The Meaning of "Book" | Selection Considerations | Evaluation Criteria for Book Selection | Selection Tools | The Disappearing Issue of In-Print & Out-of-Print Books | E-Books | Further Information | Self-Assessment #4
The Meaning of "Book"
So many books, so little time—and so little money to spend on them! While public library collections contain a variety of resources, books still make up the majority of the collection. A balanced book collection should represent the diverse recreational, informational, self-help, and educational interests of the community. The challenge lies in choosing the right books (among the thousands of fiction and non-fiction books published each year) that will satisfy the needs of the community without going over budget. In addition, there is the challenge of changing book formats. This section will address traditional print books and electronic versions of books. The marketplace also now has increasing numbers of books being published only “on demand” so that as a copy is ordered, it is produced as needed but no physical copies are being warehoused as in a “just in case” model of production. A warehouse filled with books waiting to be purchased is no longer the only way to do business. This section addresses the primary selection considerations, selection criteria, and selection tools for books to help you make these tough selection decisions.
While it is increasingly the practice for some types of books to be published in a wide range of series, both numbered and unnumbered, it is still true that books are considered monographic (i.e., items that are available as single units to be selected and purchased one at a time and usually to have individual bibliographic records). For convenience we may place some series as standing orders with our suppliers or vendors so as not to inadvertently miss a title in the series bet we still consider each item a single monograph. We may also, for the sake of convenience, purchase a selection of books without evaluating each title one at a time. This has been true with many electronic book purchases where titles are bundled together by the vendor or publisher as an appropriate selection for a particular type and/or size of library. These practices are for the purpose of convenience in an increasingly complex information environment. For the most part though, we still select books one title at a time.
There are a number of important considerations to keep in mind when choosing books (both print and electronic) to add to a collection. A general selection goal that applies to any resource is to get the best quality item to serve the most people at the best price. One consideration related more specifically to books is whether to buy the “best” fiction (the so-called “classics” and award winners) or to buy fiction that is most likely to be read (best-sellers and other popular fiction materials). While there should be some balance in your collection (depending on your collection goals and the interests of your local community), deciding how much money to allocate for these different resources can be tricky and in today’s media driven consumer society, it is essential to understand the role and mission of your library in your community.
A building filled with unused “classics” can become a museum where the best writing of past and even current times is preserved. Three concepts to consider in this regard are:
- Public libraries are for use – the more the better.
- Interlibrary loan can be used to supplement one’s collection for the occasional request for a “classic” but interlibrary loan is an inappropriate and very expensive way to fill the demand for current, popular titles.
- It is difficult to define a “classic” since such an item is identified partly by one’s own preferences, one’s education and cultural background, one’s age and all of the other factors that make our individuals histories unique.
One useful way to think about classics is to think in terms of authors of importance or as representative of a time, place, genre, movement. Then it is possible to identify perhaps the one or two best titles which are likely to be the ones most frequently requested of a local public library. A good example of how this applies in a public library is the 19th Century author, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote many books read by adults and young people of her own time and today. A few of her books have survived the test of time but not all of them. Keeping a representative title or two (Little Women and Jo’s Boys possibly) would be more than sufficient. It is not necessary to keep every book she or other prominent authors wrote or to keep every award winner if those titles do not “earn their real estate” by being used in your library.
You might also keep in mind your community’s interest in local history. In Arizona, snow birds (people who come to live in Arizona during the wintertime and leave when the weather warms up) are particularly interested in reading about Arizona history and other books of local interest. In each area of the country there are topics of special interest to those who live there. It is useful to be aware of these topics when developing both the fiction and nonfiction portions of your collection.
Inventory Turnover Issues
For many years, librarians were encouraged to select books with “lasting value” to the collection. However, in our 21st Century information world, this concept is no longer a useful one for most public libraries where it is recognized that most of our inventory really will turn-over in a matter of a few years. Tastes change quickly. New information, new authors, new topics, and new approaches are constantly replacing the “old” ones. Last week’s news is of little or no importance to most people. We are forced to move on because we cannot manage the onslaught of the new. While for some of us this may seem like a step backwards, there is no denying that this is the world in which we live and in which our clients live. This is the world in which we now do our book selection.
In considering non-fiction books, you need to carefully select resources that can answer the majority of your community’s ready-reference questions as well as more in-depth queries. However, we are in a changing environment. Print nonfiction books are no longer the first choice for information on a wide range of topics. Electronic resources, including both purchased resources and free Internet sites, provide better, more concise and timely information than physical books that are quickly dated, expensive to select, purchase, process and store. Reference resources are usually quite expensive. Beyond the three or four absolute “must haves” (unabridged dictionary, world atlas, U.S. road atlas and access to an encyclopedia which is more likely to be electronic than print) there are few print titles that one can recommend as essential. With statewide consortia for purchases of databases, electronic books, and electronic reference resources and free access to electronic government documents at all levels, the need for print reference collections has all but disappeared in many libraries.
Electronic Book Options
In selecting both fiction and non-fiction materials, it is important to strive for a balanced book collection that represents different points of view on controversial issues and other topics of interest to your community. It is also clear that we are finally reaching a point where our clients recognize the concept of an electronic book. While not everyone understands the ways in which electronic books “work” partly because we do not yet have a standard, we need to be moving our clients and ourselves into a world where both formats are acceptable for some types of topics. Such topics include “ready reference” types of information, information that changes quickly, and topics where individuals are less likely to want to read a book cover-to-cover. Some customers are very comfortable reading fiction and popular nonfiction in this format as well. As consumers of information, we are often inclined to access the small bits and pieces that address our specific information need rather than reading, say a plumbing book, cover-to-cover. As we select nonfiction, we should be repeatedly asking ourselves what format will make the most sense for this particular topic. We might be surprised to realize how often an electronic resource is more likely to be the right choice rather than a physical book!
Evaluation Criteria for Book Selection
Evaluation of fiction is likely to be based on your knowledge of your community’s reading interests. Is your community particularly interested in the novels of certain authors? Are the reading selections of your community influenced by recommendations heard over the radio, TV talk shows, or best seller lists? These are the types of evaluative criteria you will want to consider. In other words, what circulates in your library? Gathering statistics is essential to understanding what is popular and what is declining in popularity. Then one needs to ask questions about the reasons for increased use or declining use. Is the average age too old? Are there too many unused books on the shelves? Does the collection look inviting? Is it worn, dirty, or too tightly packed? These and other questions help us to determine if our selection decisions are resulting in the expected outcomes.
Evaluation of non-fiction is typically based on the following criteria:
- Interest. Is this a topic of interest in my community at this time? Is it a topic that is of potential interest? Does the source have the potential for being heavily used in the library?
- Authority. Who is the author, who is the publisher, and what expertise does the author have in the subject matter?
- Currency. How current is the material? Are there other sources, especially electronic ones, which are more current? Would this book duplicate information in another, already owned or easily accessed source?
- Scope. What subject area does the source cover? Is it a broad or specific treatment of the subject and is this what is needed?
- Organization. How is the book laid out? Can you easily find information in the source? Does it have appropriate access points, indexes, and cross-references?
- Format. What is the quality of the binding and the paper (acid-free is preferred, especially if the expectation is that this material will be useful in the library for more than five years.)? How readable is the print?
- Special Features. Does the book have important illustrations or other features that would make it valuable?
- Cost. How much does it cost? Are there other comparable sources that are less expensive?
- Accuracy. Is the information in the source accurate? Learning to recognize publishers who provide quality nonfiction materials, especially for young people, is one of the keys to the issue of accuracy.
- Impartiality. Is the source a balanced treatment of the subject matter? If the book does not have a balanced treatment, does your book collection address differing viewpoints? No information can be presented without some human bias but we are looking for as much impartiality as possible. For further discussion on balance, consult the Intellectual Freedom section of this site.
There are many sources that provide assistance to the librarian in selecting books. Some of these selection tools provide evaluative information and are selective in nature, while other tools are more comprehensive in their coverage such as vendor lists of titles available for purchase. Both of these selection tool categories are described below.
Some book selection tools are selective, that is, they only list a fraction of the available books based on some criteria or provide critical evaluations of the books. These selective resources can be especially helpful in making book selection decisions but only if they are produced by individuals and/or publications with the authority and expertise to lend credence to their opinions. Included in this category are book reviews, “best of” and recommended title lists, and annotated bibliographies.
One of the most important sources of information for book selection is the book review. Book reviews provide descriptive and evaluative information that can be used in place of physically examining the actual book. A well-written review also makes comparisons to similar works to help you determine whether the book being reviewed should be added to your collection. To be a good consumer of book reviews, you should be aware of the goal of the reviewer (is it to promote, announce, describe, or evaluate a new book?), the source of the book review (is it in a reputable reviewing source that is impartial?), and the authority of the reviewer.
While book reviews provide a tremendous service (for, who can possibly examine each book in depth?), they do have some limitations and should not be used as the only selection aid. One limitation is the length of time it takes for book reviews to be published; in some cases, book reviews appear several months after the book’s publication date even in the online environment. Other limitations are that only a small fraction of books are actually reviewed, many books are reviewed in only one source, and book publications from small presses often do not get reviewed in the major reviewing sources. Given these limitations, there will be numerous worthwhile books that are never reviewed in traditionally published sources. Further, book reviewers are selected based on a variety of criteria including some subject expertise and the ability to write well or at least correctly. This does not mean that the reviewer has a clear understanding of what is appropriate for a small public library or a public library in a particular environment.
Many sources of book reviews that typically are published in print sources are now also available online – some free and some for a subscription price similar to that for the paper edition. In addition, sources such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and major library vendors including Ingram and Baker and Taylor include quotes or full reviews from reputable sources as part of their online information for a title. You can find current book reviews of adult materials, of young adult materials, and of reference and audiovisual materials in Booklist, published (online and in print) by the American Library Association. Another excellent source for book reviews (including best-seller lists) is Library Journal (in print or online). You can also read the New York Times Book Reviews over the Internet. Publishers Weekly is more expensive but it provides excellent ads, good reviews with information on advertising budgets, author tours, and important TV appearances.
Horn Book Magazine is still considered the best reviewing source for young children’s materials. It is still only available through a paper subscription (2007). Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books is another outstanding reviewing source for children’s materials. It has a useful website but it is also still a paper journal. Library Media Connection is published by Linworth and provides practical information on managing the school library, teaching skills, public relations, and technology applications and contains a wide range of reviews. The Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) is generally considered the best source of reviews on young adult materials. With all of these sources to choose from, it is easy to understand how reading reviews can become a 24/7 job. Most librarians select one of two of these journals to read regularly. Some libraries will only be able to afford one journal. They are all very helpful for selectors and most include “best of” lists such as those discussed a bit further in this section.
There are, of course, also the reviews in local newspapers, general and subject-focused journals and magazines, and a growing number of magazines intended for the reading consumer including Bookmarks: For everyone who hasn’t read everything. Readers everywhere are also taking the time to write book reports or reviews and posting them on both commercial and noncommercial sites. Other web places, such as The Book Report Network (TBRN) are acquiring huge followings from among library users and non-users who care about books, reading and writing. These sites offer large arrays of useful collection development information in addition to ideas for displays, contests, reading group guides, and other types of reading ideas.
”Best of” and Recommended Lists
If you do not need current review information, you may decide to wait to select some of your materials after the annual compilations of award-winning books. These “best of” lists can also be used as checklists to make sure you did not miss a particularly good book. The American Library Association announces the ALA Award Winners books and other materials on an annual basis (usually in January). This list includes the Newbery Award, the Caldecott Award, and Notable Books, among many others. You can also find lists of award-winning fiction and nonfiction at a number of web sites including the very extensive Powell’s Books site and the sites of many library book vendors as well as those of Amazon and the major book stores. Among the awards listed are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners and American Fiction Awards. Finally, some library patrons are particularly interested in reading from lists of recommended books, such as Oprah’s Book Club list. If you know that your library community’s reading choices are influenced by recommendations, you may want to consider recommended lists in your book selection process. There is no need to also then track down reviews for every title on the list. Use list sources you trust and then only investigate titles and/or authors on the list if you have doubts about the choice for your library.
Subject Lists or Bibliographies
For nearly every subject area, there are lists that include works considered vital to that subject area. These subject lists can be particularly useful if you are trying to back-fill build your collection in a particular subject area or you wish to identify a few of the best things previously published on the subject. Annotated lists of books in particular subjects sometimes appear in the regular reviewing sources. Library Journal, for example, does an annual round up of the best science and technology books which is very helpful in identifying key titles that fit the interests of your readers but which were overlooked when they were first published. If you plan on using subject lists, it is important to keep in mind that these lists were not compiled with your community needs or collection goals in mind; thus, you must consider the recommendations on these lists in light of your own collection needs.
Other resources aim at being comprehensive by listing all of the books published in the United States, in a bookstore inventory, by a particular publisher, etc. These tools can be useful for verifying the bibliographic and purchasing information for a book, for identifying new book publications, for facilitating the purchasing and ordering process, and for keeping up with publishing trends. Included in the category are publisher sources, online bookstores, directories of in print and out of print books, and national bibliographies. The disadvantage of these sources is that there is little critical opinion included. They do have their role in selection, however, and the more you know about individual publishers and the types of materials they each publish the more useful these comprehensive lists can be when you just have to have more baseball or dinosaur books.
Publishers often send catalogs, flyers, and announcements to libraries to publicize their books and other publications. You can use these publisher sources to keep up with new book publications that may be useful for your library. As you become more familiar with publishers and their specialties you will be better able to recognize those publishers of interest for you whose books are seldom reviewed but their products fill a specific need within your client community. You can request print copies of their catalogs (which will automatically put you on their mailing lists) so that you can factor in their publications at least a once a year. Such a publisher might be Rand McNally that provides atlases, maps and globes among other “library” things. You can also use many publisher catalogs and other publisher information over the Internet. In most cases, publisher web sites will have the most current information about their publications. AcqWeb’s Directory of Publishers and Vendors provides links, organized by publishing category and alphabetically by name with cross references as ownerships change and imprints become harder to find. In addition, the home page for AcqWeb, created for acquisition librarians, includes links to vendors, in-print and out-of-print sources world wide as well as providing other collection development resources. Another Internet site that provides publisher information is the Publishers’ Catalogues home page; this site offers an extensive list of publishers from around the world with links to publisher web sites. BookWire, a website sponsored by Bowker Publishing, includes information about the book publishing industry, book reviews, themed book lists, and annotated links to book-related sites.
”Online” bookstores (these allow you to search and purchase print books over the Internet) can provide you with a quick and easy way to find publication information for a wide range of books. They also provide a convenient method for purchasing books that are needed very quickly. The “earth’s biggest bookstore” is Amazon.com, which is a full-service online bookstore providing lists of best-sellers, award-winners, and excerpts from review sources for both new and used books. Barnes and Noble offers over one million books that can be searched for and purchased over the Internet. As mentioned above, the AcqWeb site provides links to publishers and to sources for out-of-print books worldwide. Amazon, Alibris and others offer used and/or out-of-print books online as well. These are a huge bonus for all libraries as well as consumers. It is now easy for any library to buy inexpensive, good condition used books to fulfill patron requests (less costly than interlibrary loan), to fill-in missed titles in a series (especially helpful for those genre authors whose series are not numbered and often a title is easily overlooked at the time of publication), and replacement copies for lost, stolen or otherwise needed older titles.
Vendor Catalogs & Online Inventory Lists
Major library vendors such as Baker and Taylor and Ingram maintain extensive bibliographic databases for their customers. These databases are interactive for ease of online ordering. These databases were at one time simply inventory lists containing information about items actually in stock and ready to be shipped. Those lists have now expanded to include both older titles which may or may not actually be still available through new book sources and items not yet published but anticipated. Library customers have access to these extensive databases which often also include book reviews. These databases often include the library’s ordering history of a book as well as other useful information that is either title specific or library specific.
National and International Bibliographies
The Library of Congress has maintained the National Union Catalog (NUC) for years. The catalog, previously in print format indicates which library holds a particular work. You can now search the OCLC’s World Cat, available through many state’s consortia database packages, to find not only titles in the United States but those held elsewhere in the world as well. Most countries of the world maintain some type of national union catalog of their own regardless if their holdings also appear in World Cat. As increasing numbers of libraries have automated catalogs that are web accessible, it is also possible to simple search a single library’s or a consortia’s holdings directly.
The Disappearing Issue of In-Print & Out-of-Print Books
There was a time, not so long ago, when only very large research libraries purchased out-of-print and/or used books for their collections. With the Internet the whole world of used books has changed. Rather than investing hundreds of hours searching through the catalogs of rare and out-of-print dealers, libraries and consumers can use sources such as Amazon and Alibris where used books available through hundreds of individual dealers across the country are listed along with new copies to be purchased from Amazon. In addition, the resources linked from AcqWeb give access to large used book databases internationally. Larger used book stores all over the country have websites listing their titles, prices, etc. With a credit card or library account even the smallest libraries can now purchase out-of-print and/or used titles to fill gaps in their collections. Used paperback copies can more cheaply fill requests that previously would have had to be Interlibrary loans despite the fact that the book costs less than $15 including postage but the Interlibrary Loan would cost somewhere between $30 and $100 for the staff time and labor, supplies, transportation, etc., at both ends of the library transaction.
E-Books (electronic books)
While the marketplace is still sorting itself out regarding electronic books, it is important for libraries to be making these resources available to their customers. E-books are basically of three general types:
- Books to be loaded on special machines (some the size of a paperback) that allow the reader to select brightness and font size. Currently Sony has the most promising technology although it is expensive. New models and less expensive options will develop over time.
- Books that can be purchased and downloaded to an individual’s computer (or e-book reader such as the Sony one mentioned above) from a commercial site. The e-book file costs relatively the same as a paper copy of the book.
- Electronic books for which access is purchased by an individual library or a group of libraries. These books are accessible and fully searchable via the library’s website by authenticated users. The NetLibrary offerings (a service of OCLC) are those most widely available through public libraries. The bibliographic records for these books are entered into the library’s catalog and a client finds them along with other library resources. An individual can “check out” an e-book so that only they have access to it for a specific period of time (determined by the library). The entire book is not actually downloaded to a computer but is accessed via the web. When the check out period is over, the book reverts to general access for everyone. There are some great features for these books including the ability to add annotations and then print those for your records.
Libraries have primarily purchased nonfiction titles and “classic” types of works via NetLibrary and other suppliers. Most individuals find e-books of this type very helpful but do not wish to read the whole book. Recreational reading, for the most part, is still centered on the physical book although some individuals the e-book reader holds much promise. For people who travel, for example, being able to load a wide selection of e-books onto a reader would save having to haul half a suitcase of paperbacks so as not to be caught on the road with nothing to read!
The technology is constantly improving for e-resources of all types and librarians need to keep informed about available options. We want to be responsive to our community of users and to provide e-books and other resources in appropriate packages. Some titles are now only being published as e-books. As our population ages, the technology to make e-books more easily accessible to those unable to hold a physical book (or book-like apparatus) will improve because of the demand. I, for one, hope to someday relax in my whirlpool tub with the pages of a book projected on the wall ahead of me for my reading pleasure. And, why not have the technology “read” where my eyes are and move on to the next page as I reach the bottom of this page with no break, no need for me to do something!
Evans, G. E. & Sapronaro, M. Z. (2005). Developing library and information center collections (5th ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
Fenner, A. (Ed.) (2004). Selecting materials for library collections. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Information Press.
Reichman, H. (2001). Chapter 2: “Arenas of Conflict” in Censorship and Selection: Issues and answers for schools (3rd ed.). Chicago: American Library Association.