Book Selection in Danish Public Libraries
Anne Lise Japsen
Since the mideighties a heated debate has been going on in Denmark as to the acquisition policy in public libraries. The critics have made their points with the greater intensity. Authors, publishers and critics have accused the public libraries of inclining towards demands rather than quality, thereby letting down the good book. However, librarians put up the defence that they do buy quality material, but are forced to buying chiefly what people want ? they are, so to speak, the public's libraries.
The Danish National Library Authority consequently decided to carry out an investigation into the libraries' acquisitions with a view to conducting the debate on more solid eround. The resulting report was entitled The LibrarY and the Good Book. (1)
The report contains a summary of the debate from 1986?1989, an explanation of the basis for book selection: Legislation and the library annotations and a statistics section on book production and the activities and economics of the public libraries. Unlike the overall budgets the public libraries' book budgets have not been keeping up with the general price development, and the extraordinarily vast increase in book prices has been eroding the book budgets. That is why accessions decreased by 27% during the eighties, while at the same time book production has increased by about 2000 titles, especially nonfiction literature. The decline in accessions has really changed the library landscape. The number of very small libraries has increased, the number of larger libraries has diminished. While in 1979. 129 out of a total of 250 public libraries bought less than 3000 volumes for adults, the figure in 1989 had risen to 156.
On the basis of these facts we have been examining the public library acquisitions for adults during one single year. 1989. The emphasis has been on fiction, this area being the main object for discussion and also because we had to put certain limits on our investigations. We did look into the popular section of nonfiction literature, and unveiled some general traits in the libraries' acquisitions, which might make up for some of the shortcomings. The main emphasis was put on the relation between quality and anticipated demand. We did not examine the relation between supply and demand. The investigation aimed to assess how book selection compared with the public libraries' obejctive: to further education, enlightenment and cultural activity ? and not to scrutinize the use. Moreover we were in no doubt at all that the libraries were absolutely right in maintaining that bestsellers were more in demand than the more taxing books. A brief section deals with demand and shows this to be by no means as predictable as one might possibly believe.
The very core of our investigation is the analysis of the libraries' purchase of 114 titles. We chose 102 fictional titles, which had received unanimously eood reviews and 12 titles from the daily paper Politiken's bestseller list in 1989. The list was compiled by a panel of librarians with extensive experience in book selection and was then sent to all the public libraries. Very nearly everybody responded, and this then formed the basis for a complete picture of the libraries' acquisitions. It turned out that all the libraries were predominantly buying bestsellers and the solid. popular ?mainly Danish ?novels. Perhaps this came as no great surprise. What did create a stir was the fact that major foreign writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Bruce Chatwin, Yashar Kemal, Thomas Mann and Paul Auster were represented by a mere 3?400 copies in the public libraries altogether. i.e. about 1000 libraries. Poetry came bottom of the list. Wellknown Danish poets and world famous people like Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney were only purchased by the major libraries and only totalling 100 copies.
We drew the conclusion that libraries prefer quality, but only in so far as this may be combined with popularity ? and that the "narrow' quality literature suffers in the process.
Sales figures for fiction in 1989 obtained from the Danish Library Binding Centre confirmed this view, but it turned out that not only the good, popular literature, but also the mediocre or downright poor literature figured higher up on the libraries' acquisition lists than the socalled narrow literature. McBain, Hornhaver and Gardner were placed far above Auster, Saramago and Kallifatides.
As far as nonfiction was concerned we had to content ourselves with concentrating on the sales figures from the Danish Library Binding Centre, and they only represent a minor part of the nonfiction literature (about 700 out of a total of over 8000 new nonfiction titles published in 1989). They are the titles expected to be sold in a reasonable number to the libraries, that is to say the popular part of non-fiction literature. As regards this part of our investigation we did not attempt an evaluation of quality, but only examined the nature of the subject categories. The sales figures for nonfiction are much lower than for fiction, but the results are similar: Most libraries buy most copies of what is most popular; biographies of wellknown popular people and the great mass of private life literature that keeps appearing now; books on loneliness, body language, performance anxiety, cholesterol cures, healing, erotic massage, allergy diets etc. The more general, cultural or historical nonfiction, which might be described ? as opposed to the private life literature ? as outside world literature is being sold in much smaller numbers, i.e. to a minority of libraries, just as was the case for fiction.
The conclusion for this part of the investigation was that here, too, the anticipated demand was a very decisive factor. If the impression we had gained when studying the accessioning of popular nonfiction were sympthomatic of the libraries' accession policy one might well pose the question as to how smaller libraries would be able to live up to the whole essential purpose of the library service.
One might also describe the acquisitions of both fiction and nonfiction in terms used by the critics (newspaper reviews and the Danish Library Binding Centre's library annotations). Material described as "popular" ("easy reading", "great handbook", "style not literary/intellectual", "should be in great demand" etc.) is being bought by many libraries in relatively large numbers, whereas the more demanding or specialized material ("experimenting", "foreign", "for teachers of adults" etc.) is being bought by few libraries in small numbers.
As mentioned earlier the investigation revealed some interesting characteristics of the libraries' accessioning. The libraries' accessions should be seen to accommodate the character of the district, as stipulated in the Ministerial Order, which really refers to the size of the area, i.e. the number of people in the municipality. Quite an amazing adaptation running through right down to the individual title, when looking at the libraries in groups according to number of inhabitants. First of all we examined how many libraries had pur-chased the individual titles. We then drew a bar chart for each of the 114 titles, and it is quite obvious that the fewer libraries having bought a given title, the fewer small libraries have bought it. The narrower the title, the fewer small libraries.
As the above shows the accession per inhabitant varies little, but it has to be said that the accession per inhabitant decreases with the size of the municipality. Thus small municipalities ? in more senses than one ? offer lesser service than the larger ones, when measuring the library`s service against the volume of accessions.
When looking at how many copies of the 114 titles were purchased, it turned out that the libraries' order of priorities was similar, but their resources varied and subsequently the level tended to differ. Figure 3 shows on the x?axis the 102 most favourably reviewed titles and on the y?axis the average number of copies per title for each of the five groups of libraries. The upper curve shows the larger libraries' average number of copies of the 102 titles, the lower curve shows the smallest libraries' average number of copies. The curves show that the tendency is similar but at a different level. As regards the smaller libraries the same order of priority results in some titles being cut out altogether. The amazing thing is that the figure reveals the result of 25.000 individual decisions, made by the librarians together in the libraries.
The reason for this similarity is undoubtedly the Danish library policy of this century: Legislation, advisory services. library annotations etc. all working towards creating a highly developed. homogenous library service throughout the country. It is interesting to notice that the li-braries react in much the same Nvay, even when some people main-tain they ought to be different as has been the "in" attitude over the past few years. They have also been told to give people what they want. In this way the main emphasis has inclined towards the taste of the majority, not towards a regard for the individual.
The main purpose of the investigation was to compare library practice with library legislation. The fundamental question to be debated was whether the libraries were to put the main emphasis on presenting a selection (at a certain level) of newly published literature or whether they should offer people just what they want - or what one imagines they want.
The current debate
The report created quite a stir. The Minister of Cultural Affairs held a conference in March 1992, the Danish National Library Authority together with the county libraries arranged a number of meetings in the public libraries and an extensive debate was conducted in the daily papers. (2) Apparently the two parties in the debate have not chanced their previous points of view. The critics' worst suspicions were confirmed. and the librarians have stuck to their defence. which referred mainly to post modernist and other tendencies charateristic of that period, which question the idea of a unified culture and unambiguous quality judgements. They would not let themselves be drawn into a theoretical public debate. but there are signs that the book selection debate in the library world has definitely been influenced by the report.
So far the most obvious result of the investigation is the effect on the current revision of the Public Libraries Act. Comments in connection with an amendment moved by the socialdemocratic Minister of Cultural Affairs. Jytte Hilden. on 26th May this year show deliberations as to whether the investigation and the ensuing debate should cause changes in the Public Libraries Act's conditions as to choice of materials, e.g. whether "quality" as a criterium should figure more prominently than other relevant criteria, such as "versatility" and "topicality". The Ministry did not consider any amendment concerning choice of materials as being expedient "at the present time". but notes that the current debate might sharpen the libraries' awareness of the criteria applied in choice of materials. The increased book prices are cited as being the primary reason for the fall in the libraries' gross accessions with the addition that the acquisition of new information carrying media must be fitted into the budgets.
Finally it is being underlined vet again that the application of the criteria for choice of materials is extremely important, if the libraries are to live up to the requirements of the Public Libraries Act concerning education, enlightenment and other cultural activities, and the National Librarv Authority is supposed to monitor the development within the area and encouraQe initiatives such as further investi-gations, guidelines or pilot projects to ensure that the criteria concerning choice of materials are being fulfilled according to the law.
The National Library Authority is financing a supplementary investi-gation into the public libraries' acquisition of nonfiction for adults. This investigation is being conducted by Morten Hein and Anne Lise Japsen and should be completed by the end of March 1994.
Anne Lise Japsen, Library Consultant, The Danish National Library Authority. Copenhagen.
1. Anne Lise Japsen: Biblioreker og den gode bog. Hvad styrer folkebibliorekernes anskaffelsespolitik. KÝbenhavn: GyIdendal, 1992. 169 p.'
2. Biblioreket og den gode bog. Kultuminisrerens konfererence i Eigtveds Pakhus den 23. marts 1992. KÝbenhavn: Kulturministeriet, 1992. 57 p.