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Budget-pinched libraries try to give patrons more of what they want

Does your public library have the books you want when you want them? You may be surprised, if you haven't checked recently, to find that it does. Inflation and tight budgets are forcing many libraries to change their book-buying policies. Instead of trying to keep a balanced, broad collection on the theory that someone, sometime might need even the dustiest volume, they are trying to give patrons more of what they say they want.

By purchasing multiple copies of popular books -- almost as bookstores cater to customer demand -- these libraries find they can live within their means and still increase circulation markedly. Proponents of this approach say it is not how much you spend on books, but which ones you buy.

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"Are we a monument to be looked at and admired from afar, or are we to be used?" asks Marvin Scilken, director of the Orange, N.J., public library. "If you don't have popular books, people won't read. You can't force them to read what they don't want to read. Readers read for information about as much as marathon runners run for transportation. . . .

"That's why we bought several copies of Antonia Fraser's 'Mary, Queen of Scots' when we already had several other biographies of the same person. People could get the information elsewhere. They wanted the pleasure of a good read."

Despite a declining city population and less-than-average tax support, the Orange Public library has had more than a 50 percent jump in circulation over the last 15 years.

"We don't try to be a research library," Mr. Scilken explains. "The idea is to get as many people using the library as possible. The only way is to treat them well and not play games with them by making them wait for months to get the books they want."

Catering to demand, proponents insist, does not mean buying large quantities of "trashy" novels. Most of their purchases, frequently paperbacks, are nonfiction. Best sellers rarely account for more than 3 or 4 percent of the total.

"There is a huge demand for what anyone would consider very good books; our list is wide-ranging, with a lot of depth," says Charles Robinson, director of the Baltimore County public library, which has the fourth- highest circulation of any US library system.

Much of the increase, he says, is due to an intensive effort by the library staff to find out which books patrons really want. The job is not that difficult, but too few libraries do it, according to Mr. Robinson.

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In Baltimore, the resulting stock -- lodged in "mini-libraries" in shopping malls as well as in regular city libraries -- ranges from 700 copies of James Michener's "Chesapeake" to 150 copies of Homer's "The Odyssey." (Yes, "The Odyssey." Mr. Robinson says: "We have it because people want to read it."

In the current money crunch, most libraries have cut back on book-buying rather than on staff. Mr. Robinson, who has cut staff but who has fought vigorously to keep the book- buying share of his budget at 20 percent, says: "I don't think you can run a public library system with any real success unless you spend 15 to 20 percent on books."

But many librarians are reluctant to use circulation as a criteria of success. They insist that much, too, depends on how well- stocked with academic and research materials libraries are.

"Circulation may be the easiest, but it shouldn't be the exclusive measure" of library service, says John W. P. Storck, head librarian of the Martins Ferry, Ohio, public library. He says he feels an obligation as the administrator of the only library of any size in the area to keep a broad, representative collection on hand.

Some librarians argue that it is possible, through weeding out old books and better "merchandising" of the ones left, to influence public reading habits for the better. It is all- important, they say, for a library staff to be thoroughly familiar with the institution's collection. Then when a popular book is out, a good substitute can be suggested.

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