ASSOCIATES (2005, March, v. 11, no. 3) -

*The Best Dressed Book In Academe*


Tinker Massey
University of South Carolina Libraries

Hundreds of years of advancement have seen us move from some diligent, stylized and specialized decoration of books of old, to today’s media blitzing. Pictures, painting, color and arrangement of book materials have always been seen as a way to interest and sell the individual book. Vast amounts of time, money, and energy have been spent on achieving the best artistically marketable style possible for each product. Besides the pictures inside the book, the publishers have gone wild dressing the book in its finest clothing, the book/dust jacket. Europe started the trend of dressing the book so that there was immediate attraction to the book and so the book could be kept free of its main enemies – dust and other environmental agents. Europe was frugal about its coverings, but then the Americans took over the market and began to take the jackets seriously, as art form and marketing strategy. Today, the majority of popular books in hardcover are dressed in the finest and most colorful or pictorially presented jackets. Academic scholarly books still hold on to their austere black bindings, stamped in gold on the spines. I have found it interesting that the new trend arising from publishers, due to new graphic equipment and techniques, has been the advent of pictorial covers dressed in identical pictorial dust jackets. Now, the purchaser can decide whether to leave the jacket on or off, because they are the same in design. This may be due to people feeling that jackets are cumbersome and frequently get torn while protecting the book. They are sometimes a nuisance to control while you are reading the book: curling around pages, jumping out of your hands, and generally getting in the way. I have had an occasional jacket actually cut me while I tried to arrange holding it properly.

Libraries, especially School and Public Libraries have found that book jackets are an essential part of the book. It fosters a visual cue for the potential reader to choose this particular item. We have always felt that children are most affected by this visual media. In the new millennium, we have become aware of an increasing effect on the adult visual senses and the visual learning process that has demanded more stimulating materials around us. We are the product of an ever-increasing environment of color, movement and other visual cues. It takes more and more of them to draw our attention and focus us on a product. Publishers hire more and more artistic media specialists to sell their books. We, in libraries, draw from their wild mania and expose our clientele to these designs and tricks to induce people to read. Of course, we are not worried about what subjects they read. Just that they DO READ! To that end, we have preserved the book/dust jacket intact on the book. We even provide a fancy Mylar covering in many libraries, so that the jacket will be protected too.

In all of the historical research I have encountered, projects have been done to review the impact of specific types of jackets on the circulation of books, mainly in School and Public Libraries. Specific color influences, pictures versus words on the jackets, and specific content on the jackets, even specific associations to gender or age have been explored. Since Academic Libraries have heretofore shunned the jackets as space-takers and breeders of mold, not to mention the expenses they feel are wasted in time and money, it is easy to see that their attention has not been on dust jackets before now. O’Connor and O’Connor (1998) wrote an extensive article touching on the book jacket as access mechanism for academic books. The content analysis he and his wife did was exhaustive. They provide a suggestion of a digitally based “representation palette” on the catalog record. Utilization of the biographical information, timeliness, reviews, and summary of the book on the computer record would aid the patron in obtaining the most appropriate references/resources possible for his/her research. In the last few years, there have been “thumbnail sketches” of books offered (at a price) to libraries. Public Libraries are incorporating them into their catalogs so that people can actually see what the book looks like before deciding to find and retrieve that source.

In the past, our library jacketed books going to the Browsing Collection (if they had a jacket), and when they were transferred to the stacks, they were stripped of the jackets and went to the shelves with only their original hard covers. In February 2004, the administration decided to leave the covers on the Browsing materials when they were sent to the stacks. This was an effort to save time, money and personnel. The routine was simplified and my job became easier for transfers. It did occur to me that since this was the first time any book jackets would be going to the stacks, we had an opportunity to discover whether the jackets influenced the circulation of materials. The administration agreed to have me study this for a year, as certain seasons provided varying potential numbers of users.

The initial groups (2) of books chosen were at random. They were simply pulled from the shelves after a residence of six months (our normal time for turnover) and as I transferred them to the stacks, I printed their circulation records and placed them in either the jacketed group or the non-jacketed group until I acquired 50 books in each group. They were sent to the stacks via Circulation and left to be found by the patrons. No markings were placed on the books. Instead, I printed the circulation records for those 100 books at different availability times (2 months, 6 months, and 1 year), recorded the total usages (check-outs, browses, and holds) for those books on a chart (Click here for Table 1 and Table 2), and then tallied the total usages for each group. After a year, the average usages for each group were almost identical, approximately 2 usages per book. At first glimpse, this appeared to say that there was no difference between the groups and I was a little disappointed. When I looked at the initial statistics for the books going into the stacks, I noticed that the non-jacketed books had a much higher rate of usage than the jacketed books. When I compared the actual number of usages occurring in the stacks compared to the overall number of usages for the combined pre-stack and stack residence, I found that the non-jacketed books had an increase of usage of 15%, while the jacketed books had an increase of 54% usage while in the stacks.

The Browsing Collection houses at maximum, approximately 1200 volumes of books, with another shelf being devoted to audio books only. The Collection can be seen visually from the main entrance to the Library and most patrons tended to go directly to those shelves for a cursory look of the titles before doing their real research. The patrons reported that a glance in that direction let them know if anything had changed on the shelves, as the visual patterns would be altered from their latest memory, either by sizes, colors, fullness of the shelves, or color schematics of the jackets. The Collection is heavily used by patrons and provides the most current information in all subject categories reflected by the Library of Congress Classification. Equanimity is maintained in the categories (where possible) except heavier weighting in the religion, history, politics, and literature areas reflecting the needs of the readership locally. Attempts were also made to represent current events and issues in the Collection so that patrons would find the selections interesting and appealing. By limiting residence in the Collection to six months, we were able to maintain a good flow of information and introduce readers to materials in our main collection.

General observation allows us to see that most patrons go directly to the computers to find resources for their research or classes, but they are aware of the general classification areas that provide them with new materials to read for both pleasure and information on a browsing level. Since the books released to the general stacks from Browsing are not considered research materials, they must be finding them through a combination of computer searches and browses in the stack areas. It is very good to know that the “best dressed” books are beginning to make a difference in the choices of patrons. It appears that the results of the tracking experiment justify the cost effective reasons for leaving jackets on the books at transfer. It also appears that the Browsing Collection is contributing to the increases in circulation statistics. The coming years of renovation in the Library will have to consider a prominent placement of the Browsing Collection to maintain the observed and documented increases in circulation statistics. Remember, when books get “dressed up” they generally “go out on the town!”


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