Some Atlanta libraries find ‘lease’ is more in meeting demand for books

When Fire and Fury hit the shelves, nearly 200 people turned to the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system to get their hands on the gossipy look inside the Trump White House.

Despite the clear demand, the library system didn’t want to buy dozens of copies of the book, which would sit on its shelves long after the public’s attention moved on to the next tell-all.

Instead, it leased them. It does so with hundreds of titles every year, where demand is expected to be strong, but fleeting.

“At some point, everybody wants the new John Grisham book,” said Gabriel Morley, director of the Atlanta-Fulton system. “Once everybody’s read it, we don’t need 100 copies.”

The county plans to spend $351,400 this year to lease books, which it has the option to buy at the end of the lease term — if demand is still high — or return if it has waned. The library has been leasing books for decades, Morley said, and leased books are a small portion of its $2 million annual budget for collection development.

“It’s for the best-seller list, for ephemeral things, for things that have a shelf life that’s very short,” said Pam Smith, president of the Public Library Association. “It has a huge impact. When we have the materials people want to read, people use the libraries.”

But it’s one of only two metro libraries that borrows some of the books it lends out.

Gwinnett County is the other, and it plans to spend $50,000 this year on leased books, after spending $65,700 in its first year, in 2017. Michelle Grice, that system’s director of materials management, said it’s the desire to have books on the shelf that people want to read that motivated the library to start what is called the Lucky Day collection. The idea behind it, she said, is that patrons who walk into the library seeking the latest best-seller by Dan Brown or David Baldacci may find it waiting for them. Gwinnett’s leased books can’t be reserved.

In Fulton, it’s largely the wait lists for best-sellers that determine the books that will be leased, not bought. As those lists grow, the library is more likely to seek temporary reprieve through leasing.

“In some ways, it’s a speed issue,” Morley said. “We spent more money on leasing this year to drive down some wait time on the holds list. …We’re trying to recapture people who are frustrated with the amount of time they have to wait.”

In Cobb County, library director Helen Poyer said that system isn’t currently considering leasing. But she said she has done so in another library system, where the practice filled an immediate demand for popular books. That library charged a nominal fee for access to those books, as did an Alabama library where Clayton County library director Rosalind Lett once worked.

In that program, patrons could pay $2 to jump the wait list for best-sellers, Lett said, which necessitated leasing so there were extra copies on hand. Now, she said, with six branches and plans to join a statewide library consortium so books can circulate across county lines when there is greater interest in a title, she doesn’t think Clayton has the kind of demand that requires leasing. The Atlanta-Fulton system has 33 branches, and circulates more than 3 million items a year.

The 10,300 books Atlanta-Fulton leased in 2017, representing 700 titles, circulated about 14 times each over the year, Morley said. Because they don’t stay on the shelves, it tells him that the county is making the right move when it temporarily stocks up on more copies than it would ordinarily buy.

In addition to keeping the library system from having too many copies of a book once demand has waned, leasing a book can get it to the library faster, Morley said — key when more than 500 people want to read a title, as was the case last year for James Patterson’s Never Never. When a book is purchased, it has to be processed into the system, including a library label and a Mylar cover, which can take weeks. Leased books require less processing, since they aren’t part of the permanent collection, and can therefore be in circulation much faster.

They move more quickly, too. While a book purchased by the library can be checked out for four weeks and renewed as long as other people aren’t waiting to read it, leased books have a two-week check-out period, and generally can’t be renewed — though if there aren’t other holds on a title, librarians have the prerogative to override the policy, Atlanta-Fulton manager of collection management Ginny Collier said.

Fulton gets its books from a company called Brodart, which declined to comment on its leasing program. Baker & Taylor, another leasing company, did as well. But a flier about Baker & Taylor’s leasing program says libraries can keep 20 percent of the books they lease as part of their permanent collection, at no charge.

Morley said the costs to lease and buy books are roughly the same — the average cost is $27 — but because of their high circulation, leased books tend to wear out quickly. Books that are worn out are recycled, said Smith, with the Public Library Association. Others that are still in good condition are sent to used booksellers once they are returned.

Though Fulton increased its budget for book leasing by about $50,000 this year, Morley said he is considering experimenting with buying more, so the county can sell some books it’s ready to get rid of, and perhaps make back some of the money spent.

Smith said libraries have been leasing books for more than 50 years, in part so readers are more likely to find the books they want to read. It’s also a time-saver, she said, because it keeps librarians from having to weed extra copies of an also-ran best-seller in the future. And the practice frees up valuable shelf space for new materials when the leased books are returned to distributors.

DeKalb County library director Alison Weissinger said the system leased books in the 1990s, but has since stopped. She did not know why, but said she considers restarting the practice now and again. It’s a business decision, she said, weighing the amount of money libraries have available to build their collections against the demand.

“For the most part, public libraries are working with very limited budgets,” she said. “Whatever dollars they get, they try to stretch it out to the max. …You’re always trying to find that right balance.”

Weissinger has started buying metered e-books for some best-sellers. Fire and Fury, for example, cost the library $60 as a metered e-book, and will be in the system for two years, or 52 check-outs, whichever comes first. Typically, though, Weissinger said she feels taken advantage of by such programs, and would prefer to buy e-books with unlimited check-outs. Fire and Fury wasn’t offered as one.

Leasing books can be particularly useful, Weissinger said, when the demand for a title takes the library by surprise — as when a book is chosen for Oprah’s book club, or featured on National Public Radio. Morley, in Fulton, said while the practice helps relieve that pressure, the most important result is ensuring that people are able to find what they want at the library.

“How do people feel about the library?” Morley asked. “That’s our objective, to increase or improve the customer experience. I want you to get it as quickly as possible, so you come back and get something else.”


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