The San Antonio Public Library system (SAPL) has a huge collection of materials — about 2 million volumes, representing about 750,000 unique titles. Approximately one third of those volumes are kept in what we consider our ‘local branch’, the downtown Central Library.
That collection changes every month. New materials are purchased, old and unused materials get weeded out.
That’s a huge task. According to some numbers I’ve seen, publishers release thousands of hard-copy book titles each month. On top of that, there are ebooks and audiobooks and videos and newspapers and reference databases. How does the library decide what to buy?
It’s got a department for that. There’s a team of six people, down in the basement of the Central Library, with that responsibility.
Troy Hoyles heads up that department, and he describes their job like this:
“We buy materials for the entire library system… it's books, it's magazines, it's newspapers, it's databases, it's DVDs, Blu-Rays, music, CDs. Basically, when you walk into any branch, whatever you see on the shelves, that’s us. When you download a book or if you use the New York Times online, that's us. That's what we do. We’re content providers. We're the ones who pick everything. We, of course, have input from across the system, and we lean on quite a few people to help us. But we have primary responsibility.”
“It's actually an incredibly fun job,” he adds.
The library's Latino Collection is located on the first floor.
SAPL uses a floating system for circulating most of its physical materials, Troy says. That is, the materials aren’t assigned to any specific branch. A book you check out at one branch can be returned to any other branch, and it will get put on the shelves at the branch where you return it.
So, for example, if a book you want isn’t on the shelves at the Central Library, but it’s available at another branch, you can request it, and within a couple of days, it will be pulled and brought to the Central Library for you to pick up. When you’re finished with it, you return it to the Central Library, not to the original branch, and that’s where it gets re-shelved.
According to Troy, the “floating approach has some positives, it has some negatives, but one of the things we learned early on was that certain branches didn’t have many new books. They didn’t have popular books. For any number of reasons.”
So the library decided to create a special category of ‘Express’ books that were tied to specific branches. Those books couldn’t be put on hold or renewed or requested by another branch. They ‘live’ at one specific branch.
That collection is set apart physically, to make it easy to browse. In the Central Library, the Express shelves can be found in the first floor lobby, right across from the service desk.
The Express collection ensures that patrons of any branch are going to be able to find certain kinds of books.
“You’re going to find that almost every location is going to have what’s on the New York Times bestseller list,” Troy points out as an example. “They’re going to have an Express copy, and that copy is their copy.”
Troy mentions that a lot of library systems have a different name for this type of collection — they call it a ‘lucky day’ collection. If you’re eager to get a bestseller, and you’re number 217 on the hold list, he says, you might walk into your branch library and find that book sitting on the Express shelf, where holds don’t apply. So you grab that copy. It’s your lucky day.
THE VINYL COLLECTION
Another of the specialized collections you may have noticed in the Central Library is vinyl records. That collection is located on the first floor, too, just past the circulation desks.
According to Troy, six branches have a selection of vinyl that’s specifically curated for that branch, and each branch has someone who is assigned that responsibility.
“We want somebody at each location where we put vinyl to be a champion of it, because it is a special collection. We want people who are interested in it and want to actually curate it and take care of it.”
“It’s one of those little niche things that we thought we'd bring back. And it's proven to be fairly popular. People really seem to have an interest in it.”
Troy enjoys selecting vinyl.
“One of the reasons I love being a librarian is you always discover something new. And that's the point, that you’re going to stumble across something that you've either never heard of or never seen, and it sparks an interest. And I think that's one of the fun things, and vinyl’s where you can experiment a little bit with that.”
And Troy really likes that.
“If I’m having a bad day,” he says, “I do a vinyl order.”
Things change all the time, and there are always trends.
Some of those trends are in specific types of content. For example, on the fiction side, mysteries are perennially popular, and so are science fiction and romance.
“But right now the big trend in fiction is horror,” Troy says. “That's the big one. Right now there are a lot of new books, and if you like horror, this is a good time to be a reader because there are a lot of new horror books that are coming out.”
But the major trend, the most challenging and disruptive trend, is the move toward digital materials.
“You can see it in circulation,” Troy says, “you see it in circulation patterns, you see it in the number of holds.”
Digital circulation bumped up during the pandemic, when physical libraries were closed, Troy says, but that trend predated the pandemic and it ‘just continues to grow.’ The digital trend is especially evident in reference materials, which used to be printed but are almost exclusively digital now.
That’s not to say that physical books and magazines are dead, he says. “There’s still a huge demand for physical items.” He points to children’s books as a perfect example. Digital is great, he says, but “kids love to have a book in their hands.”
The Central Library has a collection of vinyl records, curated by the Collections staff.
DECIDING WHAT TO BUY
The first thing to know is that the library aims to have a collection of materials that fits the needs of the city’s population.
“San Antonio is a very large, urban, diverse city, and that really shows up in our purchasing. What we’re shooting for is a very diverse, deep, and broad collection.”
There are certain things that the department doesn’t buy. For example, Troy says that they avoid textbooks and highly academic books. There are other places where those books can be found.
They don’t, however, exclude anything based on points of view.
“We present all sides,” Troy says. For his staff, that means “whatever your feelings, your beliefs, you leave that at the door, and you buy things across the board.”
“Our job is to offend everyone,” he jokes.
It’s also important that staff members have a broad knowledge that extends beyond their personal interests.
“You have to do a lot of research,” Troy says. “I have a big interest in literature, for example, but I have to know about juvenile and young adult materials, too.”
To make that work, members of the staff specialize. “We have someone whose primary role is to buy juvenile and young adult material,” he explains. “We also get input from other children’s librarians in the system; they give us lists. And our two primary book vendors — Baker & Taylor for physical books and Overdrive for digital materials — they help, too.”
“One of the things we do is look at what comes out on a weekly basis. I sort it — this is adult fiction, adult nonfiction, juvenile, and then I check to make sure that we should have this or see what the demand is.”
Knowing the market isn’t the only issue. It’s one thing to know about something. It’s another thing to find and purchase it. That’s especially true with highly specialized collections. Troy points to the library’s Latino Collection as an example.
There, Troy’s collections team works with the Latino Collection coordinator to decide on materials to include. They follow a specific set of guidelines to ensure they’re getting materials that meet the criteria established for that collection and that support the programming in that department.
But the real problem is that often the materials are not readily available.
‘We use a big primary vendor for the bulk of our purchasing, but for a lot of the things that can go into that specialized kind of collection, you have to find these very small, mom and pop organizations that may publish only five or ten books a year. So you have to figure out how to get those materials, because again, we’re trying to build a deep, diverse collection.”
Suggestions from library patrons
The collections group also takes suggestions from library patrons. In fact, there’s a form on the website for making requests.
“Once a patron suggests something, we have a dedicated staff member who checks it and determines whether it’s something we should have in our collection. We check a number of things: Question One is ‘can we get it?’ Question Two is ‘is it something that’s in our scope of what we should be purchasing?’ We also check other libraries across the country. If we find out that only two other libraries own it — one in Canada and one in Australia — we’ll probably take a pass.”
“For the most part, though, we purchase the vast majority of what cardholders request. Probably the biggest constraint is just getting our hands on it.”
The library's Express Collection is located in the main lobby area, across from the circulation desk.
DIGITAL IS DIFFERENT
The library obtains most of its books from two major suppliers. There’s one supplier for physical books and another for digital. On the digital side, that supplier is a company called OverDrive.
OverDrive is a one-stop shop for libraries. It negotiates with publishers to acquire books, and it resells them to libraries; it stores and manages the library’s inventory; it supplies software to manage circulation; and it provides library patrons with an app for reading and listening to digital materials.
There are other companies that do the same thing, but OverDrive is the industry giant, and, from the viewpoint of a library cardholder, it’s pretty good at what it does. Its reader app (called ‘Libby’) is an excellent ebook and audiobook reader, and its circulation software makes it easy to find, hold, check out, and renew books. The software even has mechanisms for creating ‘wish lists’ of books you want to read in the future but don’t want to check out now, and a handy tool (‘Notify Me’) for deferring a book on hold if it becomes available before you’re ready.
Perhaps most importantly, OverDrive handles the ‘metering’ of book usage. Let me explain that.
You may buy it, but you don’t own it
Digital books don’t work the same way as physical books, when it comes to ownership and lending.
When digital books first arrived, Troy was a bit naive on that subject. “I thought this was going to be revolutionary,” he says. “I was thinking we could buy one copy and have fifty people reading it. But it didn’t work out that way.”
We’re so accustomed to the way physical books are distributed and used, that we’ve come to see it as natural. If you buy a book, you can resell it, you can give it away, you can loan it to a friend. But that’s not as natural as you might think. It’s actually established by law.
Copyright law sets out rules for how the works of writers and artists can be used by others. And that law allows the purchaser of a physical copy of a work pretty much full control over that physical copy. It’s not complete, though. For example, if you buy a book of art prints, you’re allowed to resell or loan the book, but you’re not allowed to cut out individual works and then frame and resell them.
In general, the same rules apply to digital works that are distributed on physical media, like CDs. You can loan or resell that physical copy, but you’re not allowed to copy and distribute the digital content.
However, most ebooks and audiobooks today are not distributed on physical media. They’re digital files that you download or stream. Different rules apply, and, for the most part, the publishers make those rules.
The first, almost universal rule, is meant to mimic how physical books work. If a library purchases (licenses, really) one copy of a book, that copy can be loaned to only one person at a time.
However, that’s really not good enough, from the publisher’s perspective, because digital files are too efficient. Unlike hardcover books, they don’t wear out. Unlike hardcover books, they’re automatically retrieved when they’re due and don’t sit unused on somebody’s coffee table. Unlike hardcover books, they don’t end up idle on the library’s hold shelf for a day or two (or five) before they’re picked up by the next borrower.
There’s a term for this: Publishers say there’s less ‘friction’ in the usage of digital books. Digital books zip from reader to reader with almost no friction at all, so a single digital copy of a bestseller can be used by a lot more readers in a one-month period than a single copy of the hardcover version.
So publishers have come up with additional rules
One very common rule limits the lifetime of a digital book license. A digital copy will typically expire, either after a certain number of checkouts (26 or 52, for example) or after a certain number of months (typically 12 or 24).
When the book expires,. the library has to make a decision, Troy says. Should they repurchase the book or should they ‘weed it out’.
From the library’s perspective, digital book acquisition is complicated, because each publisher has different policies. Some smaller publishers may even ’sell’ their books — meaning the digital copies never expire — although those licenses are quite a bit more expensive than the price of a hardcover. And other publishers might sell single-use, simultaneous-use licenses in blocks of one hundred.
OverDrive negotiates rules and prices with the publishing companies, marks up the prices, and then makes the books available to libraries for licensing. It also meters usage of each book to comply with the publisher’s rules.
Digital is expensive
Digital books aren’t cheap. They’re significantly more expensive than regular hardcovers. Of course, because circulation is pretty much frictionless, they can also be distributed to more readers in a given time period than the equivalent hardcover.
“I’ll be frank,” Troy says. “Digital is very expensive. It’s not cheap. You’re paying for that convenience. You’re paying for the fact that you don’t have to come into the library. You’re paying for the fact that if I need to buy more copies, I can do that this morning and then by noon you’ll have that copy. So it’s convenient, but we’re paying for that.”
Prices vary greatly based on the publisher and based on the popularity of a book (bestsellers cost more, unsurprisingly). One online source that I found provided the following numbers (which are now about three years old).
A hardcover may have a list price of $25, but you, as a consumer, can get it cheaper from Amazon, and your library can probably get it even cheaper, maybe as little as $14.
An ebook version of that book, however, might ‘sell’ to a library for $46 and then expire after it’s been checked out 26 times.
You can make arguments about friction and efficiency, but the bottom line is that it costs more per reader to deliver an ebook than a comparable hardcover.
The selection of materials offered by OverDrive is huge, but there’s one big difference between the availability of digital books and the availability of paper books. Because of the publisher’s rules and because of the complex metering and circulation requirements, digital books can’t be purchased by the library from any source other than OverDrive.
That limits what the library can get.
“If I’m looking for a physical book and can’t get it through our primary vendor,” Troy explains, “I can go somewhere else. I can go to Amazon. I could go to a bookstore. But with digital content, we can only purchase through OverDrive. We can’t buy a digital book from the publisher. We can’t buy a digital book from Amazon. It’s Overdrive and that’s it.”
So things are changing dramatically for libraries. But, on the positive side, they’re still being heavily used.
For example, take kids. There’s a lot of handwringing about kids not reading anymore, but Troy suggests that the numbers tell him that’s not the case.
“The numbers are pretty solid. Juvenile material does particularly well for us. It tends to be one of our highest demand items. I would always like to see more, but the numbers are very good.”
“It’s one of those areas,” Troy adds, “that tends not to decline. It does well through good times and bad, across all locations. And that applies to all audiences, from beginning books on up.”
“So there’s hope. I guess that’s what I’m saying.”
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
There's a department of six people that decides what the library buys. 'It's an incredibly fun job,' says department head Troy Hoyles.
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