If there’s anything I’ve re-learned this summer, it’s that librarians can be downright political about books. And I’m glad for it.
In this guest post, Stephanie Chase, interim Reference, Adult Services and Programming Coordinator for Multnomah County Library, demonstrates her profession’s passionate investment in keeping the general public reading and her own readiness to engage her fellow librarians on their tactics for doing so. For more backstory on what has become a blog series of sorts, read on. You will learn a lot about how librarians fit into the larger publishing picture.‚ Heather McCormack, Editor, LJ Book Review
Hardly a day seems to go by without someone calling for (or attempting to ring) the death knell for publishing. The recent American Library Association conference, which ran from June 23 to June 28 in New Orleans, was no exception.
Some librarians called for us to host our own ebooks and cut out publishers, some called for us to encourage the addition of more self-published works to our collections, some called for us to become hyper-local in focus for our collections, and some called for librarians to leave behind the big publishing houses and focus on small press.
This last discussion continued on two posts on LJ‘s In the Bookroom blog, the first of which was Heather McCormack’s ALA Annual 2011: Ebooks: New Strategy Required, Now, and the second, Beyond the Blockbuster Model: Why Small Press Representation Is Important, written by Jessica Smith (@subclassz on Twitter), the head librarian at a private boarding school.
What hit me immediately upon reading Smith’s post was how utterly wrong she has collection development, selection, and access in public libraries. It’s pretty easy to call for an increased attention to small press publishing when you have a built-in captive audience to hand sell to‚ a couple hundred students and teachers to reach out to, and ten months to do so. Working at the Popular Library desk at a busy Central Library in a city full of readers, I’m lucky if I see the same 300 people day to day. I’ve often got one chance to sell a library patron on a book, and it is a job I take seriously.
In any public library I have worked for or with‚ including one library, in my previous role as the founder of the digital collection for the state of Vermont through the Green Mountain Library Consortium, that had an annual budget of $800 (no, I didn’t leave a zero or two off that)‚ the staff has been dedicated to creating as rich, rewarding, and accessible collection as possible, one that provides the familiar (the dessert, if you will) and the unknown or unusual (the vegetable you didn’t know you wanted to eat). Every public library I have had experiences with has collected the very kinds of local interest materials Smith recalls from her childhood, because it is what the people in our communities want.
We strive to provide what people come in looking for, but also what they never even knew they wanted, and what they will be willing to try because it is free, or displayed well, or recommended by a librarian, or by someone local.
Libraries do it all the time, and it’s probably most easily seen with our DVD collections: we purchase the blockbusters, the Oscar winners, everything that features the actor or director our patrons particularly like… and then we flesh out our collections with unusual documentaries, foreign films, locally produced fare, classics not available at the one video store still open in town, the entire Criterion Collection. We look at the titles we are thinking of purchasing and pick ones we think patrons won’t sacrifice the top spot in their Netflix queue for, or that they wouldn’t fork over $3 at the store for, or that won’t ever appear in a Redbox. We’re doing the exact same thing with our books.
The fact of the matter is‚ as I would wager almost any public librarian will tell you‚ patrons do not come up to the desk asking for something good to read. They come up to the desk looking for the book that was featured in USA Today this morning, or People last week, or on The Daily Show last night, or on the cover of The New York Times Book Review.
They come up to the desk for the newest book by their favorite author, and we help them find it‚ whether their favorite author is James Patterson, Danielle Steel, or any of a number of other prolific writers many collection development librarians would love to see stop publishing every five minutes, or whether their favorite author is someone local and probably small press.
These patron desires serve as our readers’ advisory gateway: they are the easy sell that opens them up to public librarians’ knowledge of what else is being published and those unknown or unusual titles in our collections. Without that initial request, we wouldn’t have the chance to let the vast majority of our public know about what else is on our shelves, which have the very left of center titles Smith advocates for.
Even more importantly, though, public libraries have, since their inception, prided themselves in making available to the public access to the materials they desire. This freedom of access, free of judgement, is a cornerstone to the mission of public libraries. Your Big Six publisher schlock is another person’s reason to come into the library. I have no right to pass judgement on what my patrons are reading, whether it is a book from the self-help collection or James Patterson.
When 23% of the American public reads two or fewer books a year (according to a 2010 Harris Interactive poll), we better make sure we have in our collections that one book‚ otherwise, what we will be left with is not the opportunity to provide that patron with ideas for other reading, but the likelihood that patron won’t be back, because the library doesn’t have anything good.
Add up every patron who has had an experience like that one, and you can see why people vote to close their local libraries or reduce budgets: not because we don’t have small press, or because we stock big budget books, but because of the simple reason that we didn’t have what they wanted, or that we didn’t have what they wanted when they wanted it.
I have a patron I regularly see on my Popular Library desk shift. He loves Nicholas Sparks, and he often comes to the desk to see when the new Nicholas Sparks book will be out (in case you are wondering, it is The Best of Me, and it is out in October). Every time, we try out new suggestions for other books he might like, and sometimes, he takes us up on them; more often than not, he’s happy just to have it re-confirmed that he really does have something to wait for.
This is clearly a fellow who is not going to read Rae Armantrout’s Versed‚ a title which, I would wager, many libraries purchased, along with the other Pulitzer Prize nominees, when the nominations came out, if they had not already‚ but he is a happy patron, who continues to give us the opportunity to talk with him about books.
Smith speaks of the redundancy factor: 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.
That scenario is plausible enough, for a very small, very select group of library patrons (12% of the total population, according a Pew study from May 2011). Many of our patrons‚ especially if we are developing our collections well‚ would rather get it free from the library. They’d rather wait three months than head over to Costco and pick up the book they want. Importantly, most can’t afford the kind of behavior Smith describes: they don’t have wireless access, an Amazon account, a Kindle, an extra $15 or $25.
Those are the hurdles, and the public library‚ and our 300 copies of the new Nicholas Sparks, many of which will be read within an inch of their lives before they make it to our used bookstore‚ is the cheap and easy option. The patron I mentioned above is probably going to get the Nicholas Sparks book on the release date, because we put him on the hold list for it as soon as it appeared in our catalog; hopefully everyone in line behind him also won’t have to wait too long, because our holds ratio will ensure those 300 copies are enough. It’s win-win: our patrons get it for free, and we get patrons who think the library is the best thing since sliced bread.
It is our job, as librarians, to have the readers’ advisory skills to help further their access to our collections‚ just as it is our collection development librarians and selectors’ jobs to create the most well-rounded, interesting, successful collections possible. Many of us are doing this in communities where the only options for obtaining books are either the library or a big-box chain store such as Walmart or Costco‚ places where you won’t have the opportunity for dialogue about what you are buying, never mind being referred to items in the midlist or from small press.
It is a delicate balance; the long tail and those left of center items are, in part, what is killing many a central library, as they sit unread on the shelves, requiring a vast overhaul to move away from the old warehouse model. Public libraries have fought, since their inception, to provide our patrons with access to what they desire: early in the 20th century, it was providing access to fiction for our patrons; at the beginning of the 21st, it was DVDs; now, it seems, it is to provide access to the titles they want to read, instead of the titles we think they should read.
– Stephanie Chase (@acornsandnuts) is interim Reference, Adult Services and Programming Coordinator for Multnomah County Library