Thursday, May 16, 2013
My monthly allowance of peevishness at librarians
Today I wanted a copy of The Fellowship of the Rings. They were all checked out. I flew into a rage, but all quiet like, inside, and plotted my revenge on my blog. Then I rubbed my hands together and chuckled maniacally. I have always wanted the librarians to pay for these sorts of things, but I never, until now, had such sweeping blog powers! And now I'm drunk on it. And now our Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy collection buyer shall rue the day she took her eyes off the Tolkien collection!
On second thought, I think maybe all those "If I were King of the Library" posts may have gone to my head. Perhaps I can instead speak of this civilly. Almost civilly? Only just a wee, tiny touch deranged? And if I'm a bit too tough on the librarians maybe we can chalk it up to a series of years, now almost long past, where I toiled in my library's wildly understaffed circ pit, while the librarians mainly got to surf the internet and do occasionally mildly interesting things. As a dear, but now moved on colleague of that era used to like to say, "Good times."
The main thing wrong here with the absence of The Fellowship of the Rings is one that I find librarians get wrong often. I call it "The Series Problem", which I just invented now to sound professorial. It is based on idle observation and surmise, which is way less tiring than the semi-related "Scientific" approach. It says that in any multiple book narrative series that is popular (and not primarily new), the first book will always get checked out more, way, way more. So much more that most librarians can't process it and so under buy it. Everyone who wants to try the series starts with the first book and many go no further. Most deep fans will go back to the first book to reread, but may not go on in round 2 or 7 of their rereads. And with all the heavy reads the problem is compounded as more of the first book is lost or read into pieces. On top of all this there is a good reason to actually overstock the first of a series. People tend to stumble upon the desire or recommendation for the series and so want that starting point right away, whereas if they find it engaging, they have time to plan out and wait for further books in the series, as they are still reading the first. All of this applies a little less strongly to mystery series which can have a tolerance for jumping in, and more thoroughly for the strong sequential narratives that tend to appear in fantasy. This is why we end up with zero The Fellowship of the Rings on our shelves, but six Return of the Kings. I went and did a random test of this and, I'm a little embarrassed to say, but not too embarrassed to say, it made me feel very clever. I sampled the Harry Potter series. My branch is hanging by a thread with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. There are 11 copies checked out and just one on the shelf. And of book seven in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? There are 15 checked in, and just four checked out. I don't shelve in the kids room so only go to those stacks if Juvenile fiction is what I'm reading or helping someone with, but my god, those later books get thick. There must be a wall of Harry Potters in there right now!
There is a curious corollary between "The Series Problem" and the chronic library problem concerning musical artists in regards to their early career recordings vs. their late career recordings. But perhaps I'll save that for another time. There is also the issue of what I call "Popular Classics" or "New Classics" of which I suspect Fellowship of the Rings is a slight victim. This has a lot to do with different kinds of popularity, but perhaps that too is a discussion for another day. The last problem is that I never seem to hear librarians talking about these problems, fussing, obsessing, asking. And so it raises my ire not just from the disappointment, but from the sense that it is less an accident and more an inevitable result of disengagement. I saw plenty of signs of that disengagement on my tour of Minneapolis Libraries, but it's another thing to see it in my own dear genre stacks. Luckily I had saved four whole weeks of my peevishness allowance for such an occasion as this. And now it's spent.