Collection Dilemmas: Poetry

I was denewing books in the 800s recently, which gives me the opportunity to see how books on the "New" shelf have circulated in the 10-12 months between when they're processed and when they're put in the general collection. These books are featured in a very public area and theoretically have a greater chance of being noticed by patrons and checked out. I've been aware for a while now that books of poetry, while dear to my heart, don't enjoy much popularity at my library, even though they are featured on displays (as for National Poetry Month) and given the same time as other books in the New section.

Most of the poetry collections I denewed the other day had circulated, but sometimes as little as one time. Is one circulation a victory? If a book costs a certain amount (after a library discount), and then we add the cost of paying people to process and shelve it, does one circulation make its purchase worthwhile? At what point does the balance swing in favor of buying more of the same type of book? One of the worst feelings you can have as a selector is to carefully evaluate and commit resources to a book, and then have it sit on the shelf for the entirety of its time at your library. From the statistics I've been reviewing over the past three years, interest in poetry among my patrons is not very high at this moment in time.

I also have to think about weeding this part of the collection. Weeding one book of poetry doesn't really create very much space, so I need to think more globally and set some priorities in terms of what I keep and what I plan to order. I know I'll want to keep local poets and am committed to preserving as much diversity (of all kinds) in the collection as possible. I also realize that as one of the largest libraries around, we have been able and are expected to buy some things that smaller libraries can't afford to purchase. I wish I had a statistic for how many of the poetry books circulate through interlibrary loan, because I'm sure they would be illuminating. However, our budget has consistently shrunk over the past several years, which means that--more than already is the case--my patrons' preferences have to be taken into account over those of patrons in other Massachusetts cities and towns.

Taking at look at the statistics for the 811s, what are the most popular collections and authors? The top five highest circulating books are:

Book of Longing, Leonard Cohen (39)
The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, Tim Burton (yes, that Tim Burton; 23)
The Poems of Emily Dickinson (21)
The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (21)
Paint Me Like I Am: Teen Poems from WritersCorps (21)

These are by all American authors, because that portion of the collection is much larger than its British counterpart. I do order new collections by British authors, but in much smaller numbers. For the sake of comparison, the most popular poetry collections in the 821s are:

The Poems of Dylan Thomas (15)
The Annotated Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (14)
Collected Poems, 1909-1962, T.S. Eliot (14)

If I combine circulations for different books by the same author (some of which may be missing or billed), and include books about the author's work, the top six circulating poets are:

Maya Angelou (241)
Nikki Giovanni (159)
Mary Oliver (120)
Charles Bukowski (104)
Robert Frost (82)
Langston Hughes (81)

These numbers don't take into account any circulations before this system was put in place in 1999; additional circulations for older books can only be measured by looking at the stamps on their covers.

It is safe to assume, therefore, that these numbers are rather low, but useful because they reflect usage over the last decade. Working with the American poetry section, I'm considering approximately 2,500 items. About 300 of these (12%) have circulated in the last year. More than 30% (773 items) haven't circulated at all since 1999. If I compare these numbers to, say, the paperback collection, where nearly half of the collection circulates in a given year, it starts to look a bit gloomy. Some of these books are works about Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, but the majority are small collections by or collected works of individual poets.

The good news (for those of us who like poetry) is that the books I've been buying are circulating, if only sluggishly. I don't think we're at the point where purchasing poetry--aside from anything by Nikki Giovanni or another "must-buy" author like Mary Oliver--ceases completely. But this exercise is a good reminder that I need to be mindful of how I spend the very little money I have for this purpose, and how best to do it with an eye toward the future of the collection.

Any recommendations?


Anne said…
Do you see much in-house use (without checkout) of these items? For me, if something hasn't circulated in a year or two, it should go - what's the purpose of it staying there if it's not being used? (I'm in a suburban public library - I do realize that other types of libraries may have different raisons d'ĂȘtre for their collections.)

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