Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Do Reference Librarians Do? Select Library Materials

All month I have been thinking about what reference librarians really do. This is the last installment.

Within the job descriptions of many reference librarians is a directive to selective materials for library collections. Though written in quiet management language, this is a proclamation "Buy books, audiobooks, music CDs, DVDs, magazines, ebooks, and databases!" If answering reference questions is my first love of library work, shopping for our library users is a close second. I eye the latest issues of Booklist and Library Journal with eagerness to unfold the pages where I know I will find new novels, histories, biographies, memoirs, travel guides, foreign films, and more. These materials are the food that feeds the library, and I am one of the cooks who stirs the soup.

In my dreams, I set aside a portion of each day or each week to read reviews and contemplate collection building. In reality, I select library materials between other tasks or even as I do other tasks. Hardly a day goes by that I don't add to my shopping cart a book that a client has requested at the reference desk or that I see in a news article in the newspaper. Also, news of titles often reaches me before they are printed in the above mentioned journals. My email is filled with announcements from the book jobber and publicists, my mailbox is filled with publisher flyers and catalogs, and my voicemail has pleas from salespeople hawking their new titles. I often wonder if any of the booksellers realize that working in a medium-sized library with mostly recreational readers I have a limited budget. No, I won't be buying a seven volume encyclopedia on cancer research, a handbook for fluid engineering, or a directory for manufacturers bidding for Homeland Security contracts.

A report on a single day or even week would not reflects the diversity of channels through which I learn about books. In the past month I have selected books from the following:

  • Booklist (paper)
  • Booking Ahead from Baker and Taylor (online source)
  • BookLetters monthly genre letters (online source)
  • bestseller lists (usually see online)
  • Library Journal Pre-Pub Alerts online
  • Library Journal (paper)
  • Booklist Online
  • NPR Books podcast
  • New York Times Book Review podcast
  • Chicago Tribune Saturday book page (paper)
  • Early Word blog
  • Citizen Reader blog
  • Blogging for a Good Book
  • Booklist blogs
  • FC: Forecast from Baker and Taylor (paper)
  • hold alerts from the circulation system
  • requests at the reference desk
  • publishers catalogs (paper)
  • suggestions from staff

My library tries to pre-order books as much as possible so that our readers may have them as soon as they are published. We have standing orders through Baker and Taylor for novels by about 80 authors who frequent the bestseller lists. To keep ahead in nonfiction, I rely a lot on the first three resources in the list above. With tight funding, however, we have to be selective. As a result, we miss picking some titles that then become high demand items, as reflected by their inclusion in the bestsellers lists and hold alerts. We then have to play catch up with the requests.

I have not done a study (topic for a future post?) but I guess that in our adult services department we order half our books ahead and half after publishing. I'd like to move toward 60/40. Even 70/30. We will satisfy more demand if we have the books when the readers want them. The trick is picking the right books.

What are the right books now? Before the pervasiveness of the Internet, I was dedicated in my efforts to build a balanced collection with a sampling of books to meet almost any kind of information request we might get. My recent inventories have shown many of the titles that I carefully picked to fill subject gaps have just sat on the shelves. Many clients are getting much their how-to information from the web and turning to us more for recreational and cultural selections. As a result, we are focusing more on fiction and narrative nonfiction. More of our funds are also going toward audiobooks, DVDs, and ebooks.

We are just now getting into ebooks and must learn how similar or different ordering for ebook readers will be. I haven't seen much about this yet. (Topic for a future post?)


Beret Brenckman said...

I've really been enjoying your posts on what reference librarians do. There is a blog I read on my googlereader that you didn't mention but that I find incredibly helpful in my own collection development efforts. It's the Readers' Advisor Online Blog. Thanks again for a great series.

ricklibrarian said...

Beret, You're right. That is a great source, too. Cindy, Diana, and Sarah and others work hard to get all that book news out nearly every day. Thanks for contributing.

Anonymous said...

I always feel like it is a win when someone asks for a new book and it is in the catalog. Even if it is on order I feel it is a win because we identified it and got it ordered before patrons actually requested it. I use Baker & Taylor's Forecast (printed source). I watch for titles that are being released in every format and have a large number of initial printing. I assume they will be promoted heavily and will have demand.

ricklibrarian said...

It makes a nice impression on readers when we have anticipated their requests. I think it gives us more credence to offer other titles, too.