This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, February 26, 1992

February 26, 1992 - book selection

I'd been eyeing two comic books for seven, agonizing days. My new week's allowance hot in my pocket, I ran straight out to the newsstand. I snatched up one of the comics, then the other one.

That's when I made The Terrible Discovery. I could only afford to buy one of them.

Sometimes it's hard to be ten. And sometimes it's hard to be a librarian. The problem isn't that there aren't any good books. The problem is which ones to buy when you can't buy all of them. Books are expensive. Lately, the average non-fiction hardcover costs almost $30. Adult fiction costs about $18 a book. Kid's books aren't much better. Fiction or nonfiction, anymore they go for about $15 a pop.

So let's say a library has an allowance of $100,000 per year. Using a low estimate of $16 per volume, that means it could buy 6,250 books in one budget year. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

But the commercial presses cranked out about 53,000 books last year. The small presses published at least that many. In other words, even a library with the fairly generous budget of $100,000 can only buy about one book out of every sixteen.

So how do librarians decide which books to buy?

A small percentage -- let's say an even 1,000 -- of those books are on the bestseller list. We can find those easily -- they come out in the paper every week.

We'll buy almost anything our patrons say they want (assuming it's still in print and isn't both esoteric and exorbitantly expensive). But usually, people ask for what they see in the bookstores, meaning books that have big print runs. In such cases, the authors either have a track record or are on the talk show circuit, or both. The books may not be bestsellers, but they're bound to be popular. Those are no problem for us either. We know about them, and in many cases, order them even before they're published.

Overall, patron requests (that we haven't anticipated) probably account for another 500 titles or so annually.

Another dent in the book budget is reference books. Over the past couple of years, we've been trying to beef up our reference collection, and reference books aren't cheap. But even so, we don't buy more than 500 titles a year.

So how do we deal with the other 104,000 books published each year?

Mainly, we read reviews. Some are in newspapers. Some are in book publishers' trade periodicals. But mostly, we read reviews in magazines written by librarians for librarians.

Because libraries try to get books BEFORE people ask for them, reviewers read early copies of the book called galleys. Then they get to write 200-300 words describing the book. That's not much. This column, for example, has about 700 words. Because librarians have to read over 2,000 reviews a week just to stay even, they look for a few key words, usually in the last sentence of the review: "recommended" or "not recommended." Sometimes the reviewer's recommendation is qualified: "recommended for academic libraries," or "recommended for subject collections only."

In other words, we rely upon patron requests, patron use by subject area, and the best judgment of people we've never met. Not that they always agree with each other. Or that we always agree with them. But somehow it all works: any busy library has demonstrated that it gets a good chunk of what the community wants, and in Douglas County, our libraries are very busy indeed.

At the Douglas Public Library District, our branch managers (and some reference staff) get together about once a month to plow through all these reviews, talk about what they've read, and make some choices.

If one librarian recommends a book but is spending her budget faster than anticipated (as when she discovers a "hole" in her collection after a lot of people starting asking for things, so has to spend some money to catch up with the popular interest), then one of the other librarians can pick it up. Since we have 5 days a week delivery services anyhow, our branch managers just agree to borrow those books from each other as their patrons request them.

So for the Douglas Public Library District librarians, book selection is much like five kids buying five different comics books, then trading.

I wish I'd thought of that 27 years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment