Over the course of nine months last year, two librarians at a small library branch near Orlando, Florida, checked out 2,361 books to a fictional library patron named Chuck Finley. When the fake account was uncovered in an investigation, the branch supervisor admitted that he and another employee had conspired to protect certain books from being removed from circulation.
This would never happen at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), a system that manages a collection of 4.1 million items and serves a population of 2.6 million. “Even if The Grapes of Wrath has not gone out for a while, we’re not going to get rid of it, because it’s a classic,” says Lisa Rosenblum, BPL’s director and chief librarian. While most patrons take for granted that the library will have what they need, the books in its 59 branches are carefully selected—and removed—through a complex process that relies both on data and on selection experts and local branch librarians.
New materials for BPL branches are purchased by a team of selectors at BookOps, a shared technical services organization that handles logistics for BPL and New York Public Library (NYPL). Inside its unassuming brick facade in Long Island City, Queens, BookOps is a 145,000 square-foot warehouse dedicated to books. Massive rooms hold hundreds of employees at cubicles, selecting and purchasing new materials, or cataloguing new items written in Russian and Chinese. Elsewhere in the building, thousands of colorful summer reading books line shelves, freshly purchased and waiting to be processed, while well-worn books whiz around a conveyor belt as they’re sorted for their next destination.
Many factors go into purchasing decisions, says Charlene Rue, BookOps’ Deputy Director of Collection Management. “It’s definitely budget, it’s definitely what’s been circ-ing”—or circulating, aka being checked out—“what new things are out, what the publishers are pushing, what your customer base is demanding.”
Selectors hear about upcoming books directly from publishers. “We go out to book previews, we look at reviews, and we see what the forthcoming books are,” says Rue. “So there’s some forecasting in the publishing world that we’re privy to.” Publishers put out frontlists of anticipated bestsellers, as well as midlists of books that draw a smaller but steady audience: books by debut authors, works of literary fiction, works in translation. Midlist books can sometimes gain momentum and move to the frontlist, Rue explains, citing Elena Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend and Muriel Bradbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Branch librarians also offer input depending on the needs of their community. “We might have pockets of people who speak Chinese in a certain area, and so we’ll buy more Chinese books for that particular library,” says Rosenblum. “We might have more children in an area of the borough, so maybe the branch will say, ‘You know, we really could use some more easy readers,’ or, ‘We ran out of a Dr. Seuss book, could you buy us some replacements?’” Selectors also consider strategic plans and initiatives, such as early literacy campaigns.
Then comes customer demand. “Everyone has seen a list of, you know, ‘Best titles in 2016,’ says Rue. “The most informed customers know what’s coming out. They’re reading the reviews.” Ideally, there should be one circulating copy of a book for every three people waiting on the holds list. For extremely popular books or in tight budget years, this “holds ratio” can get a little higher. When the ratio gets too high, BookOps gets an alert to purchase more copies.
“We don’t just buy a title once,” says Rue. “The hold ratios and purchase alerts let us know what are the titles that are in demand, what needs to be purchased again. We’re constantly looking at that ratio.” Last year, growing holds lists prompted multiple purchases of books like Rick Riordan’s The Hidden Oracle, Rick Yancey’s The Last Star: The Final Book of the Fifth Wave, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
The most checked-out fiction in 2016 was Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School and The Girl on the Train, and nonfiction was When Breath Becomes Air. The most checked-out book of all time at BPL is Green Eggs and Ham.
To avoid ending up with hundreds of extra copies of the latest John Grisham or Sue Grafton, BPL has leasing arrangements with publishers. The demand for bestsellers naturally declines over time, and “we don’t want to have all those books that aren’t checked out around, because we need the shelf space for other books that people want,” says Rosenblum. “So the nice thing about the lease program is that we don’t have to keep them. It’s like leasing a car, you trade it in for something newer.”
Last year, selectors picked more than 473,000 items for BPL, as well as more than 695,000 for NYPL and 97,000 for NYPL’s research libraries. The largest orders were for Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines (the first selection of the city-wide Gracie Book Club), Star Wars: The Adventures of BB-8, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down.
Once books are selected and purchased, they arrive at BookOps headquarters in Long Island City. Orders are checked for accuracy, and a record is added to the library catalogue for any titles that are new to the system. To simplify this process, libraries around the world share copies of their catalogue records through a cooperative called the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). After cataloguing, the book is processed to look like a Brooklyn Public library book, complete with a barcode on the back cover that links it to the catalogue record and assigns it to a branch, and a vinyl-mylar jacket for hardcovers.
Next the books are sorted by destination. Newly purchased books, as well as any library books that have been requested at another branch, head to a massive machine called the sorter. Each morning from 7:00-8:00, employees feed BPL materials onto the sorter’s 238-foot conveyor belt. As a book zips around the belt, an overhead scanner checks it in, assigns it to a hold, and makes sure it drops into the appropriate bin.
The machine can sort 12,000 books per hour, for a total of 7.4 million items for BPL and NYPL last year. Sal Magaddino, Deputy Director of BookOps, says he saw a YouTube video of a similar sorter used by the Seattle area’s King County Library System in 2007. One week later he was on a plane to meet with the machine’s architect.
“Every year have a contest with Seattle, who can sort more in an hour,” says Magaddino. While the timer is running, pump-up music blasts and employees from the Brooklyn and New York branches cheer on the sorters. “Unfortunately we lost last year—barely,” he says, making the record 3-2 Seattle. New York’s sorters aim to settle the score this month.
Through the morning and early afternoon, drivers deliver boxes of freshly sorted books to branches, along with mail, news, literacy kits, and advocacy materials. They also pick up books that have been recently returned or are on hold and need to go to BookOps for tomorrow’s sorting, as well as books that have been weeded from the shelves. Back at BookOps, the sorter begins processing NYPL books.
BookOps, which manages 150 locations, is the largest library technical services organization to handle everything under one roof. Magaddino says that before opening the Long Island City location, returned books took a week to sort and redistribute, and BPL contracted with UPS for branch deliveries. There was no way of knowing where books went missing.
To keep the library collection current (and fit new books onto a finite amount of shelf space), branch librarians weed some books from their shelves, but “certain things we just keep, no matter if they go out or not,” says Rosenblum.
“For example, we would not want to have a 2005 travel book to Great Britain,” she says. “In the science field, in medicine, we don’t want to be circulating old, bad information that’s been disproved. So certain things we just get rid of because we have an obligation to our patrons to have good information for them.”
Branch librarians also keep an eye out for damaged or aging books. “Any book, when it’s been in our collection for 30, 40, 50 years, it’s going to start yellowing,” says Rosenblum. “And if we can replace it with a newer, fresher copy, we will.” Librarians also weed copies of bestsellers that have declined in popularity, and BookOps sends leased copies back to the publisher.
“We rely on data as a help, to say, ‘Oh, this book has not circulated in two years,’” says Rosenblum. “But in all the years I’ve been in this business, I have never told my librarians to get rid of something because it hasn’t circ-ed. There are a lot of factors that go into it. We rely on the expertise of our professional librarians who are out in the branch to make the final decision.”
When a book has completed its lifecycle, it is stamped as a discard and sent to Better World Books, where depending on its condition, it is sold, redistributed in a developing country, or recycled. Discard sales revenue goes back into the library system.
Brooklyn Public Library has a catalogue of 4.5 million items and is the fifth-largest system in the United States. “I am truly impressed. People read here, it’s amazing,” says Rosenblum. She sees “people in their twenties that are reading books on the subway. Old-fashioned print books. And they’re reading really interesting stuff!”
Photos by Maggie Shannon