The first thing I do each Monday morning when I get to work at the White Plains Public Library is review a purchase alert report. By seeing what items have received the largest numbers of holds—or reserves—from my customers, I gain insight into what books and DVDs are trending in my community.

The report immediately generates a rush order; we always buy at least one copy of a book for every four holds, sometimes for every three. After all, if 40 people in my community have bothered to reserve a book, I can safely assume another 80 or 100 want to read it.

And we’re not unusual by any means. The Brooklyn Public Library has had its share of budget stress in recent years, but even BPL aims to buy one copy for every five holds, says Charlene Rue, Brooklyn’s director of collection development. “We know our communities and we know what to buy,” she says. “Our challenge is keeping up with the demand.”

In this month’s column, I wanted to offer a look at what libraries are currently buying, and a bit about how they are doing it. After all, it’s difficult keep up with the insatiable demand for popular books at a time when library budgets are stagnant at best, and that money has to come from somewhere.

So, how do we do it? What I’ve found is that, faced with increased competition from online resources and hamstrung by weak budgets, librarians today are focusing on high-interest, frontlist fiction (and a few popular nonfiction) titles as possible—simply put, books that will offer a good return on investment, and keep our customers happy and coming back.

What takes the hit?

Libraries have long debated what makes a good collection. “Give ’em what they want” was the mantra that came from Baltimore County Public Library in the 1970s, a strategy that emphasized accessible, bookstore-like environments, offered a wealth of popular materials and service that was “user-friendly” and “customer-focused” years before anyone started using those terms.

On the flip side were libraries that emphasized broad, well-rounded collections to meet the needs of any reader, any time. Lists of core collections were published to help librarians invest in well-reviewed backlist titles, creating miniwarehouses of books just in case. Need a biography of Simon Bolivar? Hey, here’s two. Heading to Montenegro? We’ve got the authoritative travel guide. Oh, you want Mary Higgins Clark’s latest? Get on the waiting list.

For years, many libraries tried to do both. But with so many quality resources freely available on the Internet, that’s no longer necessary—or feasible. “We’re not buying reference books anymore,” says Corinne Hill, executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library. “We only buy nonfiction if it’s on the New York Times bestseller list. I think of nonfiction as the methadone for librarians—it’s their fix when they can’t buy reference.”

Hill joined Chattanooga last March expressly to revitalize the library system, and today, many public librarians are echoing her thoughts on purchasing. “I think of nonfiction as high-prestige shelf-sitters,” says BPL’s Rue, who admits to being very conservative in the nonfiction she buys, purchasing modest amounts and increasing holdings only as demand warrants.

When it comes to backlist titles, Hill says she still buys in key areas, such as health, job, and career resources, and test prep. NYPL’s Christopher Platt is also investing in subjects like education and lifelong learning as part of that library’s strategic vision—and these are areas most libraries support. Beyond that, however, backlist books have become a hard sell.

At my library, too, like many libraries, backlist purchases today are made ad hoc. “We don’t do all that replacement work that libraries used to do,” says Hill. “It’s too staff intensive.” Rue adds that it takes “an Oprah selection, or a movie tie-in, for me to consider a backlist title.”

One exception is the Darien (Conn.) Library. “We are buying backlist like crazy,” says Jen Dayton, collection coordinator. What’s fueling that kind of purchasing? “We support over 100 reading groups,” she explains, “so I am always seeking good reading group titles to buy in multiples.”

By the Numbers

When libraries are investing in backlist, they are increasingly using data to get the most bang for their buck. Information pulled from library systems—or through a product like collection HQ—can help librarians make better purchasing decisions.

The Brooklyn Public Library is a prime example. In 2010, it became much more data-driven in determining collection allocations for both frontlist and backlist. Based on the numbers, it cut its reference and periodical budgets by 50%, slashed nonfiction buys, built up its high-demand fiction titles, world language collections, and DVDs, especially for TV series from premium cable stations. The result? In nine months, it increased circulation by a whopping 2.3 million.

Not surprisingly, reference collections are undergoing the biggest transformation. Reference as a service is not dead—far from it. But in the age of Wikipedia, their needs rarely, if ever, require a book. The result is that reference collections are being downsized, often to just a few shelves.

Still, as much as libraries want to meet reader demand, they also want the public to discover new authors and offbeat indie titles.

“We have these philosophical discussions,” says NYPL’s Platt. “We’re a big system, serving a lot of different users, and we want to reflect that diversity.” Like many libraries, NYPL has automated the purchasing of bestsellers, Platt says. “But we also have our selectors looking at midlist titles,” he adds. And as reviews come in, and buzz builds from radio and TV appearances or media tie-ins, orders get tweaked.

Patron-Driven Acquisitions

Still, as finely honed as the process may be, there are always some real misses—titles you never heard about, never mind ordered. So, why not turn over part of your budget to your public—you know, the folks who actually pay the bills and use the product—and let them decide what you should buy? Academic libraries have long been grappling with this kind of patron-driven acquisitions, and that’s now coming to public libraries.

Last summer, White Plains started a “you ask, we buy” program. We immediately received a stream of requests. While some of the orders are for DVDs or other media, books prevail—and most surprising has been the number of requests for self-published titles, especially in YA fiction—which is very helpful since libraries do a lousy job of collecting self-published works.

Involving the public may sound simple, but it isn’t. At White Plains, our goal is to respond to requests in 48 hours, and have the material within a week. “Setting this up, researching requests, contacting patrons, ordering from vendors outside our usual stream, and processing in-house is time consuming,” explains Christiane Deschamps, White Plains’ manager of technical services and collection development. “But the effort is well worth it in terms of customer satisfaction. Patrons are astonished to get a response within 48 hours, and to learn we are fulfilling their request.”

Darien Public Library has solicited requests from its public for years, and it has worked. “It provides a good snapshot of where our patrons are,” says Dayton. Dayton says she keeps a rush cart open with her vendor throughout the week, adding requests as they come in. Many of the requests are for nonfiction, especially in areas like history, that the library initially passed on.


When it comes to book buying, no topic generates more passion among librarians than e-books. Both the limitations—publishers that won’t license to libraries—and the costs per title are sources of intense frustration. “I buy new titles in every format: print, downloadable audio, CDs. And I buy multiple copies. So why can’t I buy the e-book too?” asks Hill.

More and more librarians, both on and off the record, have reported pulling back on e-books in recent months. Developments like Random House’and Hachette’s price increases, as well as Penguin’s pilot leases—which last for only one year—are beginning to force librarians to rethink the money they spend on e-books.

“The business models we have now are really having an impact on our budgets and how we manage our collections,” says Rue. “Print may well be the most democratic format,” she concedes. But she worries that publishers are maneuvering libraries into a corner, where all they will be able to buy will be print, while library patrons migrate to digital. “The consumer market is moving quickly towards the digital format, and it is important that publishers recognize the power of libraries in delivering content that reflects what consumers want and how they consume media.”

“I fear publishers are creating an industry where libraries will ultimately be the only purchasers of print, and they will be able to set the print price for libraries without concern for the consumer market.”

Screaming for Streaming

So, what’s the most long-awaited product in the public library market? No, it’s not Macmillan’s e-book backlist. It’s Hoopla, a digital platform from Midwest Tape, which will offer digital movies, television shows, music, and audiobooks.

Every librarian that I spoke with brought up Hoopla, and reported that they were eager to get into the streaming game. The big struggle in the library budget is not between frontlist and backlist, it’s between books—in whatever format—and media.

That could have a profound impact on the industry. After all, for generations libraries—and library budgets—have been dedicated to reading and books. Now, facing the prospect of being iced out of digital reading, we may have little choice but to put our resources where we can. Many libraries, like Hill’s, are already at a 60/40 book/media split. And a robust collection of digital content and easy-to-use, consumer-friendly interfaces may well tip the library balance from books to media.

If someone can get e-content right, librarians say, let’s reward them.