Behind the Scenes at Your Public Library: Books

Another post on the inner workings of your public library! The previous post is here.

A lot of people ask me how libraries choose which books to buy.

Most public libraries in North America abide by the American/Canadian Library Associations’ Statement on Intellectual Freedom, Code of Ethics and Bill of Rights. They affirm the responsibility of public libraries to make material available for a wide range of interests and abilities, and to retain items for their strengths rather than getting rid of them due to controversy. This protects the rights and interests of everyone, whether you are a conservative Christian homeschooling parent or a  raw vegan climate change activist, or both 🙂

That being said, all libraries have budget limitations and must purchase materials based on local demand. However, librarians can’t avoid controversial books by claiming there is no demand. If you think your friends and neighbours don’t ask for Fifty Shades of Grey at the library, regardless of what they tell you – you’re wrong (they just check out the e-book so they aren’t seen with it in public!)

I always like it when someone returns a book and says, “This one was too raunchy for me so I am bringing it back.” They are informing us of their tastes, while respecting the right of others to choose for themselves. As a book selector, I am much more likely to be on the look-out for “gentle reads” for this person, if they inform me of their interests, while not demanding I remove books that don’t suit them.

There were always Two Schools of Collections Development in the old days: the Quality Collection and the Popular Collection. Most public libraries combined the two, but would lean one way or the other. This may still be true: if your library refuses to carry Captain Underpants or Walter the Farting Dog, your library staff may be Quality Children’s Literature hold-outs!


Some libraries outsource their book buying. They hire a distributor like Baker and Taylor to select books for them. They fill out an extensive checklist of the types of materials they want, the number of copies, and the funds available. The vendor then sends materials that meet all the criteria. The “profiles” can be adjusted when trends or budgets change. Libraries can even purchase their books pre-catalogued and labelled.


If libraries have staff to do book selection in-house, here is how they usually balance quality, demand and cost:


Most libraries buy huge quantities of bestsellers to meet demand. There may be a formula: the library will buy one copy for every x number of requests. After demand dies down, the library will have to discard the extra copies. My library system checks books out for 3 weeks. If books are shorter and in high demand, we’ll buy additional “Rapid Read” copies that are designated for one-week loans. By turning them over faster, we get more use out of them – but not everyone can get through their books that quickly. Some libraries charge a fee for their Rapid Reads, so they are a “rental” collection. I don’t know any libraries that fail to buy bestsellers because they are not “quality literature.” In fact, if libraries don’t have enough popular books, they lose business (and therefore, lose popular support and funding).

New Releases

Of all the books released each season, the vast majority don’t go on to become bestsellers. There are lots of solid, middle-of-the-pack, worthwhile reads that will appeal to an audience.

We find them using the following methods:

Pre-Pub Alerts (pre-publication alerts): Publishers send out catalogues and lists of their upcoming books, and they highlight books they expect to do well. Library-related book review journals also do round-ups of highly anticipated books. Some reasons for attention might be: the reputation of the author (for example, the first new book by John Irving in 3 years), the book was short-listed for an award, the book did well in international markets and is now being translated into English, the book has received media attention either positive or negative (for example, A Million Little Pieces), or the author is doing a high-profile tour and will be on many TV shows in the coming weeks.

Book Reviews: Librarians read book reviews not only online and in public sources like The Globe and Mail, but in library-specific journals that assess each book’s potential for public libraries. These journals have lovely titles like Library Journal, Booklist and Quill and Quire. The book reviews give background info that help us make a decision, such as “This is the only book on chainsaw art published in the past 5 years” or “Based on a blog with 2.3 million followers.” The review journals also publish Best Of lists and Recommended lists regularly, such as ” Best New Graphic Novels for Teens” or “Royal Reads for the Jubilee Year.”

Requests: Libraries pay attention to reader requests. When I ordered books for the sociology and culture section of my library system, I purchased about 2/3 of the requests I received each year from readers all over the library district (about 200 books out of 300 requests). First of all, keen enthusiasts are much more likely to be aware of new titles in their subject than I am. Next, if a book comes to the attention of the public, we are likely to get several requests for it. One formal request might equal 10 people who are quietly sitting home hoping we will buy it. And, there is the serendipity factor: once we’ve bought it, the book can get into people’s hands who would otherwise not have been aware of it – they could stumble across it through browsing or in a book display.

Need (Coverage): There is demand for books, due to popularity, and there is need. Demand is when we buy 50 copies of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel. Need is when we buy a replacement copy of the MLA Style Manual or we subscribe to Lemon-Aid Used Cars and Trucks so we receive each annual edition. People are generally not waiting in line for these books, but expect libraries to cover these topics, and for the books to be on the shelf when required. Most libraries have a basic nonfiction collection that covers all the usual subjects, from cookbooks and pet care to career advice and resume writing to knitting and landscaping.

Balance: Libraries buy materials that present different points of view on the same subject: Obama’s presidency, vaccinations, animal rights. The library strives to choose books with authoritative sources, but each book, in and of itself, might be deeply biased. A dedicated researcher would want to read several books to understand each side’s theories or assumptions. However, lots of people choose books to affirm beliefs they already hold, and that is their prerogative, too!

The library also tries to balance the demand for children’s, teen and adult fiction and nonfiction, music, movies, magazines and e-books.

Finally, there are lots of reasons why we don’t or can’t buy books:

  • Lack of availability, such as out of print titles, or books with no Canadian rights
  • Cost, such as the gorgeous coffee table art book that costs $125
  • Quality, such as the $125 art book we finally sprung for due to demand, but the binding fell apart after 2 uses so we can’t replace it
  • Use, such as the price guide to antique Canadian rolling pins, which surely has its audience but may only be checked out once every 5 years
  • Format, such as cookbooks consisting of punch-out recipe cards, or write-in workbooks
  • and Audience – the book is intended for doctoral research and will not appeal to a general readership.

What do you wish your public library would carry?

Photo Credit from The Examiner:


  1. Mel

    Wonderfully written and extremely informative.

  2. Pingback: Links: San Francisco’s last public typewriter; book covers in the digital age « Barbary Prose

  3. SarahN

    Thank you for this – I’m a library user, and it’s a great love of mine (hate storing/displaying books, it’s too chaotic for me, but I LOVE to read). This really helped. I’m lucky I live in a council area with 6 or so libraries, and I can borrow from all… so much choice, making for such a large collection (unlike where I used to live where there was a library per council, and no interlending simply). I don’t wish my library to carry anything more… only everything I’d like :p seriously. I’m happy with what they have, and am more often surprised they have what I’m searching for than not…

    • Glad you have a good library system – I haven’t always lived in places with great libraries either, so even as a customer, I don’t take them for granted.

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