Here's How Librarians Choose What Goes on the Shelves

A breakdown of the criteria librarians in a public library use to decide what's purchased, what stays, and what goes

Book banning is in the air again as self-important busybodies around the United States rail against parental choice, the expertise of teachers, and the professional duties of librarians. The spittle in the air is thick with ignorance and self-righteousness as the misinformed maraud against the freedom to read. Perhaps it’s once again time for a national read-around of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

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Alas, no, I’m not going to use this space to clap back at those goons. No, here I would prefer to enliven the national conversation by enlightening the open-minded about what goes on in library work rooms everywhere in deciding what’s purchased, what stays, and what goes in library collections. Namely, what we librarians call “collection development.” Now before I dive into it, I need to say that these thousand-or-so words cannot serve as a replacement for entire books written on the theory and practice of collection development, nor can it replace the classes librarians take during their graduate training. No, this will be more like an introduction to how librarians think about collections and why it’s so silly when we get a book challenge because a character says “damn” in a teen novel.

To start, let’s talk about scale. There are over a million books published around the world every year, which is to say, a lot. Large library systems tend to purchase books in multiple languages, and nearly all libraries also purchase audiobooks, music, movies, and more, in both physical and digital formats. Depending on their budget, a small rural library might purchase a hundred new items annually, whereas a large library system might get thousands. Either way, it’s clear that there’s already a huge amount of selection happening. Libraries do not purchase the majority of what is published every year. So how do they choose?

It’s complicated, but let’s reverse the problem a bit and let me tell you the kind of stuff public libraries tend not to purchase (we’ll stick with books to keep things manageable): Since we’re talking on a global scale, public libraries tend not to purchase books in languages that are not present and common in their communities. Mark this, the concept of communities with a library’s service area will be a recurring theme for the rest of this article. When it comes to fiction, public libraries tend not to purchase novels by unknown, un-reviewed authors. Going further, the smaller a library’s collection budget is, the lower the chance they’ll be buying titles miles beyond the bestseller lists of popular genre.

The story is much the same with non-fiction. Public libraries rarely go for very obscure titles or those that take an extremely deep or academic perspective on a topic — that’s what university libraries buy. So if you need a book on the thermodynamic properties of underwater banana farms, your local library is unlikely to stock it. Libraries with limited budgets will also refrain from buying limited editions, very expensive books, and other items that burn a huge budget-hole, are likely to get stolen, and/or may not get checked-out often. Which brings us to the next stop on the collection development tour: Popularity versus comprehensiveness.

The tension between what is popular and what a library collection should have has existed since public libraries began. Anna Gooding-Call delved into this topic in her Book Riot article, where she discussed the place of classics on library shelves. Generally speaking, bestsellers circulate a lot more than “classics” just as cookbooks circulate more than poetry, books on economics, and, well, nearly any other non-fiction book. Yet, libraries still buy poetry, which doesn’t circulate much at all. The truth is that with limited shelf space and budgets, it’s always a balance in determining how many copies of the latest James Patterson book to buy versus a literary writer like Don DeLillo. Yet, looking at most public libraries, the scale is definitely tipped towards the popular. Why? Because public library collections are, above all, for use. The books aren’t for decoration, and public libraries aren’t archives. 

That’s also why librarians are pretty much always “weeding” or pruning books from the collection — books that are in poor condition, no longer current, or haven’t circulated within some amount of time (that period usually depends on the section). Modern libraries also use specialized software to run reports using a variety of metrics that go beyond circulation. Non-library people are often shocked that libraries withdraw (read: remove) books from their collections on a very regular basis, but the truth is that this is totally normal. Libraries buy books all the time, so if they didn’t “weed” others, there would be no room to put the new ones. Why should a book that hasn’t circulated once in ten years remain on the shelf? 

Well, one reason is that it might be of unique community interest. The intricate and interesting detail here is that while libraries have some general tendencies among them, they are also hyperlocal. 

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