Wednesday, July 25, 2007

County libraries look for magic in Potter distribution

Public libraries have 800 residents on hold list for popular book

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While thousands of Montgomery County residents purchased copies of ‘‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” Friday night, many others chose to wait until Saturday morning, when they could get it for free.

Surrounded by dozens of boxes, books, tapes and CDs, 20 Montgomery County librarians and library assistants worked arduously at the library system’s Gaithersburg warehouse Saturday morning to get the most popular book in the world to the county library’s patrons.

‘‘I can’t promise they’ll all be there when the libraries open,” Kathie Meizner, collection management chief for Montgomery County Public Libraries, said Saturday, ‘‘but we’re sure going to try.”

Branches across the county opened at 9 and 10 a.m. Saturday. In preparation for the rush, the county placed an unprecedented order: 446 copies of the book were ordered, which is more than any other book the library system has ever ordered for its 23 libraries.

The second most popular book in the county’s circulation is ‘‘The Da Vinci Code,” but since the popularity of that book grew over time, Meizner said, the initial purchase wasn’t that great.

Of the 446 copies, 276 will be used to fill holds placed by library patrons, and the remaining 170 are available in each library’s ‘‘Seven-day express” section, which highlights recent arrivals and best sellers in the libraries. As of Saturday, there were nearly 800 holds placed on the book, meaning that 524 patrons were left either scurrying for one of the seven-day express copies or they had to wait until their name came up on the hold list, which could take weeks.

‘‘We would love to put one in the hands of every person that wants one, but that’s impossible,” Meizner said. ‘‘The county has such a diverse readership; not everyone wants to read Harry Potter.”

The county ordinarily tries to purchase one book for every three or four people who have a hold in place, Meizner said.

While most people read Harry Potter for pleasure, those viewing the series from the academic end, such as librarians and teachers, have seen the effects as well.

In 2006, Scholastic, the American publisher of the Potter series, commissioned a statistical study to determine the effects of Harry Potter on the collective reading of children ages 5 to 17. Of those surveyed, 51 percent said that before the Potter series, they rarely read for fun, but now do.

Parents agree that the series has had a positive effect on their children: Of those surveyed, 76 percent say that reading Harry Potter has helped their kids with their schoolwork.

‘‘Harry Potter has had the biggest effect on children’s reading habits since L. Frank Baum [who wrote the Wizard of Oz],” said Jan Derry, children’s program manager at the Gaithersburg branch. ‘‘All the great themes of self-discovery, maturation and friendship are there.”

For hours on Saturday morning, library employees sifted through the hundreds of books, pulling each out of the box, affixing them with the proper bar codes, then placing them in new boxes, labeled ‘‘Bethesda,” ‘‘Damascus,” or ‘‘Silver Spring.”

The number of each book or book on tape sent to each branch was dependent on the number of holds placed at that library, as well as the general size of the branch’s collection. The Gaithersburg branch received the most copies in the county, with 50, while Poolesville got the smallest number, with only six copies.

And while the county libraries always track holds through a computerized system, the holds in place for the last Harry Potter were carefully calculated and double-checked.

‘‘It’s really important to be exact today, because what if a child has a hold on the book at Bethesda, and their book isn’t there,” said Diane Monnier, senior librarian for Children and Adult services at Rockville Library. ‘‘There would be a lot of tears.”

Despite what was riding on their exactness, the workers at the Gaithersburg warehouse were still able to have fun Saturday morning. There was a multi-winner drawing for Harry Potter posters, coffee and bagels, and one librarian even dressed up in her finest Potter garb, donning a black robe like the professors at Harry’s Hogwarts school.

Despite the hours of work, Meizner said all the efforts were worth it.

‘‘It’s great because all this excitement is about stories and books,” she said. ‘‘Harry Potter creates a shared experience for a family, and we’re really excited to be a part of it.”