An Author Faces the Tyranny of Demography : Libraries: 'Back in the stacks' is the literary equivalent of low Nielsen ratings.

Something scary happened to me in the library recently. I went to the place on the "New Books" shelf where they always keep the collections of short stories, and I found no books of stories there.

I had already ascertained that the new book I wanted had arrived and was "checked in" (as the computer now tells us)--but it wasn't on the new-books shelf. Where was it? I asked for assistance and was told to check "back in the stacks." Well, we all know what's back there--books that won't be read in 10 years unless someone wants a particular title.

I made my way to the very last row of stacks where the short stories are kept--and sure enough, there was the book I wanted, brand new, with its shiny bright cover, and already buried in the stacks.

I went to the head librarian. "There must be some mistake" I said. "This should have been out front with the new books." He shook his head in puzzlement and suggested I check with the reference librarian.

She told me the terrifying truth. "We don't keep books of short stories out front with the new arrivals any more," she said.

"Why not?"

"Our circulation polls tell that not too many people check out collections of short stories, so we've decided not to crowd the new-book shelves with them in order to leave room for the more popular books."

"Well, I love collections of short stories," I said. "And if I can't find the new collections on the new-book shelves, how will I know they even exist?"

"That's a good question," the reference librarian agreed.

"And if you put them in the stacks, and they circulate even less, then you'll stop ordering them altogether--right?"

"It's definitely a possibility," she said.

"Well,"--I waved in front of her the new book I had found buried in the stacks. "I'd like this book to be put out with the new arrivals. The fact is, I must admit, I wrote it. It's my new book. I've been watching for it to arrive. As a writer, one of the great pleasures of my life is to be in the library and to see someone pick up my book and check it out. Don't you think it ought to have the chance at life before it's consigned to the stacks?"

"I can see your point," she agreed. "This time, I'll make an exception, I'll mark it to go out front with the new books for a limited period of time." She took the book from me.

"Thank you," I said. I went back to the shelves of new books in the front of the library to see the books whose circulation was adequate to keep them in the eye of the public. There were the usual best-selling novels, the biographies of movie stars, the bodice-ripper romances, the diet books, the self-help books, the spy thrillers. It struck me that these shelves looked just like the window-displays of one of the big chain bookstores. (My stories and novels aren't carried by them, either.)

When I got to the front desk to check out some other books, an elderly lady was asking for the newest John Grisham thriller. "We have several reservations ahead of you," the clerk said. Then he must have seen the sad expression on my face. "It's a really popular book," he said, apologetically. "But if you want to read it, too, we can put in a reserve-card for you. Then we can notify you as soon as it's your turn."

"That's all right," I said. "I'll just wait till I stumble across it."

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