How do libraries decide which donated books get added to the catalog?
October 14, 2011 11:33 AM   Subscribe

The question was asked, What does the library do with donated books? and one of the respondents said that library staff screen donations and then decide what to do with, or where to send each book. These people were referred to as "Selectors." I'm curious about the process of 'Selecting' on behalf of a library. What I mean is, How do libraries generally decide what gets added to the catalog (approved for processing) and what gets rejected (sent off to the 'Friends bookstore' or what have you). I'm sure each library has its own needs to consider but, generally speaking, are there some set of basic guidelines that most Selectors employ in the initial screening process?
posted by mousepad to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a source for this, but I've been told that my local library (Kingston, Ontario) doesn't have the necessary infrastructure to incorporate donated books into the library collection, so all books that are donated to them by individuals (as opposed to bought from some centralized library place, I guess) go right into their ongoing book sale. Don't know if this is true. Kind of depressing if it is.
posted by crazylegs at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2011

This is part of the process of "collection development." For most libraries, it's a pretty small part - most books worth having you have to pay for. I would say the most basic questions one would ask when culling a book donation are:
  • Is the book in good condition?
  • Does it meet a need of my patrons that is not currently met by the library collection?
  • Is the book in some way unique or is it of unusual monetary value? (This alone wouldn't get a book into my collection if it didn't pass the first two tests, but it might get it special treatment in the book sale or a formal appraisal by a rare book person.)
This is if, as crazylegs mentions, the library doesn't just send them straight to the book sale. (Or the recycling bin... there are some books nobody wants.)
posted by mskyle at 11:51 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

It varies from library to library, but this is the process we had at one library where I worked:

We first looked at the condition of the books. The majority of the donated books we got were actually yellowed, water damaged and/or molding (people were bringing them in just get them off their hands) - we had no choice but to send them off to the recycling bin.

Sometimes people would bring in current bestsellers that they had finished reading. We would add them to our collection to satisfy the numerous holds requests or keep them on hand as replacements for worn out copies.

Sometimes we'd get items that we didn't have in our current collection. We would check the consortium database to see what other area libraries have the item and how many times it's circulated. If it's something in demand that only a few libraries have, we'd add it to the collection.
posted by Anima Mundi at 11:51 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Acquisitions are driven by identified needs, regardless of type of library. The acquisition librarian knows (through various means) what library users need/want. And they prefer hardcover (for durability).

Donations, otoh, are nearly random, not brand new, paperback, etc. Going through all that crap (literally) is too much work for too little return.
posted by jdfan at 11:54 AM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: The word "selector" doesn't mean anything particular to me as a librarian, it just means someone who is doing the selecting. It's not, in most cases, a job you could really apply for. Collection development is sort of what it's called, the people who obtain books and also cull the ones from the collection [called "weeding"]

Many libraries have collection development policies at some level (check this or this) though this varies a lot from library to library. Some of the criteria are obvious like the condition of the material [i.e. would it stand up to library use?] and some are less obvious like whether it fills a gap in the collection [is there a waiting list? Is it a duplicate of something that circs heavily already? Is it something that kids would use regularly in school? Is it something that is often requested via ILL?]. In some libraries donations are really closely looked at to see if things might be useful and in others donations basically go straight to a booksale with only some books selected out to be made a part of the collection. Adding a book to a collection is non-trivial. It must be cataloged and processed and shelved and whatever.

And it's weird, even though libraries the world around have some large overlapping similarities, there are very few top-down guidelines that are mandated from on high, though many libraries do have many of the same procedures.
posted by jessamyn at 11:55 AM on October 14, 2011

To mskyle's answer, I'd add "Is the book popular?" and "Is another copy of it already in the collection?"

There's a processing cost involved with adding items to the collection, making it usually not worth the time spent for any given library to purchase or own one single copy of an item and create a record for it, but if there are other copies of the book in the catalog it's usually very quick and cheap to add an additional copy.

So if it were, for example, The Hunger Games in like-new shape I'd definitely add it to the other however-many copies, but if it's an item we don't have already have in the catalog, I'd be less likely to add it unless it were extremely useful in some way (one single copy of the last print edition of Oxford English Dictionary? Yes, I'd add that.)
posted by johnofjack at 11:56 AM on October 14, 2011

At the academic library I used to work for the acquisitions librarian or one of the staff did the selection for gift books. Typically if the book was a hardback and in good condition and not a duplicate or over 20 years old, we would add it. (Unless it was really, really weird.)

If it was over 20 years old, or 2 years for computer or science books, or we had multiple copies of it already, we donated it to Better World Books. Also, we would ditch anything that was smelly, moldy, or gross. (you'd be surprised at how many smokers donate books.)

And yeah, as one of the catalogers, I would from time to time remind folks that every gift book I had to catalog and have processed was one book we paid money for that didn't get done. It's incredibly time consuming to deal with gift books and folks don't realize how they aren't actually helping the library by donating all the shit they can't sell and don't want in the house anymore.
posted by teleri025 at 11:59 AM on October 14, 2011

In my library, we have liaison librarians who each do Collection Development for their specified area(s) of expertise. So when a gift book comes in, Collection Manager (which is an entire, albeit small, department for us), determines the subject matter and then passes the book along to the appropriate liaison, who determines whether the library should keep the book or not. That generally suffices for individual titles. However, we recently got a very large collection donated by a collector in the area, which required a lot more work and (as far as I know) a lot less liaison involvement. Many of our gifted books do end up in the library book sale, though.
posted by ashirys at 12:16 PM on October 14, 2011

Processing donations is one of my off-desk duties at the public library I work at. If a donated book is not already in the catalog there is virtually *zero* chance that it will be added to the collection. If it is new, in perfect (or very close to it) condition and in high demand I will often add it (although it will be offered to a different branch if we already have it). Anything that is not added to the collection is either recycled or sold.

In general we are trying to (gently) discourage donations for all the reasons outlined above; we don't have the space, we don't have enough staff to process a lot of material, and frankly...90% of what we receive in donations is - to put it politely - of no use to the library (last year someone dropped off a huge box of VCR manuals!).
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:34 PM on October 14, 2011

It really varies. I used to do this in two public libraries, but it was pretty informal at both, and I wasn't the only one doing it.

As others have said, most are damaged, mildewed or have been peed on by cats. Those go to the dumpster. Frequently pages (high school kids who shelved books and did other grunt work - they get no respect, be nice to them!) did this.

If I walked by the books waiting to go down to the basement after this first cut, and saw something I wanted for the area I bought in or that I thought another librarian might want, I'd grab it and give it to them. I'd check the catalog to see what other libraries in the consortium owned the title, if any, and go physically look at the shelf where it'd go to see if I needed another perl book or whatever.

We'd do a slightly more formal glance through when setting up for the big book sales. We'd also pull out dangerously old stuff (no one needs a 40 year old book on heart disease or canning) to go to the dumpster at the same time. If we had too many ancient encyclopedia sets, we'd toss the worst of those, too (they don't sell well).

Very, very few donated books made it on to the shelves. The exception to this was romances. Gods bless romance readers! They'd check out 30 books every week (circs are the bread and butter of public library statistics) and bring back 50. Those nearly always ended up on the shelves unless they were damaged or stinky.

So, unless you are donating romances, stuff on the best seller list that is in good condition or very recent non-fiction, you are just causing work for library staff while getting a tax deduction and making yourself feel good for not pitching books.
posted by QIbHom at 12:52 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

One consideration would be how many copies are in other libraries within a lending system or network and whether or not they've been requested by yours. If 20 libraries out of 22 in a lending network have the book and it's never been requested by yours, *bzzz* pass.
posted by codswallop at 4:25 PM on October 14, 2011

Let's say someone donates a hardcover copy, in excellent condition, of a Stephen King novel that's a few years old. He's a popular author, and his older works continue to be checked out often. Some libraries will swap out their shelf worn copy for the copy that's in better shape, or keep the good copy until the copy on the shelf falls apart.

Also, if you want to strike terror in the heart of a collection development librarian, whisper these words into his/her ear: Readers Digest Condensed Books.
posted by helloknitty at 4:47 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Librarians employ the same criteria they use for weeding the existing collection.

This blog is instructive (besides providing your supplemental dose of snarky)

The local Friends of the Library (many public U.S. library systems have such organizations) may manage an used bookstore which sells the books that the library won't take.
posted by bad grammar at 4:56 PM on October 14, 2011

My experience at a public library is that the condition of donated books must be just about pristine to be considered - the processing required to add books is very time-consuming as Jessamyn noted. Agreed that many people use donations as a way of just getting crappy old books off their hands.

Policy wise, we will flat out not accept some categories - textbooks, eg - and the books must fit our collection aims. The individual branch library has discretion within those limits, except for privately-published books which go to head office for their decision. Pretty much the only books we are likely to accept in our branch are great-condition books in the languages other than English that are predominant in our local community (metropolitan Australia, btw). In my library, potential donations are referred to senior staff to accept or reject: we talk to the customer and diplomatically explain why we can't take their ten year old well used romance novels or drawn-on children's books.

The problem is also that people just put donated books anonymously through the returns chute - even if they're awesome, we can't assume these are donated unless specifically told so, and we must treat them as lost property and hold them for a few months before we can do anything at all with them, and then we have to donate them to charity, per the lost property policy, not add them to the collection per the donations policy. There are a lot of shitty books circulating from private ownership to libraries to charity to storage that would just have been better recycled in the first place.
posted by k_tron at 5:52 PM on October 14, 2011

I work in a public library. For the most part, donations are a colossal pain in the ass, if I'm being honest. We get a lot of them, for starters. Way more than we can handle, especially as the end of the tax year approaches. The vast majority of these are garbage:
  • old, highlighted textbooks that no school has used in ages
  • ancient encyclopedia sets
  • a seemingly endless parade of Time-Life book sets and Readers Digest Editions
And these items are usually in awful condition: torn pages, missing covers, roaches crawling out of the spines (oh, how I wish I were making that up), mold, sticky stains, etc. About 70% of the donators seem to expect some sort of parade in thanks for their generous dumping of their garbage at our door. Many want a tax receipt, for which we provide a blank form; we will absolutely not assign a value to the donations.
After the donations come in, an unbelievable amount of time--time staff members could have spent doing their actual jobs--goes into sorting the books, sending the garbage to be pulped, setting aside the stuff that might sell for $1 , and, occasionally, looking over the newish items in reasonably good condition that might be added to the collection. The latter are almost always replacements for lost or damaged items we already owned, because we buy as much of the genuinely good stuff as we can afford when it comes out.
posted by willpie at 7:44 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm a selector! Though usually we'd use the term liaison or subject librarian, because I have responsibilities for specific departments and a set of call numbers.

In my academic library, we are no longer accepting dropped-off donations. It was costing us more to process them than to pay the guy who did most of the work with them, by a lot. Most of the donated books we were getting were either duplicates or in such bad shape we couldn't add them. Even when we sold the ones we didn't keep, we still weren't making enough to pay the guy who processed the collection. (He has a different and better job in the library these days.)

Now we're trying to be more orderly about donations. If someone wants to donate books or journals, we ask for a list of items to make sure we don't bring in duplicates, and then, if we want the materials, we ask the donor to bring only what we want. My criteria are usually along the lines of this: do we already have it? Does it fit into our collection? (For example, is it academic or otherwise appropriate for our users?)

If someone brings a box of books to the library without checking first, we don't take them, and refer them to our large local public library (with their permission). I know it seems crazy, but, truly we made very little money and add very few books to our collection via donations.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:17 PM on October 14, 2011

From all these answers, it seems like the cost of the books is fairly negligent compared to the costs to process them. Is that true? Are there ways to improve the process?
posted by smackfu at 9:54 AM on October 15, 2011

The process involves humans which is why it's so costly. This is all fine if you're adding books to the collection, but less so if you're just picking through books to maybe add one or two of them to the collection. One of the values libraries have is being a curated collection of content. This curation is valuable because it's done by trained experienced professionals. Other stuff, like putting barcodes and plastic covers on, and shelving items are not necessarily highly skilled things but they don't scale really. So you've still got someone who is paid an hourly wage [or salaried] to do this on an item by item basis. And that's not very scalable. And the return isn't really that awesome for the majority of the materials that are donated. The main point is that most of the donated material is stuff that wouldn't wind up in the library anyhow.

There's something to be said for the distributed model of book collection and distribution like the sort you see at Occupy Wall Street or other citizen book sharing types of things, but if you're curating and cultivating a collection with an eye towards permanence and what fits best with your community, those things take some time and effort.
posted by jessamyn at 1:23 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Smackfu, when I select/choose a book to buy for my library, it's usually a new book and comes from our main distributor, and it's often "shelf-ready," so it might already have a call number on it and it's pretty easy for our cataloging staff to add it to our collection because there's probably an existing catalog record they just need to copy over with our software. Even if I buy a used/older book, and it doesn't come through our regular distributor, it still goes to cataloging where they can probably still quickly add it to the catalog and get it onto the shelf.

The problem with donations isn't the value of the books themselves. The problem is the time it takes to sort through 500 books only to find that, say, all but ten are already in your collection. Someone has to accept the deliver, bring the donation to the store room, and then sit and look up every single book in the catalog to see if we already have it. Then, you have to do something with the books you don't want. This takes time--and it costs less to just buy those ten books outright.

The other thing, at least for my for academic library, is that we have mostly academic-type books on our shelves. These aren't usually the kinds of books regular people buy, even professors.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:15 PM on October 15, 2011

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