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The View from the Librarian’s Desk

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I am the coordinator of public services for the Des Plaines Public Library, a medium-sized library right outside Chicago, adjacent to O’Hare Airport. One of my responsibilities is our collection, which includes books and audiovisual materials like DVDs and CDs.

The library serves a diverse community of 57,000. For 20 percent of the population, English is not the primary language. The most common language is Spanish, but we also have a large Eastern European community. And we have many senior patrons. I think in many ways we are representative of what is happening in lots of communities across America. We are trying to serve new immigrants and our older patrons as well as the schoolchildren whose school libraries are facing severe budget cuts. Our patrons are definitely middle class.

Our library budget is about $5.5 million, and of that, the budget for books is $495,000. I divide it up between our Youth Services and Adult Services departments. Approximately $155,000 is allocated for children’s books. Of the remaining $340,000, about $85,000 is for reference books. Thus, all told, we have about $400,000 to spend on the general circulating collection. We also have a budget of $142,000 for audiobooks, CDs, videos, and DVDs; $70,000 for subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, and newsletters; and $95,000 for online databases for reference. Last year we purchased approximately 30,000 books. Although many suburban libraries have bigger materials budgets, I think our book budget is adequate for our needs. We do not have to weigh each selection extremely carefully, as libraries with tighter budgets do, and we can usually purchase what we want or need. However, the demand for A/V materials, especially for DVDs, seems to be limitless.

Driven by What the Community Wants

As purchasers of library materials, librarians try to meet patrons’ current needs and at the same time try to predict their future demands. What we buy must serve our community, and each community is different. For example, because of our particular demographics, we purchase books in Spanish, Polish, and Russian as well as English. Unlike people in wealthier communities, our patrons repair their own cars, so we have a large collection of books on automobile maintenance and repair.

We divide the selection areas for adult nonfiction and fiction books among the staff librarians. For children’s books, we divide by reading levels, school assignments, or special collections, such as the one we have for home schoolers. Different areas get different amounts of money. For example, the health and medicine area is heavily funded because the information is in constant demand and must be current, and because our patrons still want it in books. Other areas are in less demand in a public library. For example, we don’t buy specialized technical books or books written for the academic community.

Our Collection Policy, which supports the First Amendment and the patron’s right to privacy, provides general guidance for our selectors. In essence, it states what areas we emphasize and in what depth. Reflecting the fact that we serve the general public’s educational and recreational needs, we generally buy in breadth rather than in depth and try to have a collection that offers differing points of view.

We have few other criteria. I don’t allow tiny books because they slip off the shelves, lost forever. We hesitate to buy spiral-bound books because they have no spine for labeling and are hard to find. Basically, I ask the selectors to keep the patrons’ wishes in mind, to resist purchasing something just because they think we ought to have it, and to remember that if a patron challenges a book as offensive, they will have to defend their choice.

Behind the Buyers’ Decisions

Library selection policies vary greatly. Some libraries demand a review for any purchase, but I don’t for many subjects. A good review may mean a more-certain purchase, but if we need material in a subject, we may purchase a title from an ad or because we recognize and trust the publisher. To ensure that our series are kept up to date, we have standing orders with Baker and Taylor for many titles. For example, a good percentage of our travel books are on standing order, so we get all the updates.

Selection responsibilities in most libraries that I am familiar with are spread among many librarians, so reaching them with information about your books may be a challenge. I asked our staff how they liked to receive information, and all said no e-mails.

A batch of flyers sent from a consortium to the collection manager is more acceptable. When I get flyers, I parcel them out to the appropriate selector with my comment or recommendation. My fiction selector says that she looks first at the appeal of the cover artwork and then for read-alike comments such as “If you like John Grisham, you will love this book.” She also looks for recommendations from known authors. Nonfiction selectors also look at the cover, but they like a contents outline as well. The appeal of the cover is of primary importance to all public library selectors. We do judge a book by its cover, for we know that if the cover is not attractive, our patrons will not take out the book, no matter what the content is.

Another way to get our attention is to be part of the group ads placed in Publishers Weekly by organizations such as PMA. Joint catalogs are also helpful, and I route them to the selectors. Many of my staff members suggested using joint exhibits at the Public Library Association convention or at the American Library Association convention to let librarians see your books, which you can do through PMA.

However, the surest way to get librarians to buy a book is with a good review in PW, Library Journal, Kirkus, or Booklist (reviews on Amazon are suspect, as they may have been placed by the author’s mother).

Other advice: Don’t send books on approval. I don’t know any library that purchases books that way. Get your books into Baker and Taylor’s Title Source for easy ordering. Most libraries order from one wholesaler, although occasionally we need to order from Amazon or directly.

What’s Most–and Least–Likely to Sell

What kinds of books are we most apt to purchase?

  • Books with specific, hard-to-find content. I always say that I will buy any book on games to play at baby or wedding showers.
  • Books about where we are. We buy books on Chicago topics from independent publishers like Lake Claremont Press.
  • Books to satisfy local demand. For years a local school has assigned eigth-graders a major project on the decades; to satisfy that demand, we have bought anything remotely relevant (now that we have the definitive decades collection, I recently learned that the teacher is retiring).
  • Books from publishers that specialize and therefore know their subjects. We will buy any applicable book from Nolo Press because it fills a niche with its well-written and trustworthy guides on legal subjects for the consumer.
  • Books from small presses that have built a solid reputation over the years. I first noticed Algonquin Press fiction in the late 1980s, and when I was ordering fiction in the early ’90s, I purchased all its books because I trusted it to have interesting authors.

Books we are reluctant to purchase include some with sensitive subject matter–for example, books on medical or legal topics from unknown authors that are not endorsed by a reputable organization. We also know that certain kinds of books just don’t circulate here. We therefore rarely buy personal reminiscences, poetry, or books of essays. Our patrons don’t like short stories, either.

I encourage our selectors to buy books from relatively unknown publishers, especially if they cover subject areas we are missing, so that we won’t miss out on the lively and interesting world of small presses.

Martha Sloan has been a librarian in public libraries in the suburban Chicago area for 16 years. Previously, she worked for the Department of Labor’s job programs and taught history in high school.

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