Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Selecting While White: Breaking Out of the Vendor Box

Chelsea Couillard-Smith is a Senior Librarian in Collection Services at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, and has selected materials for libraries big and small for nearly 10 years. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.

As a materials selection librarian, I’m keenly aware of the privilege and responsibility that come with the job. Collection development is gatekeeping - when librarians make decisions about what to include, and what not to include, we have to be aware of the effect on our communities. Libraries certainly aren’t the only avenue for the public to discover and obtain books, but we are a critical point of access for many of our patrons.

I don’t need to reiterate for readers of this blog that there is a lack of diversity in the traditional publishing world. At the same time, independent and self publishing have exploded. Many diverse authors are now able to share their stories through non-traditional routes, and are even getting a decent amount of publicity and exposure through social media.

In general, this is fabulous news for our collections. But are libraries actually able to find and to purchase these books? As almost any librarian will tell you, it’s not always as simple as just going out and buying a book for your library the way an individual might go online and make a purchase.

The vast majority of libraries depend heavily on one or two major book vendors to obtain materials for their collections. Whether or not a title is readily available to most libraries can be as simple as whether or not the book is carried by Baker & Taylor or Ingram. Furthermore, public and school libraries are often restricted in whether, how, and how often they can make purchases - many aren’t able to just go online with a credit card and buy what they want.

Staff time is another hurdle in selecting for a diverse collection. In many libraries, selection is done by librarians who are also expected to plan and lead programs, create outreach partnerships in the community, and staff the circulation desk, among many other responsibilities. Materials selection is squeezed into small, stolen chunks of time between other tasks.

I understand that many libraries feel pressured to purchase problematic titles. Regardless of what critics say and what red flags a librarian may recognize in a book, if it’s a well-known author or it’s getting a lot of publicity, a library may purchase it anyway because of patron interest. Libraries that already have large collections, dedicated selection staff, and deep pockets are best positioned to balance the problematic titles in their collections with a diverse array of books from small and independent presses.

Meanwhile, with smaller budgets and less staff time, underfunded or smaller libraries can find it difficult to buy outside of the box. Many still rely heavily on mainstream review journals or blogs and collection development tools from large library vendors to create their collections, and these resources still tend to prioritize the output of the Big 5 publishers. So they may be purchasing titles that marginalize diverse voices, but face challenges in finding and obtaining the independent titles they need to balance their collections and introduce voices that counter problematic narratives. Even if they have staff members who are plugged into alternative review sources, libraries still may not be able to obtain self-published or small press titles, or they may not feel that they have space in their budgets for titles that are more difficult and more expensive to purchase.

In this way, it’s an oddly self-perpetuating cycle whereby the libraries with more staff, more funds, and more flexibility are best able to create broadly diverse collections, while those with smaller budgets, less staff time, and more barriers to purchasing are perhaps as likely to be buying the problematic, high-visibility titles coming from traditional publishers, but are less able to identify and obtain independent titles from diverse authors.

How do we break out of this cycle of dependency on traditional sources and methods of collection development?

There are small things that any library can do to open up their ability to create a diverse collection. Some ideas:
  • Something as seemingly innocuous as whether or not your library can buy from a local bookseller, Amazon, or other online sources can be framed as a barrier to diversity and inclusion. Ask decision-makers what it would take to increase buying options and flexibility. Provide examples of the high-quality titles that can only be purchased from the book’s creator, and help those in charge of these decisions understand the context around self-publishing. Many authors have chosen to retain control over their works rather than have them diluted by the standards of traditional publishing, while others have never been given a chance to share their stories.
  • Advocate for diverse books, even if your budget is tight. Look at selection lists and other collection development tools with a critical eye - whose voices are missing? Advocate for your own regularly scheduled and dedicated time to spend on selection so you can truly dig into alternative resources for identifying and evaluating traditionally marginalized voices. It might feel like an odd way to get some additional off-desk time to buy materials, but your ability to do some research may be affecting the diversity of your collection.
  • Give self-published authors and small presses a chance to be flexible. If you have to use a purchase order, instead of assuming they will only take a credit card, get in touch. See if you can come to an arrangement that will work for both of you. Most of them will be thrilled at the chance to have their book in a library.
  • Ask more of your vendors! You may not feel that your voice means much to a large vendor, but the more they hear from all of us about small, independent presses, the more likely they are to start making materials available. I’ve found that even large vendors are interested in developing new distribution relationships if it means selling more materials. Establish a collection development contact at your vendor, and when you discover titles that are not in their database, make a habit of sending them an email. Understandably, not every self-published author or independent press will want to work with a large vendor, but some may be happy to gain additional exposure and increase the availability of their titles.
Collection development is a powerful way to challenge some of the equity problems that exist in children’s literature. Breaking out from the confines of traditional sources of materials and reviews can be challenging and time-consuming, but as long as mainstream publishing remains relatively homogenous, it’s critical work that we need to do to diversify our collections. Whether it’s advocating for our own time to spend on this work, asking questions of our vendors, or opening up new avenues of purchasing, there are small things we can do that make a big difference in our ability to bring marginalized voices into our collections. What are some other practical ideas for librarians with purchasing power? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


Debbie Reese said...

It'd be interesting to learn about innovative ways librarians are working to get books that aren't carried by those vendors.

Could collective action from librarians make, for example, Baker and Taylor, carry books from smaller publishers? Ones that are self published?

Could a "help us get a book" fund be set up that gives the library another avenue to get books?

I'm very frustrated by the status quo! Librarians write to me saying they want to get this or that book that I've recommended, but "it isn't in Baker and Taylor."

So--it'd be great if people could share their work-arounds.

Unknown said...

As a librarian at a small school district, I am so fortunate to be able to buy books from where I want and how I want - I buy the majority of books on my own credit card and submit my receipts! However, I completely understand the pain felt elsewhere and love Debbie's suggestion of the "help us get a book" fund. It could even be a wish list on Amazon - many teachers are getting their classroom libraries funded through that venue! Or, in communities with indie bookstores, perhaps libraries could create wish lists to post in the stores. But, it really needs to come down to changing the catalog of the big vendors - we need to help them respond to buyer requests. For self-published books and authors, it is critical that their books have ISBN numbers, and additionally it helps a TON if the book is on services such as Goodreads - this helps generate reviews which give titles credibility. Just some thoughts!

ChelseaSC said...

Debbie, I've been pleasantly surprised at how willing B&T has been to locate materials that they don't carry. A couple of years ago, when Salina Bookshelf had a title honored by the American Indian Youth Literature Awards, I couldn't find their materials in B&T, so I emailed them and asked if they could obtain Salina Bookshelf's list (and I'm sure I wasn't the only one to ask about obtaining this award-winning title). They were happy to contact the publisher, and even let me know when Salina Bookshelf's titles were ready to go in the database. Now this year, when you recommended FALL IN LINE, HOLDEN from that same publisher, I was able to go into B&T and find it right away!

This is just to say that I think we need to get into the habit of not stopping when "it isn't in Baker & Taylor." If it isn't, why not? Could it be? I recognize that I have more purchasing power than a lot of other libraries, but I think if more libraries respond to not finding a title in their vendor database with an email to that vendor asking for it, we would see some of that change. It takes time and effort for sure, but it can make a huge difference.

I'd also say that Ingram carries a lot of self-published material, and they are often my first stop for Createspace and similar kinds of books. I hope that by purchasing this material from them, I'm sending a message that I value their willingness to carry it. And the more of us that do this, the more they see that it's worth it.

I'd love to hear if anyone has had experiences working with vendors to obtain materials not in their databases - maybe they aren't always so willing? Has anyone faced roadblocks?

And I love your idea about a "help us get a book" fund!

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

This sounds like a project for the Friends of the Library or other community group, which can buy a selection of small press and indie published books wherever they're available and gift them to the library. It's also a way of raising awareness among the community so that the books find supportive readers and make their way into book club discussions.

Anna said...

I buy most of my books through Barnes and Noble and local bookstores when they accept purchase orders (and the give me comparable prices, usually). I research all the titles ahead of time using a variety of sources and then place my order. I’m very lucky to have a full-time cataloger who will process all of my books for me, so I don’t have to consider processing when purchasing.

Amy said...

I'm stumbling across this post just now--and, as a collection management librarian in a big system faced with an increase in restrictions on vendors, I'm really appreciating it.

I have emails documenting the books I've been asked to buy this year that I'm unable to because of limitations on vendors, and now I think I should pull those together in a running list. There's an anthology of queer comics for youth; two bilingual books with CD included in English/Wiyot, whose purpose is in part documentation of the disappearing Wiyot language; two books by a local Latinx queer artist, one of which talks about gender identity for children; I could go on. Our selectors may be prevented from purchasing books in Spanish at a local book fair this year, something we've done for many years. It's disproportionately impacting our ability to collect titles representing diversity. This post is inspiring me to start keeping consistent documentation--thank you!

Debbie, you asked above about getting self published books listed in Baker and Taylor--from my end, the difficulty is less that the books aren't in B&T (they often are), it's that B&T often does not include their cover image, and the books are so infrequently reviewed in professional journals. If I find a self published book on, say, a blog, or the author sends me a copy, I can see its value and decide it works for our collection and represents diversity--I can then find it on B&T and order it. But if I just find the record on B&T, usually all I see if the title and bib info. Blog reviews aren't included on B&T. Links to authors' sites, kickstarter campaigns, trailers, and other supporting info that might help me decide this is a book we want are not included. In a perfect world I'd research every title that pops up in my First Look carts each month; realistically, I'm assessing between 1,000 and 2,000 titles for purchase every single month, and I have about five working days in which to do so. If a book includes no supporting information, I'm more likely to delete it and move on than research.

Professional reviews feed automatically into B&T via monthly downloads. Nothing else does, including sources like the column I wrote a couple times for SLJ, Indie Voices (http://www.slj.com/2016/03/books-media/seven-self-published-childrens-books-that-celebrate-diversity-indie-voices/), reviews from blogs, etc. If they did, it would be easier for me to select those titles. Wonder if there's a chance of getting B&T to add some strong, peer-recommended blogs to its reviewing sources? That would be a game changer.