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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ordering Fiction for a General Collection

Today and tomorrow the BPL is closed but offering limited service and programming outside.  It has been a bit crazy this summer with sporadic closures, but we did get a Federal grant to fix the AC, so we are at the government's mercy here.  At least we saved the people of Berwyn money.

By the way, limited service includes accepting returns and checking out items from the reserve shelves. Weather permitting, the day’s daily papers will also be available, and an ongoing craft or activity will be set  up on the lawn, with a story time (open to children of all ages) at 11:00 a.m.  And nothing with a 7/12 or 7/13 due date will be due until Friday.

Limited service does not mean the staff is idle.  I just put in 2.5 hours of work doing nothing but ordering books.  Since it is quiet, I had time to really look at the reviews and it made me think about sharing some of my thoughts for buying fiction for a general public library browsing collection.

I have been responsible for about half of the adult fiction purchases for the BPL for the last 11 years.  I have seen trends come and go and even come back again in that time.  Next to helping patrons, ordering the books gives me some of my best job satisfaction.  I particularly love ordering a "sleeper" book and 
then seeing it off of the new shelf days after it comes in. Not to mention the joy of getting to read all of the reviews and order everything that looks good without breaking my personal bank.

This point leads me to the overall question though of how do you sort through the huge number of books which come out every week and decide what your library should and should not have?  Well, not surprisingly, I have a few guidelines and opinions about that. 

First, know your collection.  You cannot begin ordering books for any fiction collection until you have spent time in the stacks.  What books does your library already own?  Which authors have high holds? What types of books are they asking for already?  You need to spend time assessing what the library already has, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and where there are growth opportunities.  Also, you need to have an overall mission for the collection.  For example, at Berwyn we are a general, browsing collection.  We are not there to archive, for example, every Best American Short Stories book, instead we have the last 3 years always available.

Second, know your community. Who lives in your town? What are their ages, nationalities, races etc...? At Berwyn we have a large senior population, lots of people with families, and Hispanic and African American communities.  As a result we have a lot of cozy mysteries, book discussion type titles, domestic fiction, and urban lit.  Beyond the bestsellers it is important to know the people who are coming into your building.  I am not saying you should generalize what books to buy based on how your patrons look, but you need to make some assumptions based on demographics to get your started and to make sure you are reacting to your patrons needs appropriately.

Third, read the professional review journals.  You cannot order books without looking at the key review journals written specifically for book buyers and/or librarians.  We use PW, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Fourth, read the reviews you patrons are reading. But the professional journals alone are not enough.  You also have to read what your patrons are reading.  You need to  know what books they are hearing about on their own.  See below to see how we handle this issue at the BPL.

Fifth, check the return carts regularly.  The return carts hold the secret to your collection.  I am not exaggerating here. Too many librarians think shelving is beneath them and/or leave the return carts to the minimum wage pages.  Those who read this blog regularly know I feel strongly about this issue (click here if you want to know more). So get off your butt and go look at the return carts.  This is everything the people in your community have recently brought home with them.  Notice I didn't say "read." We can't know if they read the book or not, but we do know that it intrigued them enough to take it home.  This is a snapshot of what your patrons want right now!  You cannot massage the reports feature on your catalog to get better results than of you simply go look at the return cart.  Make sure, however, that your visit it on different days of the week and at least 2x per month to understand what your patrons are looking for.

Sixth, start an automatic holds program. One of the best things we ever did at the BPL to help us understand what we should be ordering was to ask our patrons to give us their favorite authors to put on a Holds Without Hassle (HWH) list. Not only are our patrons happy that their favorite books are put on hold for them without their having to ask, but we also have a sense of the most popular authors at our library.  This allows us to keep an eye out for new authors who write similarly to our patrons' favorites.  Thankfully many of the professional review journals mention "for fans of ____" in their reviews.  And because of HWH, we know who our patrons are fans of already.

Seventh, meet with all selectors a few times a year.  If you regularly see each other, 4 official times a year should be sufficient.  But you need to get together to discuss things like your standing author lists  (which we are revising right now), talk about trends, compare notes, and simply have a conversation what is working or not working.

One final point.  Libraries have many different ways that they order fiction.  With nonfiction, librarians normally divvy out ordering by Dewey numbers.  In fiction, some libraries also divvy the work by genre.  However at the BPL we have always done it a bit differently and I think it gives us a stronger collection.

We divvy up the work by review journal.  Right now we have three people ordering: me, Kathy and Sharon.  Kathy handles Publisher's Weekly, Sharon takes Booklist and manages the HWH list, and I am responsible for Library Journal, Entertainment Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, all NY Times book coverage, NPR book coverage, and any other popular media which regularly covers books and is read by our patrons.  I am also the one who checks the big blogs for buzz about new books.

Many other fiction librarians are surprised that we do things this way.  All I can say is that it works for us.  It means that there is not one person who knows everything about one genre and nothing about the rest. In this current landscape of genre blending, I really appreciate our method.  However, because of this overlapping system, we do have to make sure we catch duplicate order requests.  To do that we have one person (Kathy) compile all of the orders and sift out duplicates before she puts the orders through.   

To spread the knowledge outside of the selectors brains only, we also have another staff member, Connie, type up the new books list which we put out for patrons, and yet another person, Betty, work on our "Sneak Peaks" list of noteworthy upcoming titles.   As a result of these procedures, the entire RA staff is well versed in all the newest books. The more we all know about ALL of the new books, the better we can help our patrons as a team.

Let me know your thoughts on how you order books for your library.  Now I will move on to planning the August display on Spy Fiction.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

another awesome, practical post Becky. I agree with all of your points. I've worked in a number of different situations, from solo collection dev librarian to part of a team. My most recent position, we had 4 of us buying the fiction collection, but we divvied it up by author last name. Then rotated every 6 months. This was fun because it allowed everyone to be an "expert" on their alpha range, and yet switched us around to make sure everyone was familiar with the rest of the authors too.