At ALA Annual in New Orleans, I attended a panel about furthering library ebook accessibility (see my post Ebooks: New Strategy Needed, Now). One of the speakers, Jamie LaRue, made what I deemed incredibly naive and inaccurate comments about commercial publishing (read: Big Six‚ produced).
My live Twitter commentary sparked a lively conversation between me and Jessica Smith (@subclassz), head librarian at a private boarding school in Alabama and a passionate small press advocate. So she could better flesh out her points about the importance of incorporating quieter voices in public library collections, I invited her to write the post below.‚ Heather McCormack
Although fewer branch libraries have closed in the past two decades than feared, local public libraries are still under threat of closure, and reduced hours and services loom as the recession chugs on. Moreover, libraries continue to face competition from bookstores, even as chains like Borders disappear, with the immediacy of ebook purchase and delivery now denting circulation numbers.
A chain of a different kind that has also suffered losses recently is Blockbuster Video. Remember when you could go to the local strip mall and pick up a copy of the latest big-budget movie? Now you can stream it on Netflix, or if it’s not streaming yet, you can wait a couple of days and get it delivered to your door. No more driving/walking/biking to drop it off either. Good-bye, late fees, as well.
Not only is Netflix more convenient than a bricks-and-mortar video rental store, but it has also a nearly unlimited selection that can be tailored to fit a person’s tastes and geography. When I was living in Buffalo, NY, the local Blockbuster didn’t carry hometown favorite Vincent Gallo’s cult classic, low-budget Buffalo 66. And yet Netflix did.
Many public libraries, especially small local branches that are constantly at risk of being shuttered, operate like Blockbuster Video and chance becoming as irrelevant. They stock big-budget books‚ New York Times best sellers and Big 6 publisher schlock. After spending hundreds, even thousands, of budget dollars to acquire dozens of copies of the latest releases, libraries get stuck selling the inevitable dust-collecting copies at their book sales for a fraction of the original cost.
Getting librarians to consider investing in less commercial titles‚ such as small-press-issued graphic novels and poetry; self-published cookbooks, memoirs, or local history; and university press research and literature‚ has been like pulling teeth classically. My fellow professionals seem to avoid these works for three reasons.
First, finding the right books among the thousands published annually requires a lot of time and resources, and neither is in high supply during this downturn. Second, librarians claim that patrons want only frontlist titles, i.e., the latest hits from Random House or HarperCollins that immediately circulate well and make the library look like it’s serving its patrons and justifying its budget. Finally, small-press and especially self-published titles are rumored to be of lesser quality than books from major publishers, as they purportedly have not been properly edited.
Those are all fair points. It’s undoubtedly easier to put titles on order with one of a few major publishers or leave your collection development to a distributor than to pick through independent press catalogs, but providing less obviously popular books may help a local library remain important to its community. Although I’m not arguing solely for virtual libraries that use the Netflix model to fulfill a wide spectrum of reader requests (see the closest fulfillment of that idea, Bookswim, which is best-seller-heavy, as it turns out), I do think public librarians should aspire to anticipate and cultivate more left-of-center interests.
Fewer blockbuster books reduces the dangerous redundancy factor, for starters. Let’s not forget that patrons can get the best sellers cheaply and easily elsewhere, making the library’s physical locale just one more errand to run, one more hurdle between the patron and the book. If I order a James Patterson on Amazon, I get it on the release date. If I download it wirelessly, I can read it as I’m going to bed, already in my PJs while the library is closed.
I mentioned the difficulty of discovering good small-press books, but this can be resolved by ordering through Small Press Distribution (SPD), which vets small presses and is often host to great literature, and consulting university press catalogs. Take Rae Armantrout’s Pulitzer Prize‚ winning Versed, published by Wesleyan University Press (a consistently reliable source for good poetry) and found via the University Press of New England. Even if your most avid patrons prefer serial novels to poetry, a library should offer major works like Versed to expose those patrons to new literature that may invite multiple check-outs over a longer period of time and mean more vital collections overall.
At $22.95, Versed might be too expensive for a patron who’s just looking for a taste of poetry, but it isn’t a big investment for libraries, which can easily collect other award-winning small press materials as they become newsworthy or add flavor to the hit parade shelves by consulting the best-seller lists on SPD or the University Press Books for Libraries list published annually by the Association of American University Presses.
Regarding self-published titles, I must note that not all are rife with errors, and it’s sometimes worth allowing for a few mistakes because the book is so informative or useful overall. When I was a little girl, one of the most beloved books at our local library was a self-published history of my hometown. This hardcover reference book was foxed within months, but because it was noncirculating, its numbers would never have recommended it as an important acquisition. Reading the book as an adult, I noticed that it was riddled with minor spelling and grammatical errors. The librarian who bought it probably paid the author directly, but good thing that person had the sense to invest in it, as it’s long been out of print and remains the only monograph about our little community town and thus gives patrons at least one reason to visit the local library.
This post inevitably won’t resolve the question of should libraries serve their patrons what they want, or should they provide patrons with materials they never even knew they wanted. But I hope I’ve made a case for looking beyond the dominant publishing programs and investigating other ways we may build collections.