Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Book Inspection - nearly extinct
These Children's Librarians with the Los Angeles Public Library are busily engaging in what is unfortunately a dying practice - the fine art of book inspection.
Yes, our Children's Librarians actually get to see books before they buy them for their branches! They inspect the jacket, the binding, the size of the print, the illustrations, the paper quality - and in the case of picture books, they read them cover-to-cover.
Does this seem innovative and amazing? It should, because most Children's Librarians in most library systems must select their books without ever clapping eyes on them. That is, if they even get to select their books at all; many library systems use centralized purchasing, thus taking away one of the main important functions of a professional Children's Librarian.
Sure, Children's Librarians can often get a good sense of what to buy from reviews, buzz, a knowledge of authors and series, and a deep familiarity with their own communities and collections. However, nothing is as good as picking up a picture book and reading the whole thing cover to cover. Will it work for story time? Is it perfect to read to a class? Is it a wonderful lapsit book for a grown-up to share with a favorite child? I trust reviewers to tell me what they think of a book and why, but tastes do differ.
Nonfiction is just as important to inspect as picture books. Size, shape, thickness, and size of font all have an impact on the appeal and usefulness of a nonfiction book, and reviews (if there even are any; nonfiction reviews are sadly rare, especially for series) don't always give this information. I want to see the table of contents, the bibliography, and the index. I want to judge whether the illustrations pull me in or leave me cold. I want to hold the book in my hand and imagine the child, teacher, or parent I will hand it to.
No one can read a novel during the four hours we get for book inspection, but again, the size of the font and the sheer heft of the book can tell me a lot. Also, reading the jacket flap and the first page (just like kids do) will let me know if the kids in my community might read this book - it may have gotten starred reviews, but kids do judge a book by its cover and first page! Of course, Children's Librarians should read reviews and buy books that receive great reviews but have unfortunate covers or a less than thrilling first page - but they must be ready and willing to promote them at every opportunity.
The bottom line is that when Children's Librarians are able to inspect books before they make their purchasing decisions, they are less likely to wind up with duds - those "dang - why'd I order that?!" feeling. The books are more likely to be the ones they actively use in programs, take out into the community, and handsell to their patrons. And that is a better use of scarce tax dollars.
Our book inpections only occur every other month now rather than monthly - budget woes have cut down on how often our Children's Librarians can meet. We can only hope that book inspection doesn't disappear entirely, as we all feel that it is essential to getting the right book into the hands of the right child.