The fiction acquirer at a Cape Cod library takes us through the building’s history, & how books are selected & acquired by librarians.
For context’s sake, I’m the Adult Services and Reference Librarian at Sturgis Library on Cape Cod. Sturgis is one of eight libraries in the town of Barnstable. The town is divided into seven villages, and every village has a library. It’s a practically overwhelming quantity of books for one community, but no one complains. The population of Cape Cod nearly triples during the summer months, so it’s protection against book droughts. Kurt Vonnegut was once a trustee of our library, which accounts for the presence of a half-smoked cigarette archived in our vault. The building has the distinction of being the oldest building in America to house a library, but not the oldest library in America. It’s commonly confused. The building was built in the 1640s. It only became a library in 1870.
A first edition of Moby Dick is on display in a glass-fronted case surrounded by rusty harpoons and Rockwell Kent prints. Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of one of the libraries first trustees, Lemuel Shaw. Melville made little money on his published works during his life. Mr. Shaw footed the bill, allowing Melville to travel and spend time on his writings. You can thank Shaw’s carved stone bust sitting in our front window if you feel like stopping by.
Across the room, situated above the original wide pine floorboards, is a 1605 Bishop’s Bible. It sits in a climate-controlled case, opened to a page marred by scorch marks left from candle wax. The building now housing the library was originally constructed to house Reverend Lothrop, the owner of said Bible. The burn marks were the result of the reverend’s nighttime reading habits on his voyage from England to Boston. Defacing a Bible is looked down upon by the church, so Lothrop rewrote the charred passages from memory, verbatim. The book is splayed open to one of these pages. If you swing by, I’ll give you the historical tour of the building. It’s in my job description.
More importantly, what’s also in my job description is fiction acquisitions. I buy all the adult fiction for the library. All of it. The short story collections, the mysteries, large print, science-fiction and fantasy, literary notables, and small press gems. For a book enthusiast/hoarder, it’s the ideal job. Every month is a shopping spree, depending on the budget, through the shelves of a digital bookstore. The question I get most often about the practice is, Corey, how do you decide what to get? And there is a complex algorithm for an answer.
First and foremost are patron considerations. Each library has access to an online database containing every system hold on every book. Ours is called CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing). That means I can tell what books our patrons want most, what books need to be on our shelves to meet the needs of our tax-paying population. This accounts for the three shelves solely dedicated to James Patterson novels in the back corner of our fiction section, the two shelves occupied by Stuart Wood, and the three and a half shelves for Nora Roberts and her pen name J. D. Robb. Our patrons love them, so I buy them. Do you know how many holds a Patterson novel gets before it’s released? Somewhere between 200 and 350. That’s a long wait for one novel. Popular fiction in this vein accounts for roughly about 55 percent of my purchasing, and it’s the simplest part. I look at the statistics and add the books to my cart.
But the fun part lies in the remaining 45 percent. I spend hours scouring book reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, Book Pages, and the like. I read lists with titles like, “100 Most Anticipated Books of the Year,” “Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018,” “So You Want to Read Literary Horror,” and “Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview.” I search for author blurbs from the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Junot Díaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, Stephen King, Helen Oyeyemi, Paul Tremblay, Victor LaValle, and Celeste Ng. I listen to chatter on social media, who’s heralding the coming of the next literary great, who’s in the running for the Booker, the Pulitzer, a Hugo, the National Book Award, PEN/Faulkners, Nebulas, Edgars, Oranges, and all the other literary prizes one can imagine. This is all in an attempt to curate the most appealing collection possible. Once I’ve sifted through the information, I fill the remaining shelf space, leaving just a little bit of my monthly budget to purchase a few titles that may be less well known or flying under the radar as far as our reading population goes.
Independent presses like Graywolf, Small Beer, and Coffee House have been killing it lately with titles like Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines, and Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts. But our patrons are often unaware of their presence. It’s crucial to have a staff recommendation shelf to bring awareness to books with less commercial backing. I often pitch to open-minded patrons books they never would have heard about. I link books I know they loved to books they might otherwise have missed, books that aren’t on the cover of this month’s Book Page or listed on the New York Times bestsellers list. With the last remnants of my monthly budget, this is where I glean the most joy from my job. Last month I ordered a copy of A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. No other library in our system possessed the book. Evenson is an amazingly gifted and influential short story writer who I believe should be more widely read on Cape Cod. The same can be said for authors like Camilla Grudova, Sofia Samatar, Jeffrey Ford, and A. S. Patrić, all of whom have work out from small presses. Even though only the smallest part of my budget can go to supporting such important literary work, I still make sure to do my part, one book per month.
Reading broadly is important. Reading what you like is important. You can’t slap a numeric value on a book to prove it’s better than another. As a librarian, it’s my job to give my patrons what they want, regardless of my own reading preference. I don’t read many mysteries, but I love literary horror. Amish Romance isn’t my thing, but I can get lost in a short-story collection, no problem. I rarely dip into popular fiction, but that doesn’t mean I should criticize a patron’s choice for reading the fourth Patterson novel to come out this year. (And honestly, no one should criticize the writer, himself. According to a New York Times article, he literally donated a million dollars to small bookstores across America to pay employee bonuses and expand literacy programs. Sounds like a solid guy to me.) Libraries are pitched as the last true democracy available to us. Everyone’s taste in books should be accounted for, and is. Make sure you get your name in early if you hope to read this month’s most popular title. The line could be 300 deep. If you notice your favorite title missing from the shelves, let your librarian know. He’ll probably add it to next month’s order. If you haven’t picked up a small press title, maybe you should. If you think we shouldn’t carry such and such a title, of course you can tell me — I’ll listen — but I’m not taking it off the shelves. It’s probably someone else’s favorite author. That’s the beauty of it.
So, the moral of the story is, if you want to see Kurt Vonnegut’s half-smoked cigarette, swing by the library. I’ll get it out of the vault for you.