How do Public Libraries Choose What Books to Buy? - The Intrepid

Saturday, November 08, 2008

How do Public Libraries Choose What Books to Buy?

Each individual public library usually has its own unique collection. Often this is a pain. Unless you have access to the New York Public Library or the Boston Public Library, the book you want often isn’t available. In the Toronto Public Library system, if the book you want is unavailable at one branch, you often have to reserve it at another. Similar systems are in place in most urban areas. Within a week, reserved books are delivered to the branch of your choice via bookmobile. This is quite a feat, but in our “instant everything society,” a week can seem like an eternity.

So why do some public libraries have forty copies of Rowling’s Harry Potter and no copies of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment? To decide what to purchase, most librarians rely on reviews in the New York Times, what’s popular (ie. Oprah), and what is constantly being checked out.

Surprisingly, most libraries do not directly deal with publishers. Rather, they deal with distributors.

Publishers really “don’t understand libraries,” observes Nora Rawlinson, VP of Library Services for the Hachette Book Group. Most publishers mistakenly believe that libraries account for a very small portion of total sales. Because distributors usually do all the selling, it’s “hard for publishers to see librarians impact on the bottom line.” However, libraries rarely only buy single copies of a book. Most libraries buy multiple copies of bestsellers and dozens of copies of major titles like The Da Vinci Code.

This means that publishers rarely try to market books to libraries. “It's like pulling teeth to promotional material from publishers, explains Tatjana Versaggi, an Assistant Librarian in Austin, Texas. “I myself often end up buying and ‘donating’ posters from bookstores to our library.”

Ultimately, when it comes to purchases, public libraries are constrained by their budget. Large expenditures are most often made at the beginning of the fiscal year, but some libraries make purchases throughout the year. Even though a book might be popular, the library may not have the money for it.

Many libraries allow their patrons to request books, so if there is a book you want, it doesn’t hurt to ask.


theszak said...

There's Interlibrary Loan Services.

Stephen M. said...

I have used Interlibrary loans before, but only in an academic setting. I wasn't aware that different public library systems lent books to each other.

Anonymous said...

Not just books...many public libraries both borrow and lend DVDs, journal articles, books, pretty much everything that can be checked out or legally copied, through Interlibrary Loan.

As a librarian, I'll just note that it's a constant balancing act to have something like the right number of copies of titles, from the very popular to those items requested once a year (or less).

Stephen M. said...

In a more perfect world libraries would have larger budgets, instead of having to deal with constantly shrinking budgets.