Library Genealogical Collections in Lean Times

By Carolyn L. Barkley

When the local or national economy experiences a downward trend, library use increases. Given the financial tumult of the last several weeks, public libraries, in particular, are even more vital to their communities than usual. The “catch-22,” however, is that at the very moment that libraries and their resources are most needed, their budgets are being reduced and materials costs are increasing. As budgets shrink, it becomes more and more important to spend funds on the best materials available to meet the needs of library users, particularly (but of course) the genealogical researcher. Genealogical Publishing Company/Clearfield recently surveyed a select group of public libraries to learn about their current library acquisitions environment as it affects the purchase of genealogical materials, how GPC marketing information is being used by acquisitions librarians, and how the company might enhance a librarian’s ability to learn about the company’s products and services. I’d like to share briefly the preliminary findings and to suggest ways in which you can be an advocate for the genealogical collections in your local library.

Because of my experience as a public librarian in Virginia, a proto-type survey was mailed to acquisitions librarians in the commonwealth’s ninety-one public libraries. As background information to the survey findings, here’s a brief look at the libraries themselves. Virginia’s public libraries are established legally as either city, county or regional libraries and serve populations ranging from 2,150 to 1,044,800. While there are three libraries serving populations over 1,000,000, fifty-eight per cent of all libraries in Virginia serve populations of 50,000 people or less. Acquisitions budgets range from zero dollars to $8,485,957, but thirty-four libraries (37%) have materials budgets totaling under $100,000. An additional twenty-nine (32%) have budgets totaling under $250,000. Of the total annual funding for materials, the median percentage spent on books is 69.5%, with thirty-seven libraries falling above that median.

The survey asked eleven questions: Did the library have funds specifically designated for genealogical materials? Was the library purchasing fewer materials from Genealogical Publishing Company/Clearfield now than it was five years ago and why? Would library discounts result in the purchase of more titles or multiple copies of the same title? What formats (hard cover, paper cover, downloadable files, online subscriptions to full-text) were preferred? What resources were used to identify new genealogical titles? From whom did the library purchase genealogical materials and how frequently? Did the librarian receive and read GPC’s Genealogical Pointers, and did they read this blog? In what format did the librarian wish to receive information about forthcoming books, new editions, and reprints of older titles?

Twenty-five libraries (27.5%) responded to the survey. The majority represented Virginia’s typical public library: a small city or county library with limited acquisitions funding. These libraries spent a large portion of their acquisitions budgets on books, but did not have specifically designated genealogical materials budgets. The majority (56.5%) bought fewer GPC titles now than they did five years ago. Several mentioned space limitations, reduced budgets, increased unit cost for materials, and increased percentages for online subscriptions as reasons for buying fewer materials. Six libraries (26%), however, indicated that they already owned the GPC titles they needed in their collections. Many libraries purchased titles very specific to their geographical area. The majority ordered materials when they become aware of a title they needed or when one was recommended to them. They preferred to order them directly from the publisher and a discount was not seen as an incentive.

Most respondents were more comfortable with print resources. The vast majority used print sources to learn about new materials, clearly preferring to receive direct mailings from the publisher and to read print reviews or advertisements. While there was some interest in receiving this information by email, the more proactive and interactive methods, such as the “My GPC” website function or RSS feeds provided as survey choices, were clearly of a much lower priority. Hard cover publications were clearly preferred for purchase, although paper was an accepted alternative for some. Downloadable books in PDF format and online subscriptions to collections of full-text titles were indicated as lower priorities. It may be that this reliance on print is symptomatic of smaller libraries with limited technology, not only for customers, but also for staff. Perhaps, the librarians responding to the survey are less technologically advanced than their counterparts in large public libraries. Online electronic services are not convenient to use if networks don’t exist, connectivity is slow, the number of terminals available are limited, and the staff has had limited training opportunities.

Is the current Virginia public library purchasing experience typical of other states? Were acquisitions librarians the best choice for a survey target group? What about public service/reference librarians? Do they have a different perspective? At the moment, these questions can’t be answered. The survey and the Virginia responses are being reviewed to learn as much as possible. The next phase will be a revised survey that will be made available online in December so that librarians across the country can respond. I’ll keep you posted on what we learn through future blog articles.

In the meantime, what can you do to assist your library?

  •  Funding agencies like to hear from their constituents. Librarians can explain the need for maintaining funding levels, not to mention increasing them, until they are “blue in the face,” but the same information coming from citizens holds much more weight. Find out when your library or locality is having its annual budget hearings and arrange to go and speak on behalf of library funding. Does your state provide state aid to public libraries? State aid funding is often used to augment materials budgets. Introduce yourself to your legislators and tell them how important this funding is for you and your community.
  •  Recognize that you have specialized knowledge that can help your library. You attend genealogical conferences, read genealogical journals, read genealogical blogs, and scour publisher’s catalogs. You know what is new and what is essential. Talk with your librarian about new materials that you’d like to see in your library. Talk about the need for “how-to” books in the collection. Share with him or her any need to broaden the scope of the library’s genealogy collection. Your knowledge can assist the library in spending its limited funds in the most effective manner.
  • Be a trainer. Genealogists have been in the technology forefront for years. Talk about the various online services you use and might like to see your library provide, particularly if the librarian seems uncomfortable with technology. It may be that this discomfort arises from a less than robust understanding of what it is that you are doing when you do genealogical research. If you are a member of a local genealogical society, offer to do training for the library staff on specific sources and on basic genealogical research. The librarian who understands what it is “those people are doing in my library” will be much more able to assist them and to select appropriate materials.
  •  Be a fundraiser. If your library has a Friends of the Library group, join it. With the librarian’s help, identify materials or online subscriptions that are on the library’s “wish list” and develop a plan to raise the funds to purchase and, in the case of online subscriptions, sustain the purchase annually.

Genealogists and librarians working together are a formidable force. Supporting your library supports your research!


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