Friday, July 14, 2006

Let's Buy Some Books: Staying Relevant in a Competitive World

I was surprised. Maybe I should not have been, but I was. I expect public libraries to have best selling books in a timely manner.

On Wednesday night, while double checking our holdings of best sellers, I noticed that the SWAN catalog showed only 47 copies of Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism. With over 70 public libraries in our consortium, I thought there would be more copies. I then looked more closely and saw the situation was worse, as six of those copies were listed as on order, and some of the larger libraries had multiple copies.

Why is it that five weeks after the book was released nearly half of the public libraries in my area do not have it? Even some larger libraries did not have the book.

My first worry was that librarians selecting books were letting their personal feelings or fear of controversy get in the way of meeting their obligation to order the book. Then I looked at consortium holdings of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. There are only 55 copies two months after its release. Again, a few of those are on order and larger libraries have multiple copies. There are still around 25 public libraries that do not have a copy. I doubt fear of controversy explains the delay in most cases.

I can think of four other explanations.

1. Some libraries are without funds to buy books. I know several of the libraries that had neither Godless or Mayflower are financially poor. There is a stark contrast in the wealth of Chicago suburbs and the funding of some libraries.

2. Some libraries do not preorder books before publication. I think this is hard to understand these days when it is so easy to know ahead some of the books that will be best sellers. I think the reason goes back to library funding. Poorer libraries do not want to commit to buying what they may not be able to later fund. When they wait until books are published to buy, vendor supplies are depleted and shipments are delayed. Reader requests then accumulate while the library waits for the book to arrive.

3. Some librarians are not keeping up with their book selection. Perhaps their libraries are under staffed and they have too many responsibilities. Perhaps they just do not make book selection a priority. Readers' requests alert them to best selling books. Readers wait.

4. Some libraries have book processing backups. I once worked in a library (long ago) that had a four-month delay in getting books to the shelf after they arrived from the vendor. Readers often did not remember the books by the time they got them.

Explanations #2, #3, and #4 are the results of bad library management. If they are explanations, they are also excuses. We need better management, not excuses.

According to OCLC's study Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, the American public still looks to libraries for books. It is important, therefore, to get them when the readers want them. We have to do so to stay relevant.

I expect a lot more from public libraries. Our readers do, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this post, I share your concern with getting new and popular books to the public as fast and efficiently as possible. Especially with the advent of the google book project on the horizon, libraries really need to get in a more competitive mindset in delivering what the public needs/desires.