Behind the Shelves

By Deb

Have you ever wondered how a book gets on the shelf in the library?  It’s a little more complicated than it first seems.  Of course, first an author has to write it, and then some company has to publish it.  That happens pretty frequently.  In fact, it’s estimated that there are nearly 130 million unique books in the world.  Obviously, there aren’t nearly that many in our library, so how does a book get into our library collection?

Selection – Library budgets are limited, especially these days.  So librarians have to be very choosy about what books to spend those limited funds on.  Finding out about books being published is usually the easy part.  Publishers, authors, and various journals send out information about new books being released.   To decide if a book belongs on the library, we read reviews, talk to staff and the public, and use our experience.  Sometimes a patron will give us a request for a specific book.

Acquisition – After a book has been approved for addition, the book is ordered.  There are a number of places that libraries can get books, but most come from book distributors such as Baker and Taylor or Ingram Books.  The libraries together order hundreds of books each month, which must be tracked and processed.

Processing – Library books need to be prepared before going on the shelf.  You’ve probably noticed that the library books you check out have lactic covers, labels on the spine to identify them, stamps to show which library owns them, barcodes labels to allow them to be checked out, and even RFID tags to allow self-service (Available in Macon Library now, and coming soon to Jackson).  These are all part of the special handling that has to be done before a book can be put on the shelf.  Some of it can be done by the book distributor for an extra fee, but some must be done by library staff once it arrives.

Cataloging – Before a book can go to the shelf it must be cataloged.  Back in the 1960s the library community created a standard format for catalog records that could be stored in computers.  It was called MARC, which stands for Machine Readable Catalog records.  Libraries are still using this standard today.  The catalog record is useful for several things.  It allows the library to keep track of the book, both in the library, and when it is checked out.  It allows the library to check the book out to people and keep track of when it is due back.  It allows the library staff and patrons to know that the library has the book and what it is about.  It even gives a general description such as size and number of pages.  When you search for a book in the online catalog you are seeing a version of its MARC catalog record.  To get that record into the online system, library staff has to find a record online, download it and customize it to our library.  If they can’t find a record they have to make up a record from scratch.  Needless to say, this takes some time and training to do.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the library shelves to see what goes into getting a book onto the shelf for patrons to checkout.    It’s just one of the many things that library staff is doing behind the scenes to make the library experience as easy as possible for our users.

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