For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
April 28, 2004 - What Does the Library Buy, and Why?
What is the public library?
I think I can boil it down to this: we are a cooperative purchasing agreement. By pooling relatively small amounts of money from many people, we can buy and maintain buildings, collections, and services that none of us could afford individually.
But every now and then, someone asks me, "How do you decide what to buy?" That is, how do library staff figure out precisely which titles of fiction, non-fiction, magazines, movies, and music should be added to our collections?
First, let's consider a few significant trends.
* Fewer but bigger publishers. What winds up on our shelves begins with the decisions of publishers. And over the past 25 years or so, the publishing business has mirrored every other big business in America. The big ones bought the little ones.
There used to be a lot of "gentleman publishers." These were genteel houses with pride in their literary reputation. They spoke eagerly of finding the next John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But the genteel publishers died off. They were replaced with brash young men (and even a few women) with MBAs. What mattered wasn't the literary quality of their listings. What mattered was how much money they made.
* More formats. Publishing used to mean books, magazines, and records. But now it includes books on tape, books on CD, music CD's, MP3's, movies on DVD and VHS. This doesn't necessarily mean that we now have many more new items, in multiple formats. It means that we buy the same book as a hardback, as a paperback, as a large print, as a book on tape, as a book on CD. And when the movie comes out (and it will!), we buy it in DVD and VHS.
* Fewer but bigger media outlets. The same pattern of conglomeration that happened in publishing also happened among media companies. In fact, often the publishing houses and the media were one and the same, tying together the production and the advertising channels in another trend called "vertical integration."
The combination of these three trends accounts for the vast majority of both the supply and demand for library materials.
It's a point of pride and principle for the Douglas County Libraries that we buy almost everything our patrons ask for (unless it's either unusually expensive, or on some very specialized topic). After all, it's their money. In a year, that adds up to a good 20 percent of every thing we purchase.
But you know what? Almost all of the time, we would have bought the same things anyhow. It's just that the requests came in at the early stages of the advertising. Some folks pay closer attention to that than others. So they request something that has been ANNOUNCED for publication, even if it hasn't actually been produced yet.
In general, what people ask for, what they want, is the result of "mainstream publishing" -- the commercial products of industry leaders, who push these products through their newspapers, magazines, radios, TV stations and movie houses.
A debate used to rage in librarianship: should we give the public what it wants, or what it needs? That is, should we bow to popular prejudice, or hold out for higher standards?
But that, of course, posits that (a) mainstream publishing lacks value, and (b) that librarians have better taste than everybody else.
Here's what I believe. Libraries, too, are part of our culture. We are a mainstream institution whose holdings reflect the output of the mainstream culture, both good and bad. That's as it should be.
But we also have an obligation to buy some percentage of materials from the "fringe." Why?
That's next week's topic.