Fairfax County, a heavily-populated Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., could arguably be the epicenter of young reader-dom. When Amazon held its “Harry-est” city in the country contest to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, two cities in Fairfax County were in the top five spots.
Georgia Chirieleison is responsible for keeping these young readers well-supplied. As the Children’s Selector for the Fairfax County Public Library system, Georgia selects all titles for patrons from birth to age 18 at 22 branches. She has also worked as the head of information at the Centreville Library and was a children’s librarian for 20 years.
Like libraries across the country, the library here is facing cutbacks in staff, hours and materials. However, it is still in the business of buying books, and Georgia was gracious enough to spend some time with Mixed-Up Files and answer some questions about the behind-the-scenes workings of the largest public library system in Virginia and what makes her buy a middle-grade book.
Q: Since your job consists of buying books, how has your work been affected by budget cuts?
A: We are buying fewer titles, all across the board. We have also raised our hold-to-copy ratio. It used to be that we would by an additional copy of a book when there were more than 4 holds on the title; now it’s been changed to 6. It’s harder to spend money. We spend a lot of time being careful.
Q: So, out of all the middle-grade titles you’re looking at right now, what percentage, roughly, would you say do you purchase?
A: It’s hard to say – probably 25-40%.
Q: Approximately how many new titles do you acquire each year (as opposed to copies of each title)?
A: In 2009, for titles labeled “JFIC,” we purchased 667 titles. This excludes Young Adult and Picture Books, but may include different formats of the same title, such as the same book in a different language or on CD. (Interviewer’s note: Just as an example of why it might be important to distinguish between copies of a title and different formats of a title, I checked on the blockbuster Diary of Wimpy Kid. The library alone had 179 copies of the original English language version, in addition to 4 copies in Korean and 8 audio copies!)
Q: My 10-year-old son recently read his first e-book, thanks to the FCPL system. How do you see e-books fitting in with the needs of your middle-grade readers?
A: I expect the demand for e-books among middle-graders to go up. We are seeing more holds showing up in our system for e-books all the time. The advantage to us is that e-books take up no shelf space. It’s an interesting time.
Q: How do you decide to acquire a new middle-grade fiction title?
A: We order based on reviews. Looking at preview copies is prohibitive because of the sheer volume and workload involved in handling them. We order from companies such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and BWI. They provide lists of genres I’m interested in, and they provide links to interviews to the titles. Patrons and branches can also suggest a title, and we will respond based on reviews and availability.
Q: If there’s a book with mixed reviews, what factors would push you to buy the book?
A: The author’s reputation would make a difference. We would consider customer demand, the setting and the subject of the book – if it were something customers would find interesting or relevant in some way.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you purchase your book through book companies. What do these companies do? Why do you choose to go through these book companies instead of book stores?
A: Companies like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and BWI are book wholesalers that provide many time-saving services to libraries. They provide discounts and we can request certain processing, such as a barcode, specific jacketing or heavier binding to stand up to circulation. They carefully monitor what is published and provide alerts, suggested titles lists, and powerful selection software. We also have the ability to go outside the book companies if there is a book we want. In addition, we have standing orders with certain titles or series.
Q: Do you ever look for specific books in a particular genre or with a certain type of character?
A: We do occasionally scout for books, but generally, it’s what looks good that year. Some years are a bumper crop; not so much other years.
Q: Are there books you feel are needed but not being published?
A: Sometimes I can’t find books in some non-fiction areas. Right now there is a lot of demand for fantasy and science fiction. Vampires are still hot, and we are seeing more angel stories, too.
Q: What is the best part of your job? The worst?
A: The best part of this job is that I like all kinds of books, especially picture books. I like seeing new books as they come out, knowing people will enjoy them. The hardest part is sitting at a computer for long periods of time – I think part of me never grew up!
Q: Final question – who are some of your favorite middle-grade authors?
A: For fantasy, I like C.S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Stroud, Maryrose Wood, Trenton Stewart and many others. In terms of realistic fiction, I like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Gordon Korman, Andrew Clements and Kimberly Willis Holt’s “Piper Reed” books. I also like Mary Downing Hahn – she’s a local author who writes historical fiction as well as suspense.
After speaking to Georgia, a quick peek into the library catalogue revealed that for 2009, in addition to the 667 middle-grade titles, Georgia also purchased 693 picture books and 588 young adult titles, bringing the number of titles (and formats) she purchased to 1,948! That’s not including non-fiction titles, or the fact that based on her own estimates, Georgia is probably looking at upwards of six or seven thousand titles to get to her selections. Whew!
Wendy Shang’s debut novel, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, comes out January 2011. She is a Ready-to-Read volunteer with Fairfax County Public Library.