As Seen on TV

I like to be entertained early and often. Once I dated a guy who took me to the movies weekly. I did not have strong feelings for him, but I really did love the movies. The break-up left me missing only first run feature films. It is no surprise then, when tasked with crafting a library research project, I would select a topic near and dear to my heart. I examined media, my first and only true love, and how it is related to reading choice. 

(CC0 image via LOC)

My library school required the completion of the course Research in Library and Information Studies, in which I would prepare a written work to support my candidacy for the MLS degree. (Yes, we go to school to learn librarianship!  Librarians are not clerks!) Typically the document produced is called a thesis, but since I did not have to defend my paper before a panel of nasty naysayers, it was merely called a “project”.

Carol Schapiro, third librarian from the left (CC0 image via Wikimedia)

Nevertheless, it sure felt thesis-like to me. It was 74 pages in length, with a six page bibliography executed in Turabian, a modified Chicago citation style. A bound copy of “Broadcasting the Book: The Effect of Airing Television Adaptations of Print Material on Subsequent Reader Interest” is maintained in the school’s library.

You will have to take my word on this, however, because I can’t prove it to you. Since projects were considered less rigorous than a “proper” thesis, the institution did not bother to catalog any of them, and thus the work product of every library student lays undiscoverable and unusable. Touro is a lot smarter in this regard. By cataloging manuscripts written by Touro students, Touro Libraries encourages access to student-researchers’ work. Materials produced by Touro people can be found by using the catalog, or searched online in the database Dissertations & Theses @ Touro available through ProQuest.

(by XKCD)

My project was based on the Wellington Study,1 which  analyzed circulation statistics of select public library books before and after three major New Zealand television networks broadcast shows based on those books. Both theatrically released and made-for-television movies were included in that study. Not surprising to me, the results revealed there was a significant increase in circulation after the broadcast. You saw the show! Now read the book!

Kiwi for a kiwi
(CC0 image)

Since I could not access historical data as was done in New Zealand, I did a prospective study gathering data each day using the New York Public Library online catalog. I selected only made-for-television movies that aired in the Fall of 1999: Vanity Fair (a mini-series shown on A&E, based on the Thackerary novel),  A Touch of Hope (a 2 hour movie shown on NBC, based on the autobiography of Dean Kraft), and The Aristocrats (a mini-series shown on PBS, based on Stella Tillyard’s history of social customs in 19th Century Britain, and NOT  the Disney film, or the movie about a dirty joke.) I looked at whether the books were checked out or on hold for a baseline period before the broadcast, and tried to illuminate any reading trends which occurred after the program aired.

My conclusions were not conclusive. The hypothesis that broadcasting alone is related to a reader’s increased interest in the book could not be established. I noticed a marked increase in holds on The Aristocrats after broadcasting began (it played over the course of weeks, rather than days). Eventually, numerous holds triggered the purchase of additional copies by the library. But I did not know whether rising demand for the book was connected to rising ratings of the program, because television ratings are industry secrets, and I had no access to them.

Unexpectedly, there was an increase in both holds and circulations on Vanity Fair both before and after the broadcast. Were people reading this classic in advance of broadcast in order to prepare themselves for the show, or were they reading it for a school assignment? I had no idea why they were reading it, but reading it they were.

More unexpectedly, broadcast of A Touch of Hope had no impact on the book’s circulation. This could have been for several reasons. Perhaps no one watched the show. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this show played opposite a Major League Baseball division playoff. (In a game that lasted almost 4 hours, Boston won over Cleveland with a score of 23 to 7!  Sorry Yankee fans!) Perhaps by 1999, viewers were no longer interested in Anthony Michael Hall, the principal actor in the production. Perhaps the subject matter, faith healing, played better in Appalachia than it did in Astoria. Or perhaps, it was just a bad movie. The population submitting their reviews on IMDB seemed to think so.

Why does any of this matter? Public librarians responsible for collection development must accurately predict reader interest in order to select materials that library users will seek to borrow, otherwise it would be like throwing money away. These decision makers select items based on reviews, vendor’s catalogs, awards for excellence, and sales recorded by online bookstores. When I looked at Amazon’s Top 100 in May 2017, several on the list had a connection to media: #5 The Handmaid’s Tale (TV Series on Hulu.com), #9 Everything, Everything (Movie from Warner Brothers) , #13 Thirteen Reasons Why (TV Series on Netflix), #28 A Man Called Ove (Film available for streaming on Amazon Prime), #36 Big Little Lies (TV Series on HBO), #39 American Gods (TV Series on Starz), #62 The Shack (Movie from Lionsgate), #76 Wonder (Soon to be a Motion Picture!), #84 It (a TV Mini-Series in 1990, and now Soon to be a Motion Picture!) I, for one, am not surprised.

Public libraries reflect their consumers’ tastes, and what tastes better than a big fluffy slice of popular culture? For that reason, I told you once, and I’ll tell you again, go to a public library and apply for a card. (The process is easy and it’s free!) At Touro, we select materials which relate to the courses that we offer. This generally focuses on scholarly materials. Want more specifics? You can see the strength of each library’s collection by selecting a particular branch, then clicking on the words “More Information” at the link located here.

1. Rayner, H. (1997). The Influence of Television on Reader Choice at Wellington Public Library. Public Libraries36(6), 362-66.

Contributed by Carol Schapiro, Midtown Librarian

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