Curating a collection

Library bookshelves of romance novels
Grace Fell, "Valentine's Day at the Library: Romance Paperbacks," Flickr, 2007.

For the last 15 years or so I’ve spent A LOT of time thinking about buying books for my library. How much does the book cost? Will it matter in five years? Is anyone researching this topic? Undergraduate students? Faculty? A lot of decision making goes into the purchase of just one book. And when you are buying over 500 books a year, you must have some shortcuts to get it done.

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve been buying books for me: lots of romance novels, some biographies, and anything to do with the Boston Red Sox. And really, I don’t have a keeper shelf for romance novels, I have keeper bookcases. Currently it’s two, but soon it will be three.

As a librarian most folks just assume I keep every book I’ve ever read. It follows along with the typical librarian stereotypes of the hair bun, glasses, sensible shoes, and spending all day reading (well, I do wear glasses but not so much with the rest).

Regardless there is no way that I could keep all the books I read. Romance authors are a prolific bunch so keeping all the books is impossible for the vast majority of us who don’t live in Neuschwanstein Castle. Frankly, unless you have unlimited storage space, decisions have to be made on what to keep.

Now some people think the e-book revolution will solve this problem and in some cases it absolutely will help. I love having a great collection of books I want to read in one slim digital case, especially when I’m traveling. But here is where my librarian-self comes in. What happens when the digital reader fails? When technology changes? Lots of information in libraries is on devices or media formats that are outdated and no longer supported, such as floppy disks or laser discs. So use your e-readers and keep a wonderful collection on them, but for your keepers you may want to go with the old-fashioned technology, print.

Here’s how I decide what to keep.

Question 1: Is this book from one of my favorite authors? For me this is simple. If it’s Jenny Crusie or Jayne Ann Krentz I keep it. I usually have more than one copy of Crusie on hand because I recommend her all the time (see Question 2).

Question 2: Did I LOVE the book and would I recommend it to my friends? When a friend says she likes “historicals” but isn’t sure what to read, my go-to is always Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. Moreover, I reread it frequently and the paperbacks don’t stand up to repeated wear. Often, if a book is published in hardback, I purchase the hardback for myself and then buy the paperback to give away. This is especially true for anything by Jenny Crusie.

Question 3: Will I read it again? For me this is the big question. If I’m going to read it again, then it goes on the keeper shelf. Usually this includes books that are part of a series, such as Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family or a series I’m going through now such as Alexis Morgan’s Warriors of the Mist. I may not keep any or all of the Warriors of the Mist titles forever, but while I’m waiting for the complete series, all of the titles are on my keeper shelf.

Question 4: Would it be hard to find the book if I want to read it again and I didn’t keep it? Unless the book is by Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, or others who routinely show up on the bestseller lists, it will probably go out of print. Monthly series such as Harlequins or Silhouettes are even worse and go out of print very quickly. Once that book is out of print, having it find its way back into print is the exception. Now this is where e-publishing is a very big deal. Authors are getting their rights back to novels and are publishing well-loved and long out of print titles themselves. This is a very exciting development, especially for romance authors and readers.

In addition, you can’t rely on your local public library to keep these titles. Most public libraries that do buy romances may not keep them long term. Just as you have a limited amount of space in your house, so do libraries. Libraries are unable to keep everything they buy whether it’s romance, sci-fi or mystery.

One place to find out of print titles is the used book store. But my two favorite stores have closed in the last few years and the print book industry obviously is going through some major changes. Online retailers are good, but be advised a used copy of a well-loved book could cost 50% to 100% or even more than the original price of the book. This afternoon a new copy of Windflower by Laura London was on Amazon for $140. And no, that’s not a typo.

One of my fellow librarians has this story to share about used book stores. When you sell your copy to the used book store but find yourself buying it back, that might be a big clue you should keep the book.

Question 5: So what do I do when I run out of space? It’s going to happen. Even with self-discipline and a solid collection strategy, that one bookcase, those 12 bookcases, or your e-reader will run out of space. So you do what libraries do and weed (deselection is the fancy library term). Do you still love the author? Were her last three books as good as the first 10? What are you rereading now? If you remove a title, can you get it easily or with minimal effort? And yes, you are going to remove books and then go back and say, “Why did I do that?!” I did that exact thing two moves ago with Johanna Lindsey’s Malory series. It happens.

Hopefully this will help a few folks manage their book collections until we all have our dream libraries right at home.

Sarah Sheehan

Sarah Sheehan is the liaison librarian for the College of Health & Human Services at George Mason University. She has a Masters in Library Science from Catholic University of American and a Masters in Education in Instructional Technology from George Mason University, and is a senior member of the Academy of Health Information Professionals. In 2010, Sarah published Romance Authors: A Research Guide. In the future, she hopes to fulfill her secret plan to create romance novel collections in academic libraries across the United States.

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