Susan Carr and Chelsea Couillard-Smith are experts at reading the public’s whims, at least when it comes to reading.
Carr and Couillard-Smith are selectors (libraryspeak for book buyers) for the Hennepin County Library.
They’re among six librarians within the Hennepin County system who are making hundreds of decisions each day on which books the 41 branches in the library will get — and not get.
With an acquisition budget of about $7.5 million that is used to buy about 700,000 titles a year, Hennepin County Library is one of the nation’s biggest institutional book buyers. And according to Carr and Couillard-Smith, those purchases are highly attuned to the changing reading tastes and fluctuations in the public zeitgeist.
“We’re constantly monitoring how many requests are placed on books,” she said.
According to Carr, 2017 was the year for the Instant Pot cookbook. She said the programmable kitchen appliance spawned requests from library patrons for some of the 150 Instant Pot cookbooks that have come onto the market.
“Demand is insatiable,” she said.
The past year also saw an uptick in demand for dystopian novels ranging from “The Handmaid’s Tale” to “1984.” The library also had to reorder backlist political books like “Rules for Radicals” by Saul Alinsky and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.
And another sleeper hit for library patrons this year was “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Other 2017 favorites from Carr and Couillard-Smith:
• “The First Rule of Punk,” by Celia C. Pérez a debut novel for middle-grade readers that blends “traditional tween challenges like a new school, parental tension and social hierarchies with punk rock, Mexican-American culture and zines,” according to Couillard-Smith.
• “One Last Word: Wisdom From the Harlem Renaissance,” by Nikki Grimes, is a poetry collection that connects themes of racism, identity and pride from the Harlem Renaissance to the present day. “I think everyone should read it whether or not they like poetry,” Couillard-Smith said.
• “The Prague Sonata,” by Bradford Morrow, a mystery about a lost musical manuscript, is on Carr’s must-read list. “This one is epic. It took him 12 years to research this book,” she said.
• “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a novel by Jesmyn Ward about an epic road trip and the struggles of an African-American family, won a National Book Award and an endorsement by Carr. “This one just shimmers,” she said.
Reaching a broader audience
When it comes to ordering the latest by a bestselling author, the selectors don’t bother to read book reviews. They just need to decide how many copies to get. They might buy up to 300 to 400 copies of a John Grisham novel to keep the reserve list down to three to five people in line per copy.
Library patrons can and do put books on hold up to six months or even a year before the library acquires a copy, Carr said.
“Our patrons are so savvy with what’s happening the world of publishing,” Carr said. “The author might have said, ‘I’m thinking of writing a book ...’ And we’ll get a request for it.”
On the other hand, the library is taking chances on books that it might not have bought in the past. They’re stocking more books by self-published authors to make sure nontraditional voices are included in the collection, including minority fiction and works with LGBTQ themes.
“We’re reassessing the way self-publishing fills some important gaps in our collection,” Couillard-Smith said.
Self-published books also make up many of the popular titles in the “new adult” genre, a post-young adult category featuring protagonists in their 20s.
“Our patrons are crazy about those,” Couillard-Smith said.
Carr said the library gets about 300 requests a week from patrons to add a particular title to the collection. Not all can be filled.
“We have to be good stewards of our budget,” Carr said.
When making their decisions, the selectors consider book reviews, whether other libraries think a book is worth purchasing and the library’s mission to serve the general public. But Couillard-Smith said the library “tries to find as many ways as possible to say yes” to a book purchase.
“We are really conscious of our role as gatekeepers,” she said.
So the library will sometimes buy books that no other library has, or books that no bookseller will stock.
Couillard-Smith said she once purchased a self-published children’s book about a family dealing with miscarriage after she got a request from a library patron.
“Almost every book gets checked out at least once,” Couillard-Smith said. “If it makes one or two of the patrons happy, it has served its purpose.
“It’s a bigger fail if someone comes in and we don’t have it,” she said.