Self-Published Books Hit the Stacks at Mid-Continent Public Library

Censorship, Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Amy Barclay, North Oak Branch Manager, Mid-Continent Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

One of the many topics that falls under the umbrella of intellectual freedom is access. Access to information and ideas is crucial to developing a well-informed, thriving community. If a community is unable to access information, does this mean their right to intellectual freedom is being challenged? An aspect of this right to access is the material that comes from a self-published author.

MCPL creates programs to put local author books on its shelves.
Authors who migrate from traditional publishing territory to self-publishing face difficulties in getting their books on library shelves.

A few short years ago, “self-published” was a euphemism for “vanity publishing.” However, with decreasing opportunities found with small presses, university presses, and the like, many authors that have been traditionally published are migrating to self-publishing. Self-published authors often struggle to get their material to any sort of audience. So, now the question is, who can help with this barrier?

The Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) is a vibrant library system spread throughout the thriving greater Kansas City metro area. MCPL has recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as a library system and works hard every day in maintaining its status as a vital part of the community. MCPL’s leader-driven mission to become a more “purpose-based library” has led a few system departments to venture out into the land of self-published authors.

MCPL Collection Development Manager, Terri Clark, has shared that she gets hundreds of requests a year from self-published authors asking MCPL to place their works within the MCPL collection. In fact, Clark said she received 58 queries within the month of July alone! These requests are mostly from MCPL’s existing customer base and residents that live within the MCPL district, which stretches across Clay, Platte and Jackson County, Missouri.

MCPL’s Story Center, located at the Woodneath Branch in Kansas City, creates programs and offers numerous resources to assist local authors in getting their stories completed. Programs such as “Editing Alone, Editing Together or Narrative Non-fiction for Beginners” and the “Woodneath Writers” group offer tools and support for putting the writer’s story together in a publishing appropriate format. So how do these programs help a local author get into the MCPL collection?

There are two potential pathways for inclusion into the MCPL collection from a self-publisher. The first pathway is that a local author fills out a detailed sheet on all of the information associated with an item being considered for the collection. Normally a publisher would provide the library with this information, but a self-publisher is responsible for providing this information. The completeness of this form gives the Collection Development Department a good idea of how serious the author is and what steps they have taken to make a title marketable.

MCPL Logo
MCPL’s publishing programs help authors get their books into the library’s collection.

The second pathway has been created through the library’s soon-to-launch ReadLOCAL program. This program teaches authors the process of creating marketable titles. Authors that complete the entire program are offered a certificate of completion and the chance to be a part of MCPL’s new ReadLOCAL collection that will consist entirely of local authors. Most importantly, MCPL will also purchase an OCLC record for the title. This is an impactful step as it gives the title a chance to be marketable to other library systems and for sales opportunities.

MCPL understands that there is much more to publishing than just printing a book. The author who chooses to self-publish must wear two hats: that of author and that of publisher. When an author goes through a publishing company, the company will take care of such tasks as editing, formatting, marketing, professional cover art and sales. Authors who choose to self-publish must now do all of those tasks themselves. MCPL’s ReadLOCAL program will assist greatly with this task. MCPL does not wish to simply place an item on their shelf where it may just gather dust. They wish to give the books placed in the collection a true fighting chance at finding an audience.

It should be noted that local authors must still fit within the existing collection development guidelines to be added to the collection. For example, MCPL is unable to accept any fan fiction, as this has a potential of violating any existing copyright. On the other end of the spectrum, those authors who wish to write on a non-fiction topic are expected to have existing credentials that make him or her a credible expert on the written topic. As a gateway to information, MCPL has a responsibility to offer information that is not only true, but thoroughly researched.

The Collection Development Department also looks for those pieces of work that have some credible reviews. MCPL must rely on these reviews as it is impossible to read every single entry that is submitted to the Collection Development Department. There is a delicate balance that exists between customer goodwill and meeting MCPL’s customer needs as a whole. It’s fair to say that each item within the collection has “earned its place on the shelf.”

MCPL is making strides in the local author community by offering tools, networking opportunities and programs that can help overcome barriers to self-publishing. So, although the collection does not have a vast amount of local authors today, someday that may look very different. MCPL is paving the way for other library systems to take a look at this process and possibly create a similar one. Local authors may someday have a strong chance of becoming heard. One more barrier to intellectual freedom will have then begun to break down.

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