Voices

Getting shelved

In our public libraries, that's not as easy as it might seem

Issue: "Attacking the future now," Feb. 22, 2003

It's hard not to approach this column with a chip on my shoulder-but let me try.

I want to lend a hand to one of WORLD's readers, Rebecca Pringle-Gleske, who in turn has been trying to be helpful to WORLD. But in the process, she ran into a frustrating challenge. Mrs. Pringle-Gleske happens to appreciate WORLD enough so that she made a special effort to make the magazine available to the library of the state university where she is an alumna. The library was not a willing recipient.

Certainly we understand, as does Mrs. Pringle-Gleske, that libraries can't accept, display, and then store subscriptions to every single periodical that comes down the pike.

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So I set out to drop in last week on the periodical librarians at both our local public library (where some 160 magazines and newspapers are regularly received) and at the local state university (where the mix is different, but still 306 periodicals have made the cut). I wanted to find out what might keep a magazine like WORLD from being acceptable.

The woman at the circulation desk called the periodical librarian, who said she'd be glad to meet with me.

"I want to assure you," I started, "that I'm not here to sell you a magazine subscription. I'm here as a journalist-not a salesman. I am mostly interested today in learning just how you go about deciding whether a magazine is accepted, or not accepted, for your periodical collection."

"Well, just exactly what kind of magazine is this?" the woman asked when I offered her a few recent back issues of WORLD. I knew immediately I wasn't getting through.

"Honestly," I pled, "I'm not here to sell you on this magazine. WORLD is a news magazine, something like Time or Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report-except that we come from a Christian point of view."

"So what group publishes your magazine?" she asked suspiciously.

"WORLD is totally independent. We aren't related to any religious group of any kind. We're news publishers." By this time, it was clear she wasn't going to let me get any closer to her office than the doorway to the outer entryway where she had greeted me. The signals were strong that she'd really like me to be on my way.

"All I'm really asking," I said, "is for some indication of what procedure, or what policies, you follow when you decide whether to include a magazine in your periodical collection."

"Well, obviously," she said as she turned away, "we can't subscribe to everything."

"Well, ma'am, I totally understand. That's my very reason for asking. Since you can't subscribe to everything, how do you decide?"

"Oh, that depends. That varies. I really couldn't tell you how those decisions get made."

"Are you the periodical librarian?"

"Yes, but I wouldn't make any of those decisions by myself. I would always talk with my supervisor before we would do anything like that."

"So is it a group decision?"

"Yes, yes."

"And does the group have a set of criteria, or a written policy of any kind, to help it in its process?"

"I'm sure they must, but I've really never seen it, and that probably varies too."

"Could I perhaps get a copy of that written policy?"

"Well, I'd have to talk to my supervisor about that, and I'm not at all sure that you could count on her getting back to you about it."

By that time, of course, I was pretty sure I couldn't count on much of anything. That woman was employed in part with my tax dollars, and she was stiff-arming me. Mrs. Pringle-Gleske had told me that in her efforts, "I was told something to the effect that they couldn't receive this gift because a lengthy review would have to take place ... and that it was doubtful based on separation of church and state." So here I was in a similar dead end. It was providential that the public library is closed on Mondays, because I doubt I could have made a similar inquiry without the chip on my shoulder looking pretty visible.

Does WORLD belong on the periodical shelves of public libraries and the libraries of public universities? That is, of course, not my job to determine. But just because these institutions are public, it seems altogether appropriate to ask those in charge to make public what their policies and criteria are for making such decisions. I plan to keep asking with my local libraries. I hope a number of WORLD readers might do the same where they live.

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