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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Common Misconception About Library Books

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 05, 2006

Many years ago a library customer mentioned to me that the "library should call the publishers and have them send more books about landscaping." I wrote down her suggestion, and pondering the way she had phrased the statement, said, "I will look for new books, and select some to purchase for the collection."

The customer responded with the comment, "Publishers just send libraries the books for free, don't they?" It is a common misconception; but the fact is that libraries have to purchase new materials for the library collection.That process has changed over the past 35 years of my career.

In the 1970s, librarians read book reviews printed on 3 x 5 index cards that contained all the information about the book as well as a review of its contents. We also read trade publications such as "Library Journal" and "Publisher's Weekly" for additional reviews and information about the publishing world and trends.

Book salesmen visited libraries with samples of upcoming books, and dust jackets, outside covers, and galley proofs of the books to be published.These were often all-day sessions involving several library staff looking, comparing, evaluating and choosing new books for the library.

Publisher's catalogs were sent to every library in the nation, and we kept them carefully filed by name for review and selection. Librarians also counted on the suggestions and comments from the public, especially new authors and trends in information demands.

It is now 2006, and book selection has changed with the times. First, librarians are selecting more than the printed word.  Various audio-visual products have been added to the library collection and they require the same selection as books. Some information products don't even exist in a physical state.  We order e-books for the collection and never "see" what we purchased, just the bytes that make it work.

Secondly, some things have disappeared from the selection process.  Book salesmen have nearly disappeared and replaced with online selection of books.The index cards with reviews departed with the card catalog with the same card format.

On the other hand, the use of reviews continues and the library staff participates in the selection process.  Suggestions from the public are received and added to the process.

What is new is the impact of external forces on book demand.  Television, movies, and Oprah Winfrey have been added to the mix, and suddenly books published years before achieve a market demand within an hour of Oprah's promotion. New marketing tools are used over the Internet to promote books.  E-mails are sent to librarians around the world promoting this book and that book.

The latest effort is to send the Contact Person on a library website an e-mail and say, "I am a user of your library and wondered when you will be getting this book?" In reality, it is someone promoting his or her book trying to get you to purchase the book from a suggestion. It has made the process of book selection far more complex than 1970.

Selection and ordering is online, with things shipped directly from a warehouse to the library.  Reviews are online, pictures of the books are online, and availability is online. I do miss the all-day meeting with salesmen.  There was something special in seeing the real book on the table, probably just an age thing for me.

And those 3 x 5 cards made great scrap cards, unlike the scrap from printers that you have to cut to make good slips for notes. But, there are still books on the shelf; they have been joined by other formats with other purposes.

Ben Franklin would still recognize his library in 2006.