Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quality AND Demand

Quality versus demand always seems to come down to a black-and-white, all-or-nothing argument.  The options presented are almost exclusively circulation-based or expert-based collections.  In my experience, these kinds of debates are circular and go nowhere—especially not towards any resolutions.

Libraries are not museums; libraries are not bookstores.  Therefore, we shouldn’t act like we are either.  It’s my personal opinion that we are a unique combination of both.  Libraries are one part responsible for housing our culture and one part accountable to tax payers in our communities.  To that end, we shouldn’t be debating quality versus demand.  We should be having conversations about balancing quality and demand.

How do we have both quality and demand in a collection?

One option is leasing a rotating collection of popular titles.  Subscription services such as McNaughton exist for this very purpose.  Any of the leased books can be purchased from McNaughton for a discounted price if the library wants it to become part of the permanent collection.  That decision to purchase can be made by librarians and patrons.  Librarians could select books based on quality.  Patrons, on the other hand, show their reading preference through check-outs.  The collections manager could decide that after a McNaughton book has been checked out a certain number of times, it becomes part of the permanent collection.

One justification for discarding quality classics is that libraries have limited shelf space.  With a rotating collection, that becomes a moot point.  If there are too many McNaughton books to fit on the shelves, we see which ones have been checked out the least and send them back to make room for new titles.  When the permanent collection gets too large, it would be a matter of responsible weeding.  That is, not using circulation as the only reason for discarding books.

As to the budget, I think this is also the more responsible model.  Quality books are a one-time investment that will stay in the collection for years.  Although they may be checked out less, it is not a “waste” of money if a $30 book remains in the collection for 30 years.  It also fulfills the obligation to the people who fund the library.  Instead of purchasing 30 copies of a book that will be popular for a year, we can lease 30 copies of that title.  When its popularity fades, we can ship the 30 books back to McNaughton and get 30 copies of the next big thing on our shelves.  Or if its popularity doesn’t fade, we can move as many copies into our permanent collection as we think we need.

Is this the perfect resolution?  Probably not.  Subscription services cost money, and libraries are always scrambling for funding.  There is also the added hassle of negotiating a contract that fits your library.  But I think it is an idea with many merits, not the least of which is compromise.


  1. Very nice and well thought out. Either/or is a no win situation for everyone. Having both makes everyone winners!

  2. You are on to something here. I was in the business of dealing with quality & demand on the job over 10 years ago. But we found that quite often - "hot" books would circ well for a while and then never move again. So the leasing of these types of books is probably a good solution but as you point out everything costs. Also we found that these books took a lot of abuse and were really not fit to remain in collection. Whereas we would find that replacing certain titles were routine but on a yearly or bi-yearly basis. Non-best-sellers but at the same time titles that people would expect the public library to hold. Examples of such titles would be, The Confederacy of Dunces, and Master and Margarita, (fiction) or On Death and Dying, and Ways of Seeing (non-fiction).

    You provide a wonderful way for us to begin to think about service models that will help librarians fulfill their role in society while serving the information needs of as many of their constituents as they can. Well done!

  3. I wrote a similar post. I agree with you. Quality and demand is not an either/or. Both are needed in a library.