In the stacks: How the library keeps track of what New York wants to read (and tries to meet the demand)
11:43 am Feb. 16, 2012
In theory, no matter how popular the book, a New York Public Library patron should never be in line behind more than four other patrons to borrow a copy.
But anyone who has turned to the library in the past few days for a copy of journalist Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, met with one of the inevitable pains of living in New York: A very long line.
By Wednesday evening, 350 holds had piled up for four available copies of the book. For the person at the end of the line, that would mean waiting for 88 other people to retrieve, read, and return the well-regarded 288-page book before it's available. Forever, basically.
In fact it won't take that long for patron No. 351.
“Every day, we are assessing demand,” Miriam Tuliao, assistant director for central library development, said in an interview with Capital. “We track how a particular title is faring.”
On Feb. 9, two days after the book’s publication date, the library ordered 89 additional copies. Once those arrive, the ratio of requests to copies will reset, so that even if another 100 people were to decide they wanted to get in line for the book, the ratio of requests to resources would still come in below the library’s ideal: five holds to every one copy.
Like bookstores, libraries need to anticipate literary appetites. Unlike bookstores, libraries do not have a financial incentive to feed those appetites immediately. They have to balance civic missions and budget concerns with the imperative to put books in people’s hands. Sometimes, patrons have to wait. While bookstore best-seller lists monitor only what goes out, lists of the library’s most-circulated and most-requested books reveal not only which books readers want right now, but which they’re willing to wait for.
In January, four out of the library’s five most circulated works—the closest thing the library has to a best-sellers list—came from well-known authors of genre fiction. Kill Alex Cross follows James Patterson’s detective as he tries to track down the president’s kidnapped children. Janet Evanovich’s Explosive Eighteen has Trenton-based bail-bondswoman Stephanie Plum tangled up in an F.B.I. investigation. (For the uninitiated, it may help to know that One for the Money, the currently running but terribly reviewed Katherine Heigl flick, is based on the first book in the Plum series.) Hotel Vendôme does not feature any recurring characters, but it is by Danielle Steel. In The Drop, journalist-turned-crime writer Michael Connelly unleashes detective Harry Bosch upon a trio of cases that just might be connected.
The outlier on this list is The Help, which was the second-most circulated title in the system last month, although the book first came out in 2009 and the movie based on it was released last August. When it was first released, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it a “button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel.” It has lingered on the Times’ best-seller list, too, in the wake of the movie’s release.
Not just in its predilection for 1960s homespun civil-rights nostalgia, the list of the library’s most circulated books has more in common with the Times’ bestseller list than those at indie bookstores. It reflects popular, rather than literary, tastes. But the list of the library’s most requested books has a different aura to it. It’s a bit celebrity-obsessed. Not in the manner of Perez Hilton: these are smart celebrities—Steve Jobs, and Diane Keaton, and Mindy Kaling.
In January, more New Yorkers had put in a request for Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs than for any other book in the system. (The biography also topped the list of most circulated nonfiction books, all of which went round fewer times than the most popular fiction titles did.) Diane Keaton’s autobiography came in fourth and "Office" sweetheart Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns came in fifth. And while New York readers might look to Patterson and Steel for a quick fix, they’re willing to wait in line for the second installment in the "Hunger Games" franchise, the third most requested book in the system.
As with the most circulated books, the second-most pined-for book, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, also stood out. It was one of the only books on any of the library’s top five lists that would count as literary.
Tuliao attributed its high-up place in part to its popularity among “our most dedicated power readers,” the library’s book groups. It seems reasonable to give the Times Square billboard, erected by his publishers to promote the book, some credit, too. More than a thousand people have put in a request for the novel. But with 280 copies, the library is skirting well below the critical five-to-one ratio. No one will have to wait too long to find out whether Madeleine prefer Mitchell or Leonard.
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