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Welcome to Librarians in the 21st Century, a biweekly column that will explore a profession that everybody knows but nobody understands. Including the librarians. Each essay will add another librarian’s voice to the conversation.
I’m delighted to start our series with an essay by Robin Bradford, a public librarian whose work is devoted to one of the most enjoyable duties in librarianship: buying books. It’s not uncommon for library patrons to assume that librarians buy books based solely on their opinions or on what’s popular. Most are unaware that behind the New Fiction shelf of their library lurks a long and complicated history of arguments about what to buy and who to buy for. Buying lots of books without spending your own money may sound like a reader’s dream—but with great power comes great responsibility.
–Stephanie Anderson, librarian and Lit Hub contributing editor
After spending a lifetime in libraries, as a user and then as an employee (and still a user!), I’ve been thinking about the cultural discoveries I’ve made through libraries. The first books that had me considering what it meant to understand someone different than yourself through fiction were Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. I can’t remember where I jumped in, somewhere around Day of Atonement or False Prophet. But by the time we got to Justice, in 1995, Kellerman was permanent on my auto-buy list. I had just graduated from college, but I’d still had limited interactions with people who practiced Judaism. The books are mysteries, first and foremost, but the culture and traditions of Judaism are central to the characters in a way I’d never experienced before. But it wasn’t until I started buying library books for others that I began to think of my job as being a bridge to someone else’s cultural discovery.
As a black nerd in the 1980s who read just about anything she could get her hands on, reading about people different than myself, or reading about people like me written through the eyes of people different than myself, was a common occurrence. But the idea that reading about people different than myself, living their ordinary lives between adventures, could give me an understanding of different cultures: that was a new idea for me. If Kellerman’s books hadn’t been in the mystery section of the library, maybe I would have discovered them, but probably not. If my tiny library hadn’t ordered them, I definitely wouldn’t have discovered them.
So, now that I’m selecting materials for the community, doing collection development, I think a lot about not only what materials we add to the collection, but also where they’ll live in buildings, and how to get the most eyes on those materials. Collection development is what librarians call the process by which we add materials to library collections, and it’s one of those library terms that sounds like it means a lot, but actually tells you very little. In the broadest sense, collection development librarians are charged with seeking out and acquiring materials in accordance with the mission of any given library. If you’re an academic library, the primary focus of the collection is usually to support the curriculum of the institution. When I did collection development in an academic library, as a paraprofessional, it was for a tiny popular collection project. It was 1996, and the most notable book I selected for that collection: some fantasy book called A Game of Thrones. What I learned from that experience was that I needed to be in a public library. If you’re a public library, the focus of the collection can be as wide and varying as the community you serve. “Community” can be, and usually is, defined in a variety of ways by a variety of library stakeholders, including librarians.
Not only do we decide what materials to spend money on, we also decide where we choose to look for materials. Do reviews matter? If so, which ones and whose do you trust? Do you limit the number of books purchased in one genre or subject area based on demand? Or based on the physical space allocated to that genre or subject? Is it based on perceived interest in the community? How do you know when a particular topic or trend has run its course? Do you replace with newer books on the same topic, or move on to the next thing? These questions are part of the formula it takes to make many of the additions and subtractions from library catalogs. And while we would love to ponder each of these questions at our leisure, the number of books we order every year means we spend less time analyzing each one. In my library, last year, we ordered at least 23,000 titles, each title with a unique combination of quantity, location, and types of format. Not a lot of time left for intense analysis.
In addition to the questions around each individual title, we also have to decide what we want for the collection as a whole. For instance, librarians should ask themselves: How are your library’s books sorted, and what does that say to your community? Do you have fiction books divided up by genre, each area treated relatively the same? Do you have books sorted by binding? Is one group lovingly displayed, in perfect order, while another is tossed on spinner racks in no order whatsoever, nor cataloged individually? Libraries may have what we think are compelling reasons for the difference, but how these decisions translate to the community is important. The same questions should be asked when books are pulled out of the general collection for reasons of race and ethnicity. What are you conveying about who should be reading books by those authors? If you set up a beautiful display of mysteries by African-American authors, but they’re only displayed either in February or in the African-American fiction section, the message to the general public is confusing.
And then there is the all-consuming issue of money. Not only do librarians have to divide budgets between all the genres and subjects publishing has to offer, but also by the many formats our patrons now request. So we ask ourselves: Do you invest heavily in digital formats, which are sometimes prohibitively expensive, or do you focus on physical formats? Do you spend the money to buy a popular author in hardcover, large print, audiobook, ebook, and digital audiobook, or do you use some of that money to invest in more debut authors? How many copies of a title do you need? How many copies in each format? How do you weigh the popularity of a bestselling author versus the desire to feature less popular authors that may not have a dedicated following yet, but you think readers will like? People are more willing to check out a book that piques their interest, by an author they’ve not heard of, than they are willing to purchase it, which we have to consider as well.
Here’s an example of how all these questions collide, using a book that just came out: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera. It’s about an upper middle class kid trying to fit back into her working class neighborhood after spending a year at an elite boarding school, and has many themes: new friends versus old friends; fitting back into a family after being away, and seeing family with new, more critical eyes; a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification, and a main character questioning her old and new life, doing whatever she can to get to the guy at the end of the summer party in the Hamptons. You may think you’ve read this book a lot over the years, but this one is different in a crucial way: the story is centered around a Latina main character, her family, and her neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve been on the lookout for books with Hispanic characters, because I don’t see them often enough. So, even though this book isn’t really part of my beat as a collection development librarian (it’s young adult, and I focus on adult materials) I read it not only because it sounded interesting, but because I often have opportunity to recommend books to young adults or to adults who read young adult novels.
Representation matters. Not just for the community being represented, although that is important. The ability to see yourself, your family, and your community on the shelves is powerful. But it’s also powerful for people outside of that community to experience life through someone else’s experience. It matters that this book is front and center where teen eyes can see it. It matters that it is included on library book recommendation lists, and not just on lists of diverse books. It matters that it is discussed and displayed like every other coming of age book released this year. We all need to see a young Latina growing up, finding her way in the world or, better yet, creating her own place. Making mistakes and making amends.
Libraries, and collection development librarians, have the opportunity to bring these books and experiences to the public. All of the public. Once upon a time, it was a trendy thing in libraries to say that building diverse collections was a good thing because patrons deserve to see themselves reflected in our collections. And we librarians could feel good, bordering on self-righteous, that we were helping those less fortunate. Turns out, the people most in need of seeing diverse characters were those same librarians—and the entire community at large. Everyone needs to see diverse characters in real life, having their troubles, wishing, longing, fighting, losing, and living just like every other character. Books with a grand message at the end, and books about nothing at all, like Seinfeld: they’re all necessary to create a well-rounded and accurate reflection of life in underrepresented communities.
I’m not sure if all of these thoughts went through the mind of the librarian who bought books for my hometown library, but I’d like to think it’s a trait that we all share. Even if she didn’t, I’m happy that my experience with books means I can send that experience on to the next generation of readers. If fiction is the gateway to humanity, libraries have the opportunity to affirm and advance the humanity of everyone to everybody.