The ins and outs of book purchasing

Web Lead

Aaron Francis

Aaron Francis

What’s the best part about being a librarian?  I used to think that shopping for books would be tops: poring over the most erudite reviews, browsing publisher’s lists and bookstores, and opening up the boxes and boxes of shiny new books hot off the press. What could be better? How naïve I was. I have since learned that there are a few additional tasks involved, tasks referred to by uninspiring appellations such as creating purchase orders, EDI invoicing, uploading MARC records, shelf-ready processing, budget tracking, and updating acquisitions software.

How exactly does book purchasing work? First, we need to identify items that we would like to order. Selection is done through direct patron requests and/or by looking at reviews and hotlists. It is rare that we can actually “flip through” the book we are purchasing. More often than not, the books we order haven’t even been published yet.

After double-checking our catalogue to make sure we don’t already own the items, we add them to a shopping cart on our vendor’s website. We specify which budget code the items will fall under (“Adult Fiction”, for example), and the shelving location, which tells the vendor how to process the items. We previously set up a “shelf-ready” processing system with our vendors, which means the books arrive at the library with customized spine labels, barcodes, and plastic covers already attached, all of which helps us get the books out to our patrons faster.

Here’s where things get a bit complicated. Instead of clicking “Purchase”, we now download the MARC records for each item we are purchasing. MARC stands for “Machine Readable Cataloguing”, and the record is what provides our library catalogue with details about each particular item we are adding to the collection, such as title, author, subject(s), ISBN, and more.

We then upload the MARC records into our own Acquisitions interface, which is part of the back-end of our library catalogue. This Acquisitions interface helps us both to track budget expenditures as well as to track orders. Once we finish uploading the records, the Acquisitions interface will send an automated message back to the vendor to send us the materials.

Because we frequently order many items at a time, and many of these will be published at an unspecified later date, orders will not arrive at the library all together in one group. Items from one order will be mixed in with items from various other orders. To keep all of this in order, the vendor will send an invoice through EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) to Acquisitions, through which we can mark items as “received”, signalling our bookkeeper to get her chequebook ready.

Who are our “vendors”? While we sometimes purchase items from Amazon, Chapters, or other well-known sources, we primarily purchase from library-specific wholesalers such as United Library Services and Whitehots, due to the value-added services and wholesale prices that they offer. Incidentally, vendors often employ professional librarians–one of the lesser-known career options for newly-graduated librarians.

The BC Libraries Cooperative–the same non-profit organization that provides us with our library catalogue and manages our Ebook and other online collections–facilitates much of the negotiation and collaboration with vendors. Without their help, we would be spending significantly more staff time tracking orders and invoices and processing materials manually.

I still love opening the boxes of shiny new books when they arrive but, as you can see, the ordering process is not all as exciting as it may seem from the outside!

So what is the best part about being a librarian? Truthfully, being around books is wonderful, but the best part of my job is being able to spend my days with other people who love books as much as I do. What could be better than that?

Aaron Francis is the Chief Librarian at Creston Valley Public Library. He is currently reading Number9Dream by David Mitchell