Does It Matter What Books Your Library Has?

Last April, I asked about Library Patrons and Self-Published Books.

When it comes to books and readers and library patrons (or customers or members or whatever you prefer), my philosophy is fairly simple:

Give readers what they want.

Implementing that is complex: it’s about knowing what readers want, specifically, in terms of titles. It’s knowing the market, what was published this year, five years ago, next year, ten years ago, so that you can utilize reader’s advisory and collection development and weeding to create a library collection that contains books that will fill that want and need beyond the specific titles requested. It’s about knowing what readers are asking for when they want a book “like” another, and that “like” is not saying “all mysteries meet a need for mysteries.” It’s about patrons who think they go into a library and “find books by themselves,” because they don’t realize all the hard work that goes into creating that shelf of books they browse. And it’s about librarians being OK with not getting the credit, but knowing that it is work, so that it’s not something cut or ignored during budget talks, and so that it’s not something dismissed when shinier technologies get attention.

Self published books and libraries are a tricky thing, in significant part because most aren’t reviewed by the review journals upon which most collection development policies rely. The review journals are critical to collection development because library staff cannot read all the books before deciding whether or not to add a book to the collection. Librarians need to be able to rely on objective reviews so that the book itself is being evaluated, rather than the advertising budgets involved or possible manipulations of best seller lists. Also, frankly, librarians need reviews that are short — that are quick and easy to read, because of the volume of reviews that are being read. Adding self published titles to the collection usually means following existing policies; typically, it will allow “local interest” books by local authors to be added without such reviews, or a title may indeed get reviewed by the required journals.

What of the books not so reviewed? How does a library make a determination of adding that book? Does a library find the blogs that reviews those books, evaluate the bloggers and the blog, and then buy based on those blog reviews? That is very doable, but requires a lot more work on the behalf of librarians than using traditional review journals. What requires even more work is paying staff to read the books themselves, and add to the collection based on those readings. I think one, if not both, are needed when adding self-published books to the collection because we give readers what they want, and how can we do that if we don’t know about the titles we add to the collection?

Let me add a qualifier to the giving readers what they want, and the patron coming in and browsing those shelves of selected titles: there are books beyond number out there, and libraries select only a few of what is available to purchase and to keep on their shelves, and patrons know this and rely on this even if they cannot or do not articulate it.

Which brings me to Brian Kenney’s Giving Them What They Should Want at Publishers Weekly. Go, read it. OK, back? Let me say that I agree with just about everything Kenney says or asks; but I’ll point to a few things, especially, in context of adding books to the collection. The context, for those who didn’t click through (and you really should), is public libraries adding ebooks to their collection that are self published because they are easier and cheaper and more available that the big 6 titles:

But how to find those nuggets? In order to decide what to acquire, LaRue says DCL and Smashwords worked on an algorithm, using sales data to produce a collection. Initial forays, he says, were heavy on erotica, but through tweaking they arrived at a more balanced data set—although one that is still strong in genre fiction. There is also plenty of nonfiction, including health, self-help, and personal finance—but all seemingly unreviewed.”

An algorithm. If this isn’t accurate, please, share the additional information, but this removes the professional element of collection development and readers advisory — it doesn’t even try to get those reviews or review the titles in-house.

Then, this: “Perhaps most surprising is that DCL is acquiring e-books for children through Smashwords. Books for children are still vetted closely by most public libraries, with review media playing an important role. “Can we vet every children’s book before we add it? I am not sure that we can,” LaRue says, noting the he suspects DCL might “get stung once or twice.”

I can’t even. Because if this is accurate, it sounds like it’s saying that books are just widgets, it doesn’t matter what the quality or content is, as long as it’s on the shelf, and as for the skills of collection development and readers advisory, well, let’s stop using those skills and instead wait to get stung.

I’m not saying not to buy self published ebooks. I’m saying, allow reviews from blogs; have the procedures in place to identify those blogs that are reliable; have staff read the books; and pay library staff for finding these blogs, reading those blogs, and reading those titles. Yes, it’s going to cost you — but isn’t that what libraries do? Pay professionals to utilized professional skills to provide professional services to our patrons?

So, what are your thoughts on libraries and self published ebooks?

13 thoughts on “Does It Matter What Books Your Library Has?

  1. comment via twitter from JoshuaBGross I want to share: “algorithms can do many wonderful things, but they can’t interpret data that don’t exist. I trust my librarians to curate.”


  2. At a recent school visit I was talking about book cove design and al kid said to me, “I hate when the cover lies to me.” By which he meant that if the cover promises one kind of book (genre, reading level, gender of characters, level of scariness) and turns out to be something different he gets VERY upset. It’s a betrayal of trust and it’s hard to get a kid who feels such a betrayal to try another book. Especially when so many other things are vying for attention.

    It’s the same problem with self-pubbed books. I want to know what I’m getting when I buy and e-book, but I don’t have confidence in the current review process, the name and imprint of the printing house doesn’t tell me anything in the way that it does for a traditional publishing house. The covers and flap copy are sometimes accurate and sometimes not. I’d like to be more supportive of indy writers but my reading time is very limited and I hate wasting it on a book that lied to me in its presentation.


    1. Rosanne, great point about covers. And betrayal of trust: see, that’s what I think could happen if patrons keep finding subpar materials. And yes, yes, yes to limited reading times. It’s why I emphasize, if libraries want this, they need to pay staff for that reading time.


  3. Thank you for recognizing the work that goes into collection development and that it’s NOT something that can be done by a computer, an algorithm, or even a person going through a catalog saying, “this looks good … and this one… I like the cover on that book…”


    1. Marie, thank you! and exactly — catalog copy or jacket is not enough to determine whether something should get added to the collection. It may spark our interest to look for those reviews, but not be the only reason.


  4. Comment from Facebook : “Reminds me a bit of collections driven by AR or CCSS or some other “algorithm.” It also says (subtly) that a program can do collection development. Ignores human element you note.”


    1. I’ve read some mixed things from self pub authors; it really varies. The ones w/ Smashwords all opt in for this. And we just saw that author in the UK speak out against libraries, and in a country that has public lending rights so authors get $ from library loans (something I think we may want to talk about in the US, to be honest).


  5. So DCL’s director’s view of children’s services is, what? Give ’em anything to read, no matter the quality, as long as we don’t get “stung” by something inappropriate that gets a parent upset? Ooh, I know you wrote “I can’t even” , but I’d love to hear you go further with that comment.
    Thanks for reminding us what goes into creating a wonderful shelf to browse–I love my local branch collection developers!


    1. Given how often I’ve seen/read things misquoted or taken out of context, I’m half hoping this isn’t the full story or explanation. Glass half full! I’ll go further when/if I find out more about how this works, exactly.
      I feel strongly that collection development, and readers advisory, matter and that self published books shouldn’t be held to a lesser standard just because they are currently cheaper/easier to have in libraries.


    1. thanks, Sondy! And I think we need to speak up to ensure this is appreciated, just as much as makerspaces or coding or other things are appreciated and valued.


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