Book Report 2002: The Amazon Effect

By Barbara Hoffert

As libraries become information centers, stocked with computers that attract a whole new clientele, librarians are scurrying to reallocate resources and for the most part shrug philosophically as circulation-traditionally an important measure of a library's success-takes a tumble. That's the picture we've been getting since LJ initiated its annual book-buying survey of public libraries in 1998, and the results of this year's survey confirm those findings, right? Wrong!

While book budgets aren't surging-like last year, only about half of LJ's respondents reported increases, compared with 65 percent in 1998-the number of librarians lamenting slashed book budgets has dropped markedly. What's more, average circulation, which dipped in 1999 and barely rose in 2000, has leapt up a robust 2.9 percent. 'We're buying or borrowing more of what people want,' observes Cathy Bosley, Ft. Morgan PL, CO, when asked to explain her library's hefty 15 percent circulation hike. It's a senti ment echoed throughout the surveys.

Respondents to this year's survey offer many reasons for the good news on circulation. (The survey has expanded from the original 100 to 150 public libraries that are again distributed evenly throughout the country by size and type, e.g., urban, suburban, or rural.) 'A poor economy usually results in increased library use,' observes Richard Treleven, New City Lib., NY. 'As our population ages, more people are turning to reading for entertainment,' chimes in Bonnie Krenz, Griggs Cty. PL, ND. 'After a two-year construction project, we now have more staff and more money,' says Charr Skirvin, Plainfield-Guilford Township PL, IN, speaking for numerous libraries that can boast improved facilities as a big draw-often after concerted campaigns for better funding that bring more money for books as well.

Increasing population, better book budgets, longer hours, and the ease of reserving from home are all credited by LJ's respondents with helping books fly off the shelves. But by far the biggest reasons for increased circulation, cited by two-thirds and one-third of LJ's respondents, respectively, are better promotion and better programming.

Call it the Amazon effect. Like that behemoth, libraries across the country are working hard to merchandise their collections more effectively. They're figuring out new ways to discover what readers want and buying multiple copies of popular works instead of risking scattershot purchases. They're tying their collections to programming and programming to the immediate needs of the community. And they're promoting their efforts through newsletters, press contacts, and whatever else it takes to bring the library to the attention of local constituents.

Patron demand

Meeting patron demand is hardly a new move in libraries, but it is striking just how hard today's librarians are working to assure that what they purchase and promote captures readers' int erest. When asked which books they really enjoy pushing, many librarians echoed James Miley, Troy-Miami Cty. PL, OH: 'Reader's advisory is patron-driven. The staff pitch titles based on the perceived desires of the reader.' Adds Timothy Diamond, Cleveland PL, as he explains his multibranch library's improved circulation, 'There's a better matching of titles to neighborhoods.'

For matches made in heaven, many librarians are relying on sophisticated tools that help measure what their patrons really want. Often, these are new and improved circulation systems that, like many aspects of the Amazon effect, reach down to the smallest libraries. 'A few years back, we migrated to an integrated online automation system by joining a consortium, and all our statistics come from the consortium's central server,' explains Dale Spindel, Kenilworth PL, NJ. 'I think our statistics were pretty accurate before, but the current system gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of being able to analyze data and see exac tly where the increases in circulation are.'

Librarians rely on any number of tools, some homegrown, to help them track patron demand more closely. For instance, says Cynde Lahey, New Canaan Lib., CT, 'Two years ago, we installed an Innovative Interfaces System, which allows us to view catalog searches by popularity of author, title, and subject.' At Portsmouth PL, OH, reports Jenny Cowling, a recently devised author reserve database automatically places patrons on a hold list when a favorite author publishes something new. And at Champaign PL, IL, just reorganized to emphasize its main role as a 'popular materials center,' librarians have worked up an Excel-based collection development manual with a separate page for each part of the collection, including genre fiction. Explains Lisa Ruch, 'We use the resulting turnover rate chart to help us identify the parts of the collection that are bigger than they need to be and those that are not big enough.' By comparing a subcollection's size as a percent age of the overall collection with its circulation as a percentage of overall circulation, the Champaign PL staff have come up with a rigorous and efficient way of matching their holdings to readers' needs.

More than technology

Of course, librarians recognize that technology doesn't have all the answers. 'As the director in a one-librarian library, I have to maintain a very hands-on approach,' reflects Spindel. 'I personally shelve the books in the 'new book' area to get a sense of what moves and what doesn't. After five years of doing this, I probably have a really good sense of what our patrons want to read.' Most librarians would agree that there is no substitute for such an intimate understanding of their patrons' reading tastes, and to find out more they're opening lines of communication and polishing their interpersonal skills. 'Our highly educated population is already very aware of new materials through standard sources, and they seem to like 'personal touch' over other methods to gain information about good reads,' concludes Brian Stoutenberg, Troy PL, MI.

Ultimately, it takes a combination of skills to track readers' interest and communicate what looks appealing. Cowling, who reports that the Portsmouth PL staff must now go through something akin to boot camp before they're up to the job, nicely sums up the possibilities: 'We use tools such as reader's guides, online resources, workshop participation, one-on-one training techniques, extensive focus on the reference interview process, knowledge of collection development, and good, old-fashioned, friendly service. This results in patrons' becoming more and more aware that we aren't just a traditional public library but a resource center for the community we serve.'

Collection promotion

These days, a library's success is predicated partly on its programming. Programs from holiday fetes to neighborhood coffeehouse s can serve the very useful purpose of attracting patrons, and several respondents agree with an observation by Celeste Kline (Ellenburg PL, WA) that 'increased attendance at children's programs brings more adults into the libraries.' But the most successful events are often those tied specifically to collections. It's not just a matter of highlighting hot news or the cause of the month; successful programmers are looking at the riches in their collections and finding ways to promote them. 'Our adult enrichment programming is designed to have a definite relation to our collections, and those collections are promoted at the program both verbally and in print handouts,' notes Stoutenberg.

Book discussion groups remain ever popular in public libraries nationwide, but now libraries are doing more than just hosting a bunch of eager readers. They're also serving to coordinate book groups in their communities, which in turn enhances the use of their collections. For instance, after initiating a book discu ssion group ten years ago, staff at New Canaan PL 'realiz[ed] that if one book group wanted to read and discuss a specific title, others would also have an interest,' notes Lahey. 'Thus, we began to promote the list of titles within the community and to other libraries, telling local groups-whether organized (e.g., Newcomer's Club) or private-that we would purchase multiple paperback copies of their selections.' The result? A choice collection containing 4,156 items with over 325 titles ranging from Aristophanes's Lysistrata to Henry James's The Ambassadors to Helen Fielding's Cause Celeb. Not only has the library ended up serving nearly 50 local discussion groups, but it offers the list to Connecticut libraries and posts monthly updates on its web site ( ). The book group collection, as it is called, benefits not only reading groups but individual readers as well: 'The appeal for the public is that some book group is reading this book,' concludes Lahey.

This sort of organized community outreach is becoming more and more common. For instance, Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA, has worked hard to establish community partnerships that promote the collection, going so far as to create a position called the community partnership development director. Examples of such partnerships include a Cancer Resource Center, the result of brainstorming with the local hospital, which offers print, audiovisual, and online resources and a variety of programming linked to the consumer health collection. In addition, the library works in concert with the nearby College of William and Mary, drawing students to its excellent fiction collection, and it has established a partnership with a local adult-learning program. 'We try to use these partnerships to reach out to current users in new ways as well as to reach new users,' explains Barry Trott, who will join with the library's partnership director for a program on community partnering at the Public Library Association conference in Phoenix in March.

What's hot, what's not

As librarians learn to manage their collections more effectively, delivering the goods patrons want, inevitably there are subtle shifts in what circulates best (see table ). This year's big winner is fiction, always a strong contender and this year's top circulating subject, with 13 percent more respondents than last year citing it among their top five. Why the increase? 'Adult nonfiction use is being replaced by the Internet,' comments Susan B. Hagloch, Tuscarawas Cty. PL, OH-but not so fiction, which still works best in standard book form. In addition, numerous librarians report that they are wising up to patron demand and purchasing multiple copies of the most popular titles in fiction, upping both expenditures and, ultimately, circulation in this area.

In nonfiction, medicine/health is still the top circulator, even posting some gains. How-to/home arts books have rocketed in circulation, but books on arts/crafts/collectibles have taken a spill; only a third of this year's respondents cited these books as top circulators, compared with nearly a half last year. History i s holding steady, which is hardly surprising in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Many librarians are reporting an increased interest in books on Middle Eastern history and politics that should be reflected in next year's tally. Travel, however, is a loser. 'Travel has fallen sharply since September 11,' observes Lila Wisotzki, Baltimore Cty. PL. 'We have moved funds from this area to current events.'

From large print and Christian fiction to AV materials, part of the format shift reported in last year's adult book-buying survey ('Book Report 2001: The Budget Shifts ,' LJ 2/15/01), to computer books-'a collection development black hole; you can never add enough titles,' says Ruch-certain topics are perennial growth areas for libraries. One newer area is Spanish-language collection building, a source of increased expenditure for 14 percent of LJ 's respondents this year (see Spanish-language table ). Spanish-language collections range from a mean of 145 volumes for libraries serving populations under 10,000 to a mean of nearly 150,000 for libraries serving populations over one million, which last year spent on average over $200,000 to meet the reading needs of Spanish-speaking patrons. Not surprisingly, these patrons are demanding popular fiction above all else, with self-help and health/medicine following closely.

Not every library orders from Amazon or its close competitor, Barnes & Noble, and the four in ten respondents to this survey who have accounts with these online booksellers generally concede that they are vendors of last resort. Nevertheless, Amazon's high-profile efforts to promote books-and itself-are echoing through the library community. Say what you will, such aggressive campaigning for one's collection can pay off. Circ's up, and librarians are riding a big new wave into the future.

Subject Areas with the Highest Expenditures/Circulation
Percentage of libraries listing each subject among the top five in expenditures and circulation
SubjectHighest ExpenditureHighest Circ.
How-To/Home Arts2937
Computer Books2718
Social Science1511

Purchasing Power/Circulation Profile: LJ's 150
Average findings based on population served, 2001
Population ServedTotal Operating BudgetMaterials BudgetTotal Book Budget*Adult Book BudgetAdult Fiction BudgetChildren's Book Budget Number of Adult Titles Circ.
Under 10,000$194,000$30,000$26,000$17,000$11,000$8,00027,000
25,000-49,9991,216,000188,000129,000< /td>89,00023,00032,000157,000
1 million and up56,768,0006,726,0004,761,0003,275,000513,000< /td>1,448,0003,863,000
Because libraries break down book budgets differently, adult and children's may not equal total.

Spanish-Language Collections in Public Libraries
Percentages based on Total Sample 2001
Have Spanish Collection
Spanish Language in Demand
Popular Ficton73%
Literary Fiction23%
Cultural Studies12%
Number of Volumes
Fewer than 10014%
5,000 or more11%
Average Size of Collection (Mean): 5,698
Median Size of Collection: 500

Author Information
Barbara Hoffert is Editor, LJ Book Review

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing