May 30 2012 1:00pm

Nothing Personal: Adding Books to a Library Collection

The New York Public Library lion by Dave Newman newmanchuWe asked H&H blogger Robin Bradford to share secrets from her day job as a librarian, where she’s the one deciding what books are bought for her library.

When asked to do a column on how I decide what books to add to the library collection, the task seemed both easy (I do this 40 hours a week) and impossible. There are collection development policies, and patron requests, choice of formats and item availability. There are differing philosophies: classic collection vs. contemporary and fresh; fewer individual titles but lots of copies of popular books, vs. a deep collection with fewer copies of the same book; hardcover titles only vs. trade paper vs. mass market (regular or premium tall edition). Did I forget to mention audiobooks? (Digital or CD or MP3 or Playaway?) And if you’re at all interested in libraries, you know the ebook battle that’s been going on the past few years has been epic, with no signs of settling any time soon. When faced with trying to describe all of that in a blog post, I nearly cried. So, here is a basic overview of things I consider when deciding what to add to our collection.


Sadly, this really is the beginning, middle, and end of most purchasing decisions. The smaller the budget, the fewer titles you can provide to your patrons. Do you spend that money on multiple copies of really popular titles, or go for more individual titles but potentially leaving popular titles with longer hold lists? Whatever philosophy you choose, money is at the head of the decision. Thankfully, even when we had financial problems, we didn’t have to make the truly hard collection decisions that many other libraries have faced in recent years.

Collection development can sometimes be a game of (Thrones? Shadows? Chicken?) trying to guess what titles/authors/subjects will resonate with the particular readers in your community at a particular time. Even people with the biggest collection development budgets can’t buy everything (and if they could, they couldn’t fit it on the available shelves) so what is it that people really want?

One of the easiest things mark off the list are popular books. Is there any library that will take a pass on the new Nora Roberts? It could be in hardcover, trade paper, mass market, or exclusively on a SIM card, with military grade digital encryption, we’d still buy it. If you’re a bigger library, you’re going to buy more than one.

If you’re a really big library system, you’re going to buy more than 100. How you’re going to catalog, label and shelve those SIM cards is a problem you’ll solve when they arrive! It doesn’t matter if it gets rave or rank reviews, it’s Nora Roberts! In some ways, this is the easiest purchase of the day. Ditto that for Grisham, Patterson, Evanovich, and every other author that is a big draw in almost any community. The question isn’t usually should I purchase, but how many do I need this time?

I look at a few things when checking for titles to add to the collection:

Is this new book part of a series? If so, how is the series doing in our system?
Books in series aren’t always clearly labeled, either on the book or in copy about the book. But, if you do any kind of research about the book (anything from a search of the author’s website to an Amazon search) you can usually find the information that you need. If the series of books is doing well, buying the new copy makes sense. If the series is doing really well, I’ll bump up the number of copies purchased.

If not a series book, but we have other books by the author in our system, how are they doing?

What this is trying to determine is: has the author established an audience? It could be that the series books are extremely popular, but the standalone novels struggle. Even if that is the case, there is probably enough name recognition for the author that the library will buy the title. In some cases, these are exactly the books library patrons will turn to the library to find, instead of purchasing for themselves. They don’t want to own the standalone books, but they like the author and have a curiosity. If the library didn’t have them, they might borrow it from a friend, or they might not bother. If the author has generated minimal interest overall in our system, I may pass on the book. This isn’t a value judgment. I may, personally, be interested in reading the book. If, based on past performance, the stats show I’m likely to be the only one interested in reading the book, then it isn’t right for our system.

Is the book by a debut author?

This is a little bit of my personal philosophy coming into play here, but I make an extra effort to purchase books by debut authors. Again, patrons may be less likely to (for financial or other reasons) purchase books by debut authors, so the library is one more channel for their work to be seen. It may catch on, and it may not, but at least there is an opportunity for it to be seen.

Again with the series….

Raise your hand if you get highly irritated when the library is missing books in a series. Yes, I thought so. Libraries don’t do this just to irritate you, believe me. Books get lost/missing/damaged and that’s what happened. It is likely we had book 4 of the series, at one point, but don’t anymore. If the rest of the series is still popular, I’ll go back and order book 4 (and check all the other books to see if they need new copies as well.) If book 4 is missing, but books 1-3 haven’t gone out in 2 years, and the series has ended? Maybe the interest in the series has run its course, and we can get rid of books 1-3. That frees up shelf on the space, and we’re not spending money on a series that has had its day. This is less likely to happen if the series is ongoing, because there is always someone who wants to go back and read the older titles when the newest book comes out. Sometimes, a title in the series is out of print and we can’t get a new copy. This is especially frustrating when the series is a long running one that is still churning out new titles. We buy what we can, and the rest try to borrow for our patrons from other libraries. (Interlibrary loan.)

These are only a few considerations that go into how and what we buy for our shelves. In the end, my goal for the fiction collection is for everyone to have the opportunity to visit old favorites, keep up with current favorites, and discover new favorites.

New York Public Library image courtesy of Dave Newman (newmanchu) via Flickr


Robin Bradford is a lawyer, a librarian and, most importantly, full on Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices addict. You can check her out on Twitter@tuphlos, On Unpaged, or on the new blog Collection Reflection.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Dragon47
Great post, Robin! I haven't bought a book in a couple of years, thanks to the library and interlibrary loans. I also love being able to download digital copies to read on my Kindle. I knew it boiled down to money, but it's still interesting to learn a little about the process.
2. Catherine Bybee
I donate my books...all my print books, to my local library.

Great post.
3. Moi
"That frees up shelf on the space"?
Post a comment