May 20, 2019

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How the N.Y. Public Library Fills Its Shelves (and Why Some Books Don’t Make the Cut)

How the N.Y. Public Library Fills Its Shelves (and Why Some Books Don’t Make the Cut)
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The New York Public Library has one of the largest public collections in the world. But, unlike Amazon, it does not have seemingly infinite storage. Every book must earn its place on crowded shelves. Nothing gets there by accident. With millions of books to choose from, the library often gets asked how a book gets on the shelves.

Every book is handpicked by a seasoned corps of 16 selectors and helpers who are the gatekeepers to the library’s circulating collection of nearly 5 million books, 1.7 million e-books and 177,000 audiobooks.

These selectors have, at minimum, a master’s degree in library science and a love of reading. They scour thousands of titles so borrowers don’t have to. From inside a squat, brick building in Long Island City, Queens, they are “fighting for good books,” said Michael Santangelo, the deputy director of collection management.

The selectors do not read every book they pick. There is simply not enough time. Besides, it is about more than just what they like to read when they are picking for the entire city — last year they added more than 476,000 books, 75,000 e-books and 18,000 audiobooks.

Every title and author is carefully researched. The goal is to create a well-rounded collection with a wide range of voices and viewpoints. They want to give everyone an excuse to pick up a book at the 88 neighborhood branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens have separate library systems).

Big names like James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts and Jodi Picoult have nothing to worry about. Their latest books are snapped up, sight unseen, months before they are actually released so they are waiting on the shelves. Ditto for the latest installment of popular youth series like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney.

The library’s top five orders last year were all familiar names: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama (2,174 copies); “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff (1,395 copies); “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan (846 copies); “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo (604 copies); and “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn (495 copies).

Even first-time or unknown authors get noticed when backed by major publishing houses, including Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan Publishers, Hachette Book Group and HarperCollins Publishers. The selectors often try to have at least one copy of a new release in the library catalog in case it takes off. But self-published authors are not entirely shut out (see below).

Nothing beats good reviews, of course, but even bad reviews do not rule out books since the selectors make their own calls. It also helps if an author has a loyal fan base, or if the book has been in the news, talked up on social media or turned into a splashy movie.

The “Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas created such a stir before it was released that the library preordered 50 copies, and then another 50. “I thought it was going to be huge,” said Karen Ginman, 41, who selects youth books. Now the library has 400 copies, all of which were checked out the other day.

For Ms. Thomas’s new book, “On the Come Up,’’ Ms. Ginman preordered 120 copies. While breakout successes are the exception, everything helps. So keep those five-star Amazon reviews coming.

Politics and dieting regimens — keto, Paleo and vegan — get a close look from Wayne Roylance, 58, a selector who reviews more than 4,000 adult titles a month. Of those, he typically picks about 1,500 for the shelves.

Recipe books for the Instant Pot, a pressure cooker with a cult following, have been a hit in the past year. Test-prep books, and do-it-yourself and craft books are also a shelf staple.

Just as wardrobes have to be refreshed, so do the classics that find new generations of readers or are rediscovered by book lovers.

Well-thumbed copies are retired and new editions added. “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and more recently, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” are always in style.

A little-known way to get onto the shelves is through the local librarian. A self-published book about the history of the Yorkville neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was ordered after residents asked for it.

In other branches, immigrants have requested books in their native languages (the library orders books in 22 languages). Students have asked for books on their summer reading lists.

The library, with 2 million cardholders, receives such requests every day. Every one gets considered. If there is enough money in the budget and the book adds to the collection, the selectors oblige. So if there’s something you want, head to the nearest branch or sign up online.

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