Big Spender

Collection development starts with the budget. In Cuyahoga County, OH, that means the library’s executive team, led by Director Sari Feldman, and administrative team, led by Deputy Director Tracy Strobel, sit down and crunch the numbers. Once Wendy Bartlett, collection development manager, gets the resulting figure—some $8.5 million this year—she must divvy it up into all the various subjects, genres, and formats necessary to serve best the library system’s 28 branches and 884,035 cardholders—and maximize circulation of its materials, which reached 20,613,810 in 2012.

The first allocation is simple. “Our most popular items are fiction books, nonfiction books, DVDs, and kids’ books: the big four,” Bartlett tells LJ. “I stick a million dollars in each of those, and that is the backbone of the budget.” Another million goes into alternate formats, which include magazines and large print. Bartlett has a selector for each of those categories, so each manages the same amount of spending—except for Bartlett herself, who handles not only fiction but also most of the library’s $2 million dedicated to electronic materials (though other selectors help with certain categories, such as online movies).

STRATEGIC SELECTORS (L.–r.) Erica Bartik, DVD and music buyer; Wendy Bartlett, adult fiction and ebook buyer;  Bonnie Easton, adult nonfiction buyer; and Mary Schreiber, children’s book buyer. Not pictured, Melissa Barr,  alternative formats buyer. Photo by Mike Bullock

STRATEGIC SELECTORS (L.–r.) Erica Bartik, DVD and music buyer; Wendy Bartlett, adult fiction and ebook buyer; Bonnie Easton, adult nonfiction buyer; and Mary Schreiber, children’s book buyer. Not pictured, Melissa Barr, alternative formats buyer. Photo by David Bullock

Read, watch, listen, and play

This year, Cuyahoga held a collection summit to fine-tune its collection development strategy, attended by not only the executive director, deputy director, technical services director, and Bartlett but also her children’s selector, three branch managers, and three branch librarians. “We all just sat there and said what were our priorities, where do we want the money to go?” explains Bartlett.

For more on how collection development librarians select and purchase today, see “Getting Data Right

The consensus the summit reached was this: “We want to make sure we’re maximizing our new e-customers because the only increases we’re seeing are in ebook and e-audio; everything else is flat or in a slight decline. This is a powerful new customer; we’re superexcited about it.”

At that meeting, Strobel started something new. Instead of looking at the library’s collection as divided into print, electronic, and AV materials, now it is classified as “read, watch, listen, and play,” the latter including everything from toys to video games (see Table 3, below). “I just thought it was brilliant,” says Bartlett, since it refocused the staff on an items’ use by patrons rather than fussing about differentiating among ever-evolving format types.

Bartlett felt the summit was important not only because of its concrete policy changes but because “I came away from that meeting feeling really great about all us all being on the same page. We had such a good time, we’re going to do it every year,” she continues.

Also new as a result of the summit is the decision to spread the library’s holds ratio more equitably (see Table 1, below). “We used to do a real tight 2:1 holds ratio on fiction, but the collection summit felt we should spread that out so now it is 5:1 in all formats,” Bartlett says. “I was so excited when [Strobel] came up with this collection summit idea, because here I am going on marching orders from four years ago, doing 2:1 ratios, going broke.” The only exceptions to the new policy are hot fiction (3:1), “cold” DVDs and TV shows (10:1), and Blu-ray and games (12:1). “Wouldn’t I just love to have those DVDs and TV shows at 5:1, but I can’t afford it. I know it’s our most popular thing.”

Changing categories

Some categories that used to take up a solid chunk of Cuyahoga’s materials budget have themselves been weeded. The library hardly buys any serials any more, bar a couple of building codes, and purchases no print reference at all. Standing orders, once more common, are now used just for Harlequins. The system has eighty-sixed Cliff Notes and CD-ROMs and, finally, “just killed all the VHS catalog records after the beginning of the year,” Bartlett says. “We wanted to make certain the circ was as bad as we thought, and it was.”

TABLE 1: Revised Holds Ratios

ITEM New Ratio Old Ratio
Hot Fiction 3:01 2:01
Cold Fiction 5:01 2:01
Super Hot Nonfiction 3:01 3:01
Cold Nonfiction 5:01 3:01
Ebooks, E-audio 5:01 5:01
Large Print 5:01 5:01
Audiobooks 5:01 5:01
Playaway 5:01 5:01
Music CD 5:01 5:01
Hot DVD 5:01 6:01
Cold DVD 10:01 8:01
TV shows 10:01 12:01
Blu-ray, Games 12:01 12:01
SOURCE: Cuyahoga County public library

But, of course, as some categories dwindle, others arise to take their place. Electronic resources are growing, says Bartlett, including streaming audio from hoopla and video from OverDrive (e-audiobooks for youth are particularly gaining in popularity), Zinio for magazines, and an assortment of nontraditional offerings that are more interactive than standard databases.

Still buying by hand

Bartlett doesn’t rely on many of the alternatives to hand-buying that are available to libraries these days; Cuyahoga doesn’t lease books, nor does it use patron-driven acquisition—because, Bartlett explains, about 75 percent of patron requests turn out to be already available via either the collection or the OhioLINK consortium. Of the remainder, “I buy 99 percent…it is closer to 90 percent in TV shows because we just don’t have the budget.”

Bartlett uses carts of materials assembled and supplied by vendors, but she urges her selectors not to wait for them. “Our goal is, by the time the [Baker & Taylor] cart shows up every other week that we have bought almost everything” in it. “The cart is your safety net to run a duplicate check that you haven’t missed anything,” she explains.

“We’re really aggressive,” Bartlett adds, “Sometimes I’ve called up B&T and said, ‘Anne Rice just announced she’s doing another Vampire Lestat; can you get it in B&T?’ and by the middle of next week, by God, they do.”

Because Cuyahoga floats its collections, no matter where a book starts out, if patrons want it, staff call it in, and it is returned to the patrons’ local branch. Floating “really pinpoints those funny little microtrends that we can capture,” Bartlett says, such as seeing that all the Tuscany travel books are checked out. “That’s a huge help to us.” Sometimes, she says, the collection development department can spot these trends even before the busy branch staff do.

TABLE 2: 2014 Cuyahoga
County Materials Budget

Nonfiction $1,050,000
Standing Orders 75,000
Fiction 1,100,000
Newspapers 40,000
Serials 40,000
Periodicals/Magazines 125,000
Large Print 275,000
Audiobooks 400,000
Playaways 100,000
Music CDs 200,000
Blu-ray 75,000
DVDs 1,200,000
Media Box DVDs 13,880
TOTAL $4,693,880
E-audiobooks $650,000
Ebooks 1,100,000
Online Magazines 30,000
Online Resources 552,000
Hoopla 105,000
Online Movies 5,000
TOTAL $2,442,000
SOURCE: Cuyahoga County public library

Of the next generation of data tools for collection optimization, Cuyahoga is exploring the options. “We tried ­collectionHQ for six months, ran it, tested, and played with it, and it did not work well for us,” Bartlett says, “because some of its big selling points that work fabulously for other people [such as helping figure out which titles and quantities should be allocated to each branch] don’t apply to floating collections, and we were very lean and mean in weeding already.” The library is now exploring the adoption of Decision Maker from Innovative Interfaces, Inc.

Selecting style

Within her categories, Bartlett does not break down her budget into rigid subgenre budget lines. “Our biggest is thriller, then mystery, followed very closely by romance and inspirational, but I don’t have a separate item for each; we just buy as we go and cross our fingers that we have enough for everybody, and it always seems to work out,” she explains. “I look at what I spent last year and see if I ended up moving funds because I didn’t have enough.”

“I am always looking for frontlist,” Bartlett says of her process. “I mostly break it out by publisher because I came from the book business.” (She was regional manager for Borders stores before she switched to libraryland because she was traveling too much.) “I really rely on just knowing the publishers, the imprints, and the editors—if it is from Amy Einhorn or Pamela Dorman [both Penguin imprints], I’m all over it.” Since she no longer gets many publisher catalogs, Bartlett and her team do a lot of searching by publisher on vendor sites.

Bartlett’s schedule is so far ahead that she doesn’t always have many sources to rely on beyond her knowledge of the field: “I buy so far ahead in print, between Barbara Hoffert’s [Prepub Alert] column and my experience, I’m guessing,” she says of her buying decisions. But by the time the title is available in electronic format, the book’s been reviewed. “I don’t like that they don’t have it far ahead, but it’s good because it is more expensive” to buy the book in e-format, she explains, making it all the more important that she get the number of copies right.

In as much, of course, as that’s possible. “My boss likes to say ‘selection is part art and part science,’ and when it comes to how many to buy, it is mostly art, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff. I wish I had a more scientific answer,” Bartlett says, but “the worst thing you can do is buy by the numbers; it’s a mistake” to hew too closely to what customers have wanted before, without applying a judgment call based on the book itself. “Look at somebody like Jonathan Kellerman,” Bartlett offers the example. “The last three books, his fans take them, but [circulation is] not great. But the last book rose above that, so we had to buy more. You say, ‘It’s a Grisham but not a courtroom, I’m going to go a little lighter here. I can always buy more if holds are building.’ ”

Beyond reviews

Beyond reviews and editors’ track records, Bartlett relies on Twitter for book news—she particularly recommends a group of mystery authors called Jungle Red Writers—Early Word, especially for movie tie-in news, and attending conferences such as BoucherCon and the RT Booklovers Convention. “I like to hang out where the writers are,” she explains. “Ninety percent of the people you meet aren’t ever going to make it, but the other ten percent you can latch onto before they get famous.”

That skill at picking what’s going to be big before it is obvious was her competitive advantage at Borders. “I tried to find that book that was going to pop before it pops,” she says. Bartlett’s still doing it in the library world: “I just had a branch [staffer] call and say why do I have 12 copies of this? And I said, ‘Because it’s going to be huge.’ ”

Once the titles are ordered, Bartlett’s job is not over: she also writes a blog called Hot Title Thursday designed to call out to branch staff such books, for instance Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, which are not “in everyone’s face” as obvious best sellers but are “going to be a prize winner or beloved.”

Bartlett primarily relies on her own memory to coordinate buying the same title across print and electronic formats in fiction and doesn’t worry about coordinating her electronic nonfiction buying with her print nonfiction selectors because, she says, “We’re all sharing the same brain,” thanks to sharing not only a philosophy but knowledge of branch needs.

TABLE 3: Cuyahoga Library’s
Collection by Category

# IN % OF
READ 2,024,461 67.31%
Watch 582,587 19.37
Listen 392,378 13.05
Play 7,795 0.26
Other 609 0.02

When ebooks with limited licenses expire, Bartlett looks at the circulation rather than renewing automatically. Backlist is treated much the same way. Thanks to OhioLINK and ­SearchOhio, Bartlett can “rely on our friends” for things like the middle of a midlist series when requested.

Independent measures

However, Cuyahoga makes sure not to rely on the consortia for too much. “We have a core collection,” Bartlett says. “We put a note in the 590 field for everything we want to make core, so we can run that report twice a year and see how many copies we have and leave them out of the weeding lists even if they didn’t circulate. About ten percent of my budget and time is invested in making sure I have collection integrity; you’re not going to walk in here and not find Pride and Prejudice.”

Her team enjoys the challenge of finding specialty items that are not available through library suppliers.

“Street fiction is a great example,” Bartlett says. “[My staff] don’t seem to have much of a problem finding it as long as they have a name and a phone number. The bigger challenge was Russian and Ukrainian books, which we are now getting from Eastview, and we’re really happy with them.”

“The only things we can’t get are things that they see on TV and can only get through the website,” Bartlett explains, or the occasional Kindle Single, but that doesn’t come up often, only about once every other month.

Get into the branches

Besides her bookselling background, Bartlett’s selection acumen has a simple basis: the branches. Branch librarians are polled via Survey Monkey to indicate low, medium, or high interest in each topic, which determines initial ­allocations.

But Bartlett doesn’t rely on surveys alone. “Your collection lives in the branches; get out of the office!” she advises. “There is no substitute for…talking, not just to your staff but your actual, honest to God customers,” she continues. “That will tell you more than anything you read, blog, or hear from a library publicist.”

It is particularly important because Cuyahoga’s branches are far from a one-size-fits-all audience. “What is fascinating about working in this particular library system is that we have 28 branches, and they are all extremely different,” Bartlett says. “I have four branches demanding to know why I don’t have something obscure that they heard about on NPR and others where customers have no time to leisure read. They may pick up something that was talked about in the sermon on Sunday—we [have] a lot of inspirational and religion titles—but mostly practical nonfiction in print; they don’t have an iPad.”

TABLE 4: Cuyahoga Library’s
Collection by Format

Books 1,762,534
Ebooks 174,527
Video 582,528
Recordings 363,454
Software 19
Other 8,385
TOTAL 2,891,447

Bartlett and her selectors each sub 12 times a year in the branches. Even within the branch, some placements allow her to gather more collection development data than others. “I didn’t hear anything new on the reference desk that the staff didn’t tell me, so I switched to circulation so people will talk to me more and I will see the condition of the books.” The trend toward self-check, she says, hasn’t changed that. “We talk right over the self-check.”

Looking forward

In Bartlett’s view, “There has never been a more exciting time to be in collection development.” She cites the power of electronic resources not only to offer convenience to existing patrons but to bring “different blocks of customers” to the library, as well as the role of social media in allowing the library to interact with both patrons and staff more directly than ever before. While some might see the trend toward the library as community center as threatening the central role of the collection, that’s not how it looks to Bartlett. The “future of the library’s role in the community becomes more and more critical,” she says, “and as the library’s future goes, so goes collection development, even though the face of that collection may look very different than it did five years ago or will five years from now.” She concludes that the key is to keep looking ahead and not backward. “The ability to move fast and let go of formats that aren’t working and take chances on formats that may [be big] becomes the difference between mourning the collection development job as it used to look and enjoying the fabulous and fascinating ride that this job has morphed into being.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!
About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.


  1. Janice Krusoczky says:

    The first paragraph states the 2014 budget to be $8.5 million, yet the combined total of the figures in the budget charts is $7,135,880 – creating a surplus of $1,364,120 if the budget is adhered to.

    • Holly Varley says:

      The budget header says “Adult,” so I’d bet that’s not a surplus, but the amount spent on juvenile and teen materials.

  2. Spencer says:

    So, am I correct then when my math shows they their total annual circulation divided by the annual materials budget gives me a ratio of $0.41 per circ? Is that admirable?

    • Melissa Jeffrey says:

      I think you have to subtract out some of the databases that aren’t easily classifiable into “circs”.