How do libraries know what books to buy?

I was wandering around my town’s library yesterday afternoon. Even for a small town library, it had a decent collection of books on almost every subject imaginable. That made me wonder how the librarians know which books to buy so that their collections are well rounded and fairly complete. How do they decide to buy say, the definitive work on American quiltmaking in the 17th century when community interest would be much better served if they bought a guide to quiltmaking in the 18th century. This was just for a small town library.

I imagine that it is much harder still for librarians in research university libraries or major city libraries. How do they know if their patrons really need the newest edition of the atlas of the dissection of the mouse brain? They can’t possibly know people’s needs and interest in every subject. What tools do they use and how do they do it?

A bunch of library school classes on materials selection. Really.

At the public library (third largest in the nation) where I work, individual subject department librarians are constantly reading book reviews in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the NYT Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Library Journal. We also get these stack of nifty index cards from LJ and Choice that have capsule reviews usually ending with phrases like “Recommended for academic libraries with an extensive quiltmaking collection.”

It’s more of an art than a science, really, but once you get the hang of your collection and the population you’re supposed to be serving, it’s not too diffucult to make an educated guess as to what you should buy.

Where’s BobT?

(Not a professional librarian, just doing involuntary community service in a small town library, so I picked up a few things)

In small town libraries, I think, an important thing is experience. If they buy a few books on a topic and those hardly ever get borrowed, while others are out constantly, they’ll learn about the readership’s tastes pretty quickly. Sometimes they also follow hypes - if, say, Buddhism is in, try to get a few Dalai Lama books, for instance. The decision for a specific book after you’ve decided for a certain topic boils down to looking up reviews written about those books.

At many universities, individual departments are given an annual library budget, most of which is used to buy new books for the library (subscribing to journals is a different thing completely). This departmental budget is usually distributed amongst the individual faculty members, who just fill out “purchase this book and use these funds” forms for the library.

I would also guess that, like bookstores, they receive advance reader’s copies from publishers. They can read the book and assess whether it fits in with the collection they currently have.

I don’t know whether public libraries have anything like this, but in high school I was on the Media Advisory Committee, which was made up of students who got to read ARCs, write a quick review and let the school librarian know whether we thought the school ought to buy it.

I work in an academic library. Every department (history, biology, etc.) is allotted X amount of money to spend anyway they wish, then they parsel it out among faculty usually based on classes taught, seniority, etc., (“Dr. Stephens has $145, Dr. McMann has $82, Dr. Tate has $212”), and that’s how we get most of our “circulating” collection. The librarians choose the reference books (the books that can’t be checked out- encyclopedias, almanacs, literary series, etc.) based on several factors. Most of it is through noticing what students ask for and how well we meet their needs; Is this 20 volume Biology Encyclopedia current enough to mention cloning? Do we have enough Virginia Woolf questions to warrant this 85 Virginia Woolf Encyclopedia? What's been written with *@#*(@#*ing ROSE FOR EMILY explication this year?
Then at the end of the year we usually get some “windfall” money that can be spent however we see fit. It might be $300 or it might be $60,000, and usually there’s a time limit. One of my finest moments was when I had to spend $4000 on children’s books in 6 hours- I don’t have kids of my own, my youngest nephews and nieces are teenagers, other than Harry Potter I never read children’s books, and I know almost nothing about the subject, but that’s when you educate yourself really fast.
BTW, I’ll let you in on a trade secret: there are several bibliographic databases with scholarly and or pertinent info on books of all kinds, and they include Books-in-Print, WorldCat, Bowkers Online, etc., BUT whenever I need info on a book (including reviews, price, etc.) the first place I turn is the same first stop of every other librarian I know: It’s probably the best bibliographic data source there is. (Unfortunately we usually buy from other vendors because they’re not always the best prices for libraries.)

When I worked in public libraries, several people were irritated when they donated books to us and later saw them on the table at our yearly book sale. Many people don’t understand that every book a library receives, even if it’s free, costs money to shelve (no library has unlimited shelving space, so you reach a time when you can’t file something without taking something out [that’s called ‘weeding’]), plus it has to be cataloged [which can take one minute or can take a week], plus it may have to be rebound, so it’s a judgment call as to whether this copy of Frances Parkinson Keyes STEAMBOAT GOTHIC should be put on the shelf or sold to buy something newer.

Yeah…sigh I’m taking collection development this spring.

It depends on the library and their policies. For some large academic libraries, there are faculty contacts within the library - when they receive notification of new books within the interests of the department, they ask that department if the book should be purchased.

There are also companies that pre-select certain books to be sent for evaluation to libraries. The library may specify that all books in a certain series be sent for purchase.

In the end, it comes down to budget - to get what is most useful to as many users as possible and stay within their budget. From what I understand so far, it can be a serious balancing act.

Also, always remember that if your local library doesn’t have a book on the topic you need, they can order it for you through interlibrary loan. It usually takes just a few days, it’s usually either free or a nominal fee ($1 or so), and it can be used for books, magazine articles, videotapes, CDs, or anything else that a library allows to circulate. It essentially puts every library in America in your neighborhood.
While this is a universal library service, you’d be amazed how many people aren’t familiar with it. It’s not at all common knowledge; I have to tell college students about it everyday.

Well, besides the ways mentioned above, publishers send catalogs. The catalogs are nifty, and are from companies we’ve bought from before. If I see something cool, I look for reviews. I am at a pediatric consumer health library, so that means that what I can buy is a pretty narrow category, so anything that is newly published is pretty exciting, IMHO. Also, we have clinicians who make recommendations/requests.

I think catalog-browsing is pretty prevalent among public librarians as well, when I did the dread-library-school-public-library-internship, the librarians there simply marked every cool item they saw in publisher catalogs. They did this with purpose (ie, “We have nothing new in Buddhism, so I’ll mark every remotely interesting new item in these eastern-religion catalogs…”) Then they would have some poor victim (read, me) write down all the marked items and track down the bibliographic info for each item, and once armed with this info, they would look for reviews and then decide what to buy. These folks really knew their subject areas.

I don’t know if it’s been mentioned yet, but there are also books that list items that are suited for certain libraries. In our case, it’s “Consumer health information sourcebook” by Alan M. Rees.

I don’t work in that end, but there are no shortage of places to find information about what books to buy.

A lot of libraries have vendors that handle most of the work however.

But we do do some work when we’re not on the reference desk!

Most of the public libraries I’ve worked at (about 5 or 6 over the years) don’t outsource their collection development but rely on the knowledge of their staff. Reviews from NYT, Library Journal, Booklist and many other similar publications keep us informed. It’s a huge balancing act trying to keep up with all formats (books, periodicals, CDs, video tapes, books tape, books on CDs, and now DVDs–all with what we’re given for a budget. Many libraries also use purchase request slips for the patrons to fill out if there’s something they want that we’ve missed in all the reviews. In a public library it’s all about serving the local community, so what they want is what we try our best to provide.

Amazing, and here I thought all library books were donated.

If that were the case, libraries would have nothing but copies of “National Geographic” and several thousand volumes of collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

Not many people donate microfilm reels of the Times of London from 1790.

Or the 1931 Farmer’s Almanac.

However, the Federal Government gives away nearly all of its stuff to libraries.

And even some of it is useful!

Patron input is important. Librarians in the small towns I’ve lived in expect input from library users about what materials to include in the collection. When my wife and I signed up at the local library in our new town, we were asked what kind of books and periodicals we were interested in - a kind of survey for purchasing. At my previous library, one phone call was all it took to get two periodical subscriptions back on the shelves.

BobT, when you say the federal govt. gives away nearly all its stuff to libraries, are you talking about the reports they release, census information, changes to bills etc, or does the US government actually produce honest to goodness books on real subjects?

I know there are govt. bookstores where I am, and they do sell real books, but they are mostly books that are not produced by the government itself, but are rather related to something that the government may be organizing. For instance, 2001 was our Centenary of Federation year, and the government bookstores had books for sale that would be celebrating that. You could, however, still get these books from normal bookstores. If the US govt had something like that, an “unofficial” government product, would you get that for free also?

I was referring to the GPO (Government Printing Office) Depository Program.

Basically a library that participates can get just about anything that the government churns out. The problem is that often the government churns out a lot of stuff. And much of it isn’t all that useful.

And some of the more important technical reports have been sent out to a private concern, so libraries do have to pay for them.

I’m familiar with the GPO bookstores. If it were selling a book by a private publisher, a library would not get it for free. But libraries do get the Statistical Abstract of the United States for free and that’s one of the coolest things in any library. (It’s all online now also.)

The GPO has cut way back on stuff it prints out and prefers to make everything electronic. Except for legal materials.

But there are still a lot of things published. I have the revision to part 2 of the “Museum Handbook” from the Dept. of Interior on my desk. My problem is that I can’t find any of the original parts. So I have sort of a white elephant on my desk.

Such is the nature of working with Gov Docs.