Low-demand High-need Collections, Programs and Services: Beyond the Numbers

I get it; at first glance of this post’s title, you may be thinking why would libraries cater to anything that is in low-demand? Our budgets only stretch so far, so it makes sense to put our money into things that are in higher demand, right? To serve more patrons rather than less? Why waste money and time on low-demand items, programs, or services?

Within the limitations of our budgets and staffing, we are always working to mind the balance of providing the resources, services, and programming that our communities want and need. Words like want, demand, and need may seem to have similar meanings, but each of these represent different considerations for libraries, and low-demand does not correspond to low-need.

Need vs. Want vs. Demand

I haven’t come across any literature distinguishing between want, demand, and need specifically within the library lens, but I think library-focused distinctions are necessary here.

For example, many common definitions of “need” will reduce the term to only those basic physiological things that are necessary for a person’s immediate survival (water, food, shelter, etc.). In libraries, however, we require a broader sense of the word “need”. My mind takes me back to basic psychology courses in my early University days; if one were to examine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a given library may be actively supporting needs on every level all the way up to and including self-actualization.

Image: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Factoryjoe. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I’ve explored various definitions of these terms, want, demand, and need, many of which come from marketing and economics contexts, and adapted them to better fit libraries for the purposes of this post:

Need: a necessary collection, program, or service, as determined by community members (example: “I can only read Gujarati language books”) OR a required provision for a patron(s) to be able to equitably experience a collection, program or service (example: “I need a device and internet access to utilize the Hoopla app”).

Note: Take a look at a library’s plan of service, including their mission statement, vision, goals, and objectives. These aims should be created in consultation with the community, and the resulting programs, services, and collections should work toward achieving those aims. Barriers in reaching those aims might point out specific patron needs. Consultations and feedback can also help to identify community needs. Consider: would a given program, service, or collection be more accessible to some patrons if presented in an alternate format or a different way? If so, you may be identifying a need.

Want: request for specific types of collections, programs, or services (example: “I want to see more crafting programs for Tweens at the library”).

Demand: request for a specific collection item, program or service (example: “I’d like to request the graphic-novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale“).

I am going to simplify things and lump “demand” and “want” both into “demand” for the remainder of this post.

A Numbers Game

As previously mentioned, needs, wants, and demands are concepts largely informed by our capitalist, profit-driven economy. Libraries, in contrast, are not in the business of making a profit. We are stewards of the communities we serve. However, we are also held accountable to the organizations and agencies that provide our funding, which means keeping good tabs on where the money goes.

Behind the scenes, libraries pay close attention to numbers. Demand is soon translated into various stats. Library folk are accustomed to crunching numbers, minding statistics, and innovating to stretch their budgets. We keep our eyes and ears on trends, feedback, reviews, and suggestions, noting popular authors, series, and topics. We then spend our money and staff time accordingly. Some programming, services, and collections may live or die by the numbers, or demand.

Often times needs and demands align, which may make sense; some needs are widespread throughout a community, such as a rural town facing a widespread digital divide. What if, however, there is a great need that doesn’t coincide with a high demand?

Numbers Vs. Need: Braille Books

My “aha!” moment of the important distinction between demand and need clicked when I was reading the report Improving Braille Availability in Canadian Public Libraries (2018). When discussing Braille production in Canada, Michael Ciccone of the Center for Equitable Library Access says “The numbers may be low, but the need is high” (p.24).

What a brilliant way of putting it. Blind and print disabled patrons may make up a small portion of a given community. As such, that community may not have a high demand for braille access or high circulation stats for braille materials. Regardless of these facts, no library could say they were being inclusive and meeting the needs of their community if there were even one patron who relied on braille to read and could not access it. This is a perfect example for a library need because, while the ever-changing landscape of libraries and diversity between communities means no two libraries have the same priorities, reading and literacy supports are a mainstay of our commitments to our patrons. Our blind and visually impaired patrons who require braille access to read have a need for access. Thankfully, organizations like the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) and Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) are working alongside us to provide accessible options for blind and print disabled patrons.

A Fresh Look Forward

So, if we identify something that is low-demand but high-need, and decide to devote resources and time to that need, how do we back up our decisions to stakeholders and maintain funding? How do we measure something that, by its low-demand nature, isn’t going to bring in beefy quantitative stat numbers? In the case of many low-demand high-need collections, programs, and services, qualitative feedback will be a vital measurement that cannot be overlooked.

The example I used, access to braille books, mainly involves collection development, but it got me thinking: surely there are other areas within our services, programming, and collections that could be low-demand but high-need? What can we learn from a fresh examination of needs in our communities without being deterred by the potential of low numbers? What gaps are present? What partner organizations may be working to help close those gaps? What opportunities are we missing because we may overlook quiet need in the cacophony of demand? What patrons are falling through cracks we don’t see? How can we serve patron needs in an inclusive, equitable way?

If you have any insights or suggestions regarding low-demand high-need programs, services, or collections, I’d love for you to share them in the comments and keep the discussion going. Thanks for reading!


Creedy, M., Gabias, M. E., Hoffman, H., Kijewski, K., & Yale, M. (2018). Improving Braille Availability in Canadian Public Libraries . Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://nnels.ca/braillestudy

Shauna Murray has worked at Wood Buffalo Regional Library for over ten years in Reference and Information Services roles. She is currently completing her MLIS online through the University of Alberta, where she also obtained her Bachelor of Education with Distinction in 2015. She is passionate about critical literacy, community-led programs and services, fact checking, and diversity in collection development. Don’t talk to her about graphic novels unless you are ready to hear her wax poetic about the versatility of comics and how they are a format, not a genre! Her hobbies include needle-felting, printmaking, cosplay, and going on adventures with her dog Tegan. You can find her on Twitter and other social media @HideNGoShauna.

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