL

The Illinois State Library (ISL), part of Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White’s office and led by Director Anne Craig, reached out to CPL with their inspirational idea for trying PDA on for size. ISL “provides leadership in information access and supports essential and collaborative library and literacy services” and meets that mission by proving “support, through grant programs, to more than 5,000 public, academic, school, and special libraries throughout Illinois,” with funds intended to be “used to expand library services, enhance technology, build and renovate libraries, as well as provide support for the statewide delivery service for library materials.” 5 To that last point, resource and idea sharing is a key objective for this PDA project.

With an invitation to apply for this funding opportunity, CPL checked the boxes on the grant application indicating our intention for this project to “lead via research, innovation, and best practices” with a focus on “access to Information” across our city and state.

What We Want to Do: Project Objectives

The objective, as stated in CPL’s grant application, is to:

[P]ilot a patron driven acquisitions program to evaluate the impact of this method of patron engagement with collection development in a public library. This grant will allow CPL to purchase titles selected by patrons and assess the cost effectiveness of allowing patrons to self select titles. CPL will also track circulation of these items. This will allow CPL to provide titles to patrons that might not otherwise have been purchased and will also provide useful information for other public libraries to determine if they would consider implementing a PDA approach. 6

We will share resources and ideas by increasing the number of materials available to library users at CPL and across Illinois by purchasing what users specifically tell their library they want. A quintessential collaboration.

How to Do It: Project Plans

Financial, Legal, and Procurement Parameters

As a department of the City of Chicago, CPL follows an established protocol for applying for and accepting grant monies, and the first step in that process was submitting the grant application to the city’s comptroller, budget department, and law department for review. Once their approval was given, the grant was officially submitted to the Illinois State Library. ISL efficiently notified CPL that the grant proposal was accepted and would be awarded immediately. They then submitted a grant agreement that required review from other city departments and approval by Chicago’s City Council.

Process and Vendor Roles

Seeking inspiration from academic libraries’ more established PDA processes, we learned of the concept of loading specific unordered title records into a catalog from which patrons can select. 7 As explained to us by Pamela Morgan, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Vanderbilt University’s Jean and Alexander Heard Library, it’s a way of buying based on demand rather than just reviews and is sometimes referred to as demand-driven acquisitions (DDA). 8 Industry vendors like OCLC consider the terms DDA and PDA interchangeable. 9 This preloading of potential titles appealed to us as a way to focus (very much the intention, rather than limit) the huge world of possibilities from which our large patron base could choose, as there is so much worthy content we would buy if we could afford it. Also, we believe that having the records in the catalog helps reach patrons to whom it wouldn’t occur to make a special request or who may lack awareness of what’s in the realm of possibility. Having the records in the catalog also keeps self-published books from being self-requested.

The cooperation of our ILS and primary-material vendors—The Library Corporation (TLC) and Ingram Library Services, respectively—is key to this project, and, after internal conversations among CPL’s cataloging, computer services, collection development, and acquisitions units, CPL met with TLC.

With TLC we expressed the desire that the process should be as streamlined as possible with the established ordering and circulation processes. They were able to propose several workflows and ultimately did not need to make any adjustments to the ILS other than to create two reports. Because the hold request process cannot automatically create an order in CPL’s current workflow, the first report identifies holds. CPL staff uses that report to create an order on Ingram’s online ordering tool, ipage. The second report identifies any title duplication that may have been created if an order was placed under the PDA program versus another, more standard, order that was created within the same timeframe.

We found it was necessary for CPL’s cataloging unit to create special media codes to be applied to PDA-related content to differentiate those titles on the weekly holds lists from all of the previously owned titles in the catalog. We also use those codes to track the material for reporting purposes. For example, hardback books have a code of “HDBK,” but the records loaded for this PDA project all end in a “G” (for grant), so HDBG.

The Ingram aspect of the process was designed so that the existing ordering, delivery, and invoicing processes would not change. To support the PDA pilot, Ingram provides monthly collection development services at a nominal fee, which was written into the grant proposal at significantly under 1 percent of the budget. Once Ingram creates title lists based on CPL’s parameters (see figures 1 and 2), CPL is notified and the collection development team reviews the lists. Any titles that are duplicated with CPL’s current holdings are identified in the ipage website view, via Z39.50, and are manually deleted from the lists. After those adjustments are made, the lists are loaded into the OPAC through the TLC CARL.X acquisitions function.

The titles then display in the OPAC for CPL patrons to discover. The record looks similar to any other holdings record viewable to the public with an on-order status and includes author, title, publisher, and ISBN, along with any other content such as cover art and previews (provided by Syndetic Solutions or Google Books). When patrons determine they’re interested in the book they place a hold, just as they would for any other on-order title and that would then appear on weekly holds report lists and be ordered as top priority with the grant funds and drop-shipped by Ingram, fully cataloged and processed, to the location where the patron wishes to pick it up. The fact that order placement involves human intervention makes our process different than other PDA implementations; but after much brainstorming and white boarding we found it was necessary to satisfy both our procurement strictures and current system functionality.


So, what titles do we add to the catalog so patrons can drive them into the collection? By loading the two previous years’ worth of interlibrary loan (ILL) requests into ipage and looking for patterns in publishers and subjects, the guidelines arose quickly and organically. We decided to preload full lists from publishers we generally trust, rather than individual titles, for the sake of efficiency and inclusiveness of even niche-interest titles.

The selections were divided into two parts:

  1. the initial set-up, basically a PDA opening day collection that would populate the catalog with two years of backlist content; and
  2. the ongoing titles, which would be what we would update the catalog with on a monthly basis moving ahead through the life of the project.

Every month, the ongoing titles are added at a five month lag from publication (e.g., January titles are loaded in May) in order to give us time to see if they will be added through the natural collection development process first. See table 1: Content parameters for adult titles for both initial and ongoing phases.

Table 1.  Content parameters for adult titles for both initial and ongoing phases.
Price Language(s) Format(s) Publication Date(s)
for Initial Set-Up
Ownership Publishers: Iinitial Phase Publishers Added on Ongoing Basis




hardcover or trade paperback bindings

no graphic novels

January 2010 through December 2012

Not already owned by CPL

Adams Media Corporation
AMACOM/American Management Association
American Heart Association
Bethany House Publishers
Charisma House
Destiny Image
Hay House
Human Kinetics
John Wiley & Sons
Multnomah Books
Sounds True
Thomas Nelson
Whitaker House

Andrews McMeel
Avery Publishing Group
Berkley Publishing Group
Beyond Words Publishing
Chicago Review Press
Chronicle Books
Crossway Books
Crown Business
David C. Cook
Fleming H. Revell Co.
Gotham Books
Grand Central Publishing
Harper Design
Harvest House
New Harbinger Publications
O’Reilly Media
Paulist Press
Prometheus Books
Scribner Book Company
Simon Spotlight
Sixth & Spring Books
Street Dreamz Publications
Tate Publishing & Enterprises
Warner Books
Waterbrook Press

For kid and teen titles, birth through age 18, we decided to focus on informational texts in order to support the Common Core State Standards implementation and to help address the proliferation of such titles published in series with constantly expanding and expensive individual entries which are a time-intensive selection challenge. See table 2: Content parameters for kid and teen titles (birth through age 18) for both initial and ongoing phases.

Table 2: Content parameters for kid and teen titles (birth through age 18) for both initial and ongoing phases.
Price Language(s) Format(s) Publication Date(s) for Initial Set-Up Ownership Publishers


English and Spanish


library binding or trade paperback binding

no graphic novels

January 2010 through December 2012

Not already owned by CPL

all imprints of:

Lerner Publishing Group
Norwood House Press
ReferencePoint Press

As mentioned earlier, there is still human intervention needed to massage the ongoing lists as they arrive, and Ingram’s imatch tool has been helpful with this; however, this is not an insignificant amount of labor for CPL. Occasionally, some titles that technically meet our PDA parameters are cut because they don’t meet our more overarching collection guidelines, such as gift editions and those at a scholarly level exceeding what we purchase for our public library audience. For the latter reason, several publishers that were part of the initial list of titles have subsequently been removed from the ongoing list, specifically the presses of Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, and Yale Universities.

Early Implementation Realities and Questions Ahead

At the end of the first quarter of the project’s implementation (September 2013–March 2014), 5,611 titles have been added to the catalog based on the initial and ongoing parameters. Of these, 934 (16%) have been requested and approximately $19,120 (6% of the budget) has been spent. The most popular topics have been computer programming and general technology, business, spiritual and religious nonfiction, and self-help. And CPL is very pleased to see that titles have been requested by 74 of our 77 locations so far, so all Chicago neighborhoods are already being served by this pilot, and many of the titles have already circulated more than once.

One surprising aspect is the small number of children’s titles which have been selected so far, fewer than 10 percent of the total. Initial hypotheses to explain this include developmental or homework deadline issues that cause more of an instant gratification response as opposed to patience for placing holds and waiting, and the publishing or parameter timelines not corresponding with the local schools’ curriculum schedule. Another unforeseen phenomenon is that of holds requests cancelled after we’ve ordered the title and the surprising number of those that don’t get picked up from the hold shelf. Patrons clearly often change their mind after requesting a title, which may also relate to the youth materials issue of needing items more urgently and being parsimonious with the limited slots in their holds request queue.

We also suspect that the aging “on order” status dates that appeared in CPL catalog before April 2014 might have deterred some patrons from placing holds. This terminology was determined to be our best solution, lacking a software fix that could label titles as “Request This Title” or otherwise, but was likely not ideal. Again, many patrons are clearly reluctant to use the limited number of slots in their holds queue until they see an item has arrived in the system. Further investigation will hopefully help illuminate that if it is made systematically clearer that titles are only ordered on request patrons will be more thoughtful about what they’re open to requesting. So far, here have been two instances when titles went out of print since the on order record was loaded and the corresponding PDA-related holds had to be cancelled and the patrons notified.

Other questions to consider are:

  • If and how we should move beyond the scope of the preloaded titles?
  • To what degree should titles submitted through the previously existing “submit a purchase” links on our website be considered for PDA?
  • What about ILL requests?
  • What about other formats or languages?’
  • And what about multiple copies of PDA-purchased titles or even those that have hit our standard 5:1 holds ratio on their own?

ISL has been very open to CPL experimenting with this and possibly broadening the scope of what acquisitions driven by patrons means. We also expect that the implementation of a new BiblioCommons-supported website and BiblioCore catalog interface software-as-a-service (which does not display on order dates) by CPL in early April 2014 ( will increase discovery of all content, including the preloaded PDA titles, and result in more requests.


The Chicago Sun-Times, in their article announcing the launch of this pilot, asked readers “[h]ave you ever wondered why on earth the Chicago Public Library system doesn’t have more books about soap making or mind mapping?” and invited them to help change that if they wanted.10 We are truly excited about what we can continue to learn about better serving our patrons and meeting their demands, be it soap or soapy fiction, and look forward to sharing the lessons of those next steps in the forthcoming part 2 of this piece. Mr. Field would certainly approve.

Reference Notes

1. Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan, Give the Lady What She Wants!: The Story of Marshall Field & Company Chicago: Rand McNally, 1952.

2. Candice Dahl, “Primed for Patron-Driven Acquisitions: A Look at the Big Picture,” Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship 24, no. 2 (2012): 119-26; Jeffrey H. Waller, “Undergrads as Selectors: Assessing Patron-Driven Acquisitions at a Liberal Arts College,” Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserves 23, no. 3 (Jul/Aug 2013): 127-48; Sue Polanka, “Off the Shelf: Patron-Driven Acquisitions,” Booklist 105, nos. 9/10 (2009): 121; “Patron-driven access,” Wikipedia page, accessed April 19, 2014,

3. Nora Rawlinson, “Give ‘Em What They Want!” Library Journal 106, no. 20 (Nov. 1981): 2188; Brian Kenney, “What We Buy Now,” Publishers Weekly 260, no. 3 (Jan. 2013): 18-19.

4. “Suggest a Purchase,” Chicago Public Library page, accessed April 19. 2014,

5. “About the State Library,” Illinois State Library page, accessed April 19, 2014,

6. Application of Chicago Public Library for a Grant for the Purpose of Patron Driven Acquisitions. Communicated to the Illinois State Library, April 2, 2013.

7. Pamela J. Morgan, e-mail message to Stephen Sposato, January 16, 2013.

8. Ibid.

9. “Options for implementing your Demand Driven Acquisitions (DDA) program using the WorldCat knowledge base,” OCLC page, accessed April 19, 2014,

10. Stefano Espositio, “Chicago Public Library Gives Patrons More Say in Book Purchases,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 2013, accessed April 19, 1014,

About the Authors

Andrew Medlar is Assistant Commissioner for Collections at Chicago Public Library (CPL), overseeing the selection and management of, and access to, all print and electronic content. He has taught graduate courses at Dominican University’s GSLIS and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Education, reviewed for Booklist and School Library Journal, and been named Librarian of the Year by CPL and the Spanish Association of Publishers Guild. He is a member of ALCTS and the ALSC Board of Directors, and has a BA from Miami University and an MLS from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Diane Marshbank Murphy is the Director of Acquisitions at Chicago Public Library where she manages the procurement of library materials for seventy-nine locations across Chicago. Diane is also part of the team that established an award-winning Maker Lab, the inaugural project in CPL’s new Innovation Lab that allows CPL to experiment with new ideas in library services and programs. Prior to joining CPL ten years ago, she oversaw operational, programmatic, contractual, and budgetary needs for various innovative initiatives for the City of Chicago. Diane has a BA in Political Science from Loyola University–Chicago and a Master’s Degree in Public Service from DePaul University.

Stephen Sposato is the Manager of Adult Materials Selection for Chicago Public Library. He has worked in collection development for almost a decade, and previously held positions at CPL in the Harold Washington Library Center's Literature and Language Division and Government Documents Department. Honored with CPL's Librarian of the Year award in 2010, he has reviewed for Library Journal and presented at the Illinois Library Association annual conference, most recently on this PDA project. He holds a BA in English from Ohio University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo.