Interview: Jeanette Larson- A Peek Behind the Scenes of Public Libraries

Jeanette Larson on the Who, What, Why of Public Libraries

A former Librarian of the year and Siddie Joe Johnson award winner, Jeanette Larson’s twenty-five career with public library systems across the country has made her a library expert. Now, Jeanette is busy consulting, teaching, leading workshops and writing. Visit her Larson Library website to learn even more. In the next few weeks, I’ll also be posting an interview with Jeanette about her role as author as we spotlight her soon-to-be released nonfiction book, HUMMINGBIRDS: FACTS AND FOLKLORE IN THE AMERICAS, (Charlesbridge 2010)

A few months ago, I invited a slew of writerly colleagues to pose library-related questions for Jeanette. Following are a handful of the most commonly asked questions.

How are libraries in general adjusting to recent economic challenges?
Libraries have always had to deal with economic challenges! Even well-funded libraries (yes, there have been a few) are suffering in the most recent economic climate. It’s very perplexing because the public almost always indicates that they value libraries and want good, well-funded libraries but the politicians and government staffers don’t seem to get that message. Librarians are struggling to do more with less and to deal with multiple platforms for delivering services–face-to-face help doesn’t decline much because of computers and virtual access to information–but in the current climate some services are being dropped or decimated.

Who makes the book buying decisions in public libraries?
Depending on the size of the library, it may be a subject or audience specialist, such as the children’s librarian or a business librarian. In smaller libraries it is usually the library director. Many libraries are now using distributors, like Baker & Taylor or Ingram, to automatically select bestselling books and books by standard authors. The true art in making selection decisions rests with anticipating what your patrons will want and ferreting out books and other materials to meet those interests. Most libraries also want input and suggestions from their patrons so speak up!

What influences the buying selection process?
Patron requests are probably the most important influencer. Without a request, librarians look at reviews and at gaps in the collection. Identifying gaps often results from patron requests and not locating material needed by patrons. Winning an award brings the book to the librarians attention but that is not usually the main deciding factor, depending on the award. Most libraries will buy the Newbery and Caldecott winners but may not buy the National Book Award winner if it doesn’t match local interests.

What can authors do to effectively market their books to libraries? 
 That is the $64,000 question! There is no simple answer. Name recognition is important. If you can’t change your name to J.K. Rowling, do what you can to introduce yourself to the librarian. When friends and family ask where to get your book, ask them to ask their local library to buy the book. Make it easy for the librarian to purchase your book by providing all of the ordering information–like the correct ISBN. Remember that librarians get a lot of mail and email so if you send something like a postcard keep it attractive, simple, and clean so that it is easy to read quickly. Your publisher probably distributes catalogs (print or electronic) to librarians but you can send a quick note to “Children’s Book Selector” highlighting your book. What makes your book appealing to local readers? Remember, there is no shortage of “good books” so explain what makes your book different and essential. Consider joining your state library association. In Texas, non-librarians (called lay persons) can join for $30 a year ( That gets you a lot of information about what’s happening in libraries and attending the annual conference even only to visit the exhibits, is a great way to meet librarians and publishers.

Golden question #1- Is there a topic, genre, or theme that seems always to be in short supply in children’s nonfiction or fiction books?
That’s a tough question because it varies so much and what is in short supply may not be the most marketable topic. I see a huge lack of mysteries featuring children of color, for example. I’m not sure whether that is because the books are not being written, not being published, or not being bought. My friend Rene Saldana Jr. and I have had many conversations about this issue. Good books that tell good stories–real and imaginary–are always needed. Librarians are also always looking for good nonfiction, especially biographies about important people who are not the standard subjects of books.

Are library buying considerations different for e-books?
Well, yes. Many patrons don’t yet own the readers and there are technology considerations between platforms. Also licensing issues can be very touchy. Often the licensing agreement when you buy an e-book doesn’t allow lending so the library would have to actually lend the device that the e-book was downloaded to. This is a new frontier!

Are e-books for children keeping up with adult titles?
I’m by no means an expert on e-books. I don’t own a Kindle or Nook but from what I’ve heard and read, children’s books are not quite where adult titles are. Picture books are harder to “translate” to the e-book platform and there is still nothing quite like holding a book while reading to a child. Also, just as with audiobooks and video, the devices are relatively expensive and many parents don’t want the risk of their child losing or misplacing a $140 device.

What are some specific challenges libraries face, in transitioning to the e-book and digital based additions?
The licensing factors for lending are probably the biggest challenge. The other major challenge is cost. You don’t “own” the e-book; you license it and when the library no longer can pay for the license the e-book is gone. There is also a major challenge in that libraries still must meet demand for print copies of books they may be buying in e-book format. While demand for e-books is growing, print books are still the lifeblood of library collections. And many of the most popular e-books are not licensed for libraries to lend.

With so many different formats available for e-books, including the Nook and Kindle, how do libraries decide which format(s) to provide?
I don’t have much direct experience with this but many libraries are limited, by Kindle licensing issues for example, to lending e-books in .txt or pdf formats. This area is in such flux that I’m hesitant to speculate other than to say libraries want to make content available in every format that they can legally and affordably do.

Do you think we’ll ever see a streamlined ebook format, usable on any device?
Probably. Or more likely the format and technology will change to something that is more universal.

Golden Question #2- Do you think electronic readers will ever replace traditionally printed books?
Totally, no. In a major way, yes. I see fewer and fewer reference type books being published traditionally. The e-book is much easier to update and most readers only need part of the book. That said, even reference books, especially travel books, will need to be created specifically for electronic distribution. Translating a travel guide to e-book format has not been as successful as you might imagine and many travelers who download the guides to their Kindle or Nook find the guide to be not as user-friendly as the paperback edition.

Who, within a library system, makes shelving/cataloging decisions?
More and more the cataloging and classification decisions are made by the Library of Congress or the vendor who actually provides the book to the library. While the local library can certainly override that decision, there has to be a major reason for doing so as changing all the information is time consuming and delays getting the book on the shelf. Shelving is a different issue as many libraries add stickers to designate that the book will go on the graphic novel shelf or the mystery shelves or the Texas Bluebonnet Award section. Each time the location is changed, however, the information in the online catalog also has to be changed so users can find the item.

Younger NF vs Junior NF-  Public libraries sometimes differentiate between Early nonfiction and Junior nonfiction.  How is the Early vs. Junior NF shelving decision made? 
Often the library is going with what the publisher says. Some decisions are obvious–short sentences, 32 pages, lots of illustrations, larger font type means it is for younger readers. Other times it is very subjective. My book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas, for example, is 64 pages and is junior non-fiction. But interestingly most of the hand sold copies are for people giving the book as a gift to an adult who loves hummingbirds. Most libraries I’ve worked with don’t have separate sections for younger nonfiction (like for preschoolers or beginning readers) and junior nonfiction. They shelve all nonfiction together recognizing that even more proficient readers may do better with a simpler text for a new topic.

Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction-  It is not uncommon to find fictionalized accounts of historical subjects/events shelved in the nonfiction section and visa versa. How does a library distinguish between fiction and nonfiction?

Again, most libraries use the Library of Congress classification information. But most libraries have held a strong line against including fictionalized material in the nonfiction sections. I have not really seen that happen with, for example, the American Girl fiction series. They are clearly fiction even though they include factual information in the story.

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult- Likewise, how do libraries distinguish Middle Grade (Junior Fiction) and Young Adult or Adult fiction?
This is very subjective. Most libraries start with the publishers designation and then go by the content. More mature subjects will be classified as young adult.

Why is poetry shelved in Nonfiction?
Talk to Melvil Dewey about this one! Actually ALL books should be shelved in what we call “nonfiction.” The Dewey Decimal system gives every book a number. Poetry is in the literature section, which is also where, under Dewey’s system we would place fiction, picture books, beginning readers, etc. Libraries use designations like F and E to group books in sections that are most easy for the patrons to browse. The 813 (Fiction) section would be huge!

Golden Question #3- Is there anything else you’d like to add?
My, you’ve really tested my knowledge and stretched my expertise. I can’t think of anything else.

6 Responses to “Interview: Jeanette Larson- A Peek Behind the Scenes of Public Libraries”

  1. Erin Edwards

    In a climate of doom and gloom I find the comment that "libraries have always had to deal with economic challenges" encouraging. Talk about a librarian that isn't going to quit! Libraries will survive. 🙂

    Odd as it may sound, I would vote to have the funding cut for the library I use (and I go there a *lot*) if it spares a library in a more disadvantaged area. Where ever a library is, I will get to it. But people, especially kids, in some areas don't have other options available.

  2. mark mitchell

    This interview is packed with insights into libraries — big and small, public and school — and the changes that face them. It's always a pleasure to hear Jeanette talk about books and the infrastructures that get them into the hands od communities.
    Donna's questions were so on-point, especially from the point of view of authors!
    Thank you!

  3. Mark Mitchell

    This interview is packed with insights into libraries — big and small, public and school — and the changes that face them. It's always a pleasure to hear Jeanette talk about books and the infrastructures that get them into the hands od communities.
    Donna's questions were so on-point, especially from the point of view of authors!
    Thank you!

  4. Jeanette

    Erin–Librarians are resourceful and persistent! It's very generous of you to be willing to help less advantaged areas but the truth is we spend so little on libraries that they all need help. One thing we all can do is join the Friends of the Library. Also donate when you can–I buy bestsellers and then donate them to the library. Volunteer to be on your library board. And never pass up a chance to let the governing officials know that you want strong libraries–at every level. It takes a few minutes to email the President, your congress person, the mayor, etc. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  5. Donna

    Thank you all for your comments. This is an especially sensitive and important time to support our libraries. Jeanette's advice is spot on- make your voices heard.