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  • Are the Best Books the Most Read?Author(s): Herbert GoldhorSource: The Library Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1959), pp. 251-255Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 21/06/2014 10:38

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    rT HE literature of librarianship con- tains frequent references to the appropriate basis for book selec-

    tion-shall it be the demand for certain titles, or shall it be their value, either as literature or as sources of authentic in- formation?' Most libraries in practice probably take both demand and value into consideration. But in the context of these two approaches to book selec- tion, the question arises: Are the best books the books most read? To answer this question, the Evansville, Indiana, Public Library in 1958 undertook the investigation here reported.2

    The Evansville Public Library and Vanderburgh County Public Library serve a population of 160,000 (1950 Census), through a central library, ten branches, and a bookmobile, with a book stock (as of the end of 1958) of 291,502 volumes. Of these, 139,220 (48 per cent) are children's books and 152,282 (52 per cent) adult. It is estimated that at least half the total adult book stock is in the central library building and that all adult books have been reviewed and examined for discard at least once in the last five years.


    For the purposes of this study, only adult hard-cover books, classified in the Dewey Decimal numbers 612-613.9, were considered. Included were such subjects as physiology, digestion, repro- duction, hygiene, food in health, rest and

    exercise, and genetics. A total of 741 copies of 317 titles were so identified, and they constitute what is here called the "gross sample." The "value" of these books was estimated by checking a number of book-reviewing periodicals, to see whether or not they were reviewed and to note unfavorable reviewer's re- actions when indicated. The resulting data were compressed into three value categories: A, for a title with three or more favorable reviews; B, for a title with one or two favorable reviews; and C, for a title with no reviews or no favor- able reviews. The intent was to place in the A group books well and widely re- viewed and especially appropriate for public library use; in the B group, books not widely reviewed or not particularly appropriate for public library use; and in the C group, those books which were either not reviewed, not favorably re- viewed, or considered inappropriate for public library use. Books published in 1958 and in the library's collection were excluded from the gross sample, since they had only a minimal chance of ap- pearing in the book-reviewing tools used.

    Six main tools were consulted: the Book Review Digest (1905-58), the Standard Catalog for Public Libraries (1934, 1939, 1944, 1949 eds. and supple- ments), the Standard Catalog for High School Libraries (1947, 1952, and 1957 eds.), the Booklist (1904-56), the American Journal of Public Health (1927-58), and Hawkins' Scientific, Medical, and Technical Books (1st and 2d eds.). A limited run (in no case more than six years) was available of Techni- cal Book Review Index, New Technical

    IFor example, see Leon Carnovsky, "Commu- nity Analysis and the Practice of Book Selection," in L. R. Wilson (ed.), The Practice of Book Selec- tion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), pp. 20-39.

    2 With the assistance of Mrs. Genevieve Jain.


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    Books, of the New York Public Library, and the United States Quarterly Book Review. These, however, listed so few titles in the gross sample that the results were not used.

    It may be of interest to record some of the data on the use in this present study of several book-evaluation tools in checking a given library's collection. This method is different from the tradi- tional procedure for evaluating a book collection, viz., picking a standard list of books and ascertaining how many of its titles are held. Such a procedure

    ignores books on the shelves but not on the list used for checking (except by implication); some of these books may be as good as (or even better than) some on the list.

    Of 317 titles analyzed, 24 per cent were not located in any of the nine tools used; 20 per cent were found in only one; 17 per cent in two; 16 per cent in three; 13 per cent in four; 7 per cent in five; and 1 per cent each in six, seven, and eight of the lists. No title was found in all nine. The Book Review Digest listed 173; the Booklist, 143; the Stand- ard Catalog for Public Libraries, 129; the American Journal of Public Health, 107; the Standard Catalog for High School Libraries, 40; the Hawkins list

    (lst ed.), 38, (2d ed.), 25; and Tech- nical Book Review Index (1952-58), 18.


    Of the 317 titles, 120 (38 per cent) were found to be in the A-value category, 120 (38 per cent) in the B group, and 77 (24 per cent) in the C group. No in- formation is available on how many other titles (and of what "value") had previously been in the library's book col- lection but had been withdrawn and dis- carded by 1958. Even so, the titles on hand had been published between 1901

    and 1957. The distribution of these titles by date of publication and by value cate- gory is shown in Table 1. The higher total is occasioned by the fact that in this table different editions of the same title are counted separately, while the total of 317 titles includes a unit count for each of 27 titles which are repre- sented by more than one edition. It would appear from Table 1 that this library has managed to retain a larger proportion of the more valuable books published before 1940 (and have pre- sumably been tested in use) than it has purchased of those published since 1951.

    These 317 titles were represented by 741 copies, a mean of 2.3 copies per title, a median of 3.3, a mode of 1, and a range




    YEARS TOTAL A B C No. of Titles No. of Titles No. of Titles No. of Titles

    1901-40........ 128 (100%) 60 (47%) 44 (34%) 24 (19%) 1941-50... 117 (100%) 56 (48%) 40 (34%) 21 (18%) 1951-57-.I...t0 (100%) 35 (32%) 42 (38%) 33 (30%)

    Total ...... 355 (100%) 151 (42%) 126 (36%) 78 (22%)

    Per Cent of Value Categoiy

    1901-40 ........ 36 40 35 31 1941-50 .... 33 37 32 27 1951-57... 31 23 33 42

    Total ...... 100 100 100 1GO

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    of 1-23 copies per title. These 741 copies were distributed by value as follows: in the A category, 50 per cent; in the B group, 32 per cent; and in C, 18 per cent. It is clear, from the data in Table 2, that the library has tended to dupli- cate the better books more often than those in the C-value category, particu- larly in the case of older titles. Thus 50 per cent of all titles in the A group have been duplicated in the collection, while only 36 per cent of the B titles and 30 per cent of the C titles were provided in more than one copy. The distribution

    of copies by year of acquisition corre- sponds closely to the data in Table 2.

    The total known circulation of these books was recorded from available in- formation. This consisted of the loans noted on the book cards (in this library a summary figure of loans is typed on a new book card when an earlier card is filled up and must be replaced) and the date-due slips currently in these books. Since 1953, transaction card charging has been used in increasingly more agen- cies of this library, but a stroke record of circulation by year is kept on the date-due slip. Undoubtedly, some error is incorporated in the resulting data, but there is no reason to believe that the error distributes itself in any systematic

    way. Even so, not all the books could be found in the two months in which this study was made; and in some cases when the books were found, the circulation record was obviously incomplete or in- accurate. In all, 160 books were ex- cluded from the circulation count.

    In the case of the 39 titles, all copies of which were excluded from the gross sample, 28 per cent were in the A cate- gory, 49 per cent in BS, and 23 per cent in C. Of all 160 copies excluded, 53 per cent were in the A group, 30 per cent in B, and 17 per ce