The impact of books prizes and out of print books on collection development policy

by Carrie Dunham-LaGree

On Monday, I stumbled across an interesting post on The Guardian‘s book blog, “Third of Australia’s top prize-winning books out of print.” In it, Alison Flood pondered if the plight of novels who won Australia’s top book prize, the Miles Franklin Award, going out of print could happen to winners of the Booker Prize, Britain’s top book prize. She quickly discovered all of the Booker Prize winners are still in print, except for one that will be re-issued soon. As someone who reads more library books than books I purchase, I immediately thought of the implications for libraries. Instead of worrying if a title is in print, I worry if my library has a copy (and how long the wait is to get it.) The Booker Prize only dates back to 1969, while the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was first awarded in 1918. I wondered: if I wanted to check out a copy of every Pulitzer winner, could I?

Even though the Pulitzer folks don’t necessarily hand out an award every year, in the interest of time, I decided to not check for every title. Instead, I opted to pick two titles from each decade of the prize: one that is not terribly well known and one that is well known. I searched the titles in WorldCat, an online union catalog that allows users to search library catalogs from around the world, to see three things: how many total copies were held by libraries, if Drake’s library has a copy, and if my local public library (DMPL) has a copy.  Here’s what I found:

1910s

  • His Family by Ernest Poole: 632 libraries, including Drake
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington: 3,517 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1920s
  • Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin: 915 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 6,139 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1930s
  • Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson: 1,242 libraries, including Drake
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: 6,448 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1940s
  • A Bell for Adano by John Hersey: 3,821 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 7,079 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1950s
  • The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor: 1,859 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: 6,752 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1960s
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday: 3,317 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 7,542 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1970s
  • Stories of Jean Stafford by Jean Stafford: 2,014 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty: 3,927 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
1980s
  • Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie: 2,425 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: 3,370, including Drake and DMPL
1990s
  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler: 1,815 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham: 4,071 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
2000s
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones: 4,086 libraries, including Drake and DMPL
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy: 5,516 libraries, including Drake and DMPL

I’m relieved to see as a citizen of Des Moines, I am in excellent shape if I decide I want to read every Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner. What I found most interesting about these numbers was the disparity in the total number of copies held in libraries. How libraries handle book prizes is an intriguing component of collection development, in both acquisition and weeding. How do we determine what items to keep on our shelves even if the items don’t circulate? Do our priorities shift when titles go out of print? What obligation do we have to our patrons to provide access to out of print books?

Libraries are increasingly working with limited resources, and I understand the difficulties of continuing with a just in case model: why buy books if no one checks them out? I believe an important mission of libraries, particularly academic libraries, is keeping a scholarly record. If I were an Australian librarian, I would never weed a title that won the Miles Franklin Award, and I’d use this news as a rallying cry for the importance of libraries. Similarly, I believe part of my role as an academic librarian is ensuring patrons have access to the winners of domestic literary prizes, most notably the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Publishers opt to take titles out of print if it’s financially beneficial. Once that happens, libraries are needed even more. Meanwhile, the very nature of what it means to go out of print is changing, as more publishers move their under-selling titles to print on demand and can still sell e-books of out of print titles. Despite these new considerations in collection development, as a reader and a librarian, I’m relieved to live in a city and work in an academic library that both value our Pulitzer Prize winners enough to keep them in the collections. It’s enough to make me want to read the first book to win the Pultizer Prize for fiction, Ernest Poole’s His Family, simply because I can.

Let’s discuss: how do you think libraries should handle book prizes and out of print books?

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