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A Librarian Talks About Choosing Books to Buy

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A Librarian Talks About Choosing Books to Buy

by Abigail Goben 

One of the many functions of the public librarian is book purchasing. We are allocated a budget and spend a fair amount of time trying to build a collection that is well rounded, appeals to a wide variety of people, mixes great literature with popular novels, and will meet the needs of our community.

In this day and age of budget cuts and calls for fiscal responsibility, it is harder to get books into libraries. As we’re trimming ever-shrinking budgets, we librarians need to be able to justify the materials that tax dollars are being spent on. Libraries don’t have the resources to buy mediocre books, unless there is demand for the author or a classroom’s worth of children asking for it.

Still, we’re trying to make as much as we can available. Here’s how I do it.

Where I Find Books to Purchase

Professional reviews. I spend time diligently going through Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and other professional review journals. Most of my selections are based on what I find there, and that’s probably what you’ll catch me perusing at the reference desk.

Librarian blogs. We’re a chatty bunch and love recommending things to each other. There are certainly better or worse blogs, but when a review comes from someone whose blog I respect, I’m more inclined to consider a purchase. Librarians working with patrons every day know what goes well with their audience, and those who write good blogs provide good suggestions of what might go well with mine. 

Patron requests. I’m fortunate to have a budget big enough that if a patron requests a book, we can usually get it. I do verify that the requester belongs to my library system.

What Sinks a Book for Me

A bad review followed by only ho-hum reviews. If a book gets one bad review in four and the others are pretty positive, it stays on my consideration list. If it gets only one review and that one is bad, or if the other reviews don’t make me believe, I’m not buying it.

Bad cover art. Cover appeal is huge, with both children and adults. There is an extremely decorated and celebrated children’s author who prefers very stylized art on the covers. Most kids to whom I’ve attempted to booktalk/handsell the author’s latest book didn’t like it, and so whether they were interested in the story or not, they didn’t take the book. Keep in mind that very abstract doesn’t tend to go over well with the 12-and-under crowd, and that I, as a librarian, do consider cover art.

Proclamations of the book being the next whatever–HP, Twilight, Grisham, Patterson, Kellerman. You name it; we’ve seen it, and we’re not buying it. 

What Helps

Making sure it is available. Most public libraries work through Ingram, Follett, Baker & Taylor, BWI, etc., for a large majority of our purchases, with some items coming from Amazon. Some smaller distributors have unnavigable sites. Many libraries have policies against preship for approval and in-person vendor visits. If I can’t find it to buy it . . . 

Finding out how to partner with a library to make a book more available and sell copies. This might mean working to set up a local author fair—with five to ten local authors coming in to discuss their books, or a book signing one afternoon in the lobby, or pairing for a program on a book’s topic with books available for purchase and signing at the end. Libraries usually have a policy in place for working with local authors. They may or may not be able to pay for your time or expenses and may require that their Friends of the Library Group handle the sales with your publisher.

Asking a librarian to be an early reader. I might be willing to review a published book or an ARC on my own time, and to provide a comment if I like it.

What Hurts 

Demanding. Don’t demand that we stock your book, review your book, edit your book, give you a chance to do a lecture, host a program in your honor, buy 15 copies, etc. You may suggest. We reserve the right to say no.

Treating a librarian like your personal assistant. We’re here to help, but we have many other duties on our plates.

Offering a free copy in exchange for a positive review on the library blog or any bribery of that nature. We do like thank-you cookies, though.

Calling repeatedly. I’d say “Don’t call ever,” but some librarians do still take phone calls. Mailed brochures get a cursory review. Email is probably the best way to reach me, but you should have a Web site in place before you reach out, and I shouldn’t be immediately able to tell that your family or friends or students wrote the Amazon reviews.

Emailing everyone on the library staff. That just annoys us.

Abusing the patron request. We’re sneaky and smart and networked. We’ll know, and we’ll tell everyone we know. 

Home Truths 

I rarely purchase anything that’s obviously from a vanity press or that shouts “self-published.” It’s not impossible, but the exceptions are usually of the local history/local celebrity nature; they aren’t pedantic children’s chapter books, poorly self-illustrated picture books, or local groups’ collections of recipes.

We’re oversupplied with World War II books. I see an average of four “escaping the Nazis” books a month, and while we certainly don’t ignore Holocaust literature, there is so much more out there that would also benefit from time in the limelight, and it is likely to appeal as not being WWII.

Most public libraries will happily consider the donation of a book if it meets the criteria of their collection development policies. However, we are under no obligation to accept even a free copy just because you’re local. And we will weed a book if it doesn’t circulate. Public libraries are not, generally speaking, material repositories, and everything has to earn its shelf space.

Abigail Goben is a public librarian, a freelance medical writer and editor, and an MS Access designer. An active member of the Library Society of the World, she blogs about her adventures with libraries and books at http://hedgehoglibrarian.com.



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