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COUNCIL Committee 2001-2002 Year-end Reports

Report of the Committee on Bookstores

Apil 23, 2002

Discussed at Council April 24, 2002


The Committee report this year covers three topics: some aspects of the operation by Barnes & Noble of the bookstore focused on merchandising, textbook availability, and the question of the desirability of a discount arrangement for University students, faculty, and staff at a major online bookseller. We had hoped to investigate and discuss operations much more extensively but have been obliged to defer some topics to the 2002-2003 agenda.

Merchandising in the Bookstore

In our 1999-2000 report, we discussed the findings of an audit of what was on the Bookstore’s shelves in selected subject areas, how easy it is to find books or categories of books for which a customer might be looking, and so forth. It is now or will soon be timely to conduct a follow-up. We did not succeed in doing so this year, so this should be a priority for the coming year. There have been reports this year that Barnes & Noble College Division stores have shifted their merchandising away from academic works (though it must be said the reports were rather vague as to the proportions and whether this was a policy decision). It is unclear from our discussions with Barnes & Noble representatives at the Committee meeting they attended in March whether anything of this sort has gone on in our bookstore and what, if it has, the extent of it has been. It is not entirely easy to design a sufficient statistic to summarize this aspect of the stock; but it was agreed that they would furnish us with information on total titles in stock and total titles in stock published by university presses on an annual basis in the future. (The Committee was told it was impossible to generate a time series going backward). We await the first set of figures. They should be monitored over time.

The Committee has in previous years devoted a great deal of energy to discussing means of making sure that books which may not command a mass audience but are of striking intellectual merit or clear relevance to Penn sub-communities make it onto the shelves. There is clearly still low-hanging fruit here: the bookstore staff would be very grateful for suggestions from seminar organizers, faculty preparing course syllabi, and the like and seems to get much less of this than it might. (Perhaps Department chairs could be encouraged to remind faculty members at the beginning of the year). The transition to an electronic reserve list has disrupted some old mechanisms for learning what might be in demand; and bookstore staff should perhaps meet with Reserve Room staff to design a new mechanism. The Committee had previously developed, with the assistance of Michael Ryan and Daniel Traister of the Library staff, an idea of a more systematic procedure involving the University Library’s bibliographers. One virtue of our suggestion was that it did not particularly favor the University bookstore over the local independents. But it seemed from the March discussions that our suggestion is unlikely to be helpful. Thus the question of how to help the local buyers know the local tastes and interests should remain an agenda item for the Committee.

In our meeting with representatives of Barnes & Noble College Division on merchandising matters in March, the question of objectives for the University Bookstore inevitably came up. A representative of the University’s Business Services group remarked without elaboration towards the end of the meeting that there had been some evolution of the understanding between Barnes & Noble and the University as to what the precise aspirations should be. Students of the reports of this committee will be aware that much more was said about this at the time the contract was announced than seems to exist in the contract. We noted the remark at the meeting with some curiosity and followed up with an e-mail query. We received no reply. Next year’s Committee should pursue this, both because the substance is the sort of thing the Committee is supposed to monitor and report on and because suggestions about process can only be productively framed in the context of a desired outcome.

Textbook Availability

The availability of textbooks in the store at the beginning of term continues to be a problem. The responsibility for the problem continues to lie with the University faculty. Late ordering of textbooks creates frustrating practical burdens for the students and unnecessary financial burdens for Barnes & Noble. Emergencies undoubtedly arise; but the breadth and persistence of the pattern suggest that many faculty members simply routinely place orders at the last minute. It would be very desirable if faculty members could be more effectively reminded (perhaps by their Department Chairs) to submit their orders in a more timely fashion.

Barnes & Noble has been responsive to our past expressed concerns about congestion at the cash registers at the beginning of term. This situation is worth continued monitoring but appears to remain reasonably well addressed.

An Online Discount for the University Community?

We were asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a negotiated discount for University students, faculty, and staff at a major online bookseller. The advantages of such an arrangement are plain enough: many books members of the community want (or need) to buy are expensive and this might lower the expense (subject, of course, to the level of shipping fees), the selection would be for practical purposes unlimited, the outreach of such a scheme could include the whole community, and the initiative could be made a conspicuous one. The disadvantages are more subtle but are perhaps, in the end, more important. It is unclear from the history of online bookselling whether we could negotiate a discount that would not to a significant extent be recouped in explicit shipping fees, delayed arrivals, or by other means. So the price considerations might well, in the end, not be decisive. More importantly, such an arrangement would undoubtedly divert trade, and particularly specialist trade, away from the local bookstores. It seems to be widely agreed that broadly merchandised local bookstores are a valuable and salient amenity to an intellectually vibrant university community. The inventory that makes the merchandising broad tends to turn over relatively slowly. It is–in a business that is not particularly profitable to begin with–a relatively expensive use of shelf-space. Drawing trade away from the local bookstores will make the merchandising we want, at the margin, relatively more difficult to afford. It is not easy, as we observed above, for us to monitor merchandising performance on a systematic basis. Under these circumstances, we should give the bookstore operators all the incentives we reasonably can to do the things we would like them to do. Shifting trade away from them would have the opposite effect.

–Daniel Raff, Chair

Bookstores Committee Members 2001-2002

Chair: Daniel Raff (Management); Faculty: Karen Buhler-Wilkerson (Nursing), Sally Gordon (Law), John Dixon Hunt (Landscape Architecture), Peter Stallybrass (English); Graduate/professional students: Mark Biscone (Medicine), Annapurna Valluri (Wharton); Undergraduate student: Nina Smolyar (College ’02); PPSA: Suzanne Bellan (Penn Student Agencies), Hannah Kliger (Annenberg School), Roderick MacNeil (Med School IT Customer Service); A-3: Cerie O’Toole (Human Resources); Ex officio: Lisa Prasad (Business Services).

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 34, May 21, 2002


May 21, 2002
Volume 48 Number 34

A National Medal of Science for a pioneering Penn physicist.

SEAS selects two recipients for its annual awards.
Wharton gives awards to dozens of its faculty.
The concern about bicyclists on campus picks up momentum.
Search Committees are formed to advise on selecting two new deans.
Next Tuesday is PPSA's annual meeting and election.
Baccalaureate and Commencement speeches and photographs.
University Council committee year-end reports on Bookstores, Communications, and Community Relations.
The largest voluntary canine blood donor program in the US gets new wheels.

Recognized Holidays for faculty and staff, and revisions to the Academic Calendar.

A dozen new CCTV locations for public spaces are added to those previously approved.