In 1905, a physicist with unruly hair was busy unlocking the secrets of the universe in a sweet little formula he liked to call E=M[C.sup.2]. At approximately the same moment in history, a band of librarians with--we presume--more tightly coiffed locks was busy launching a book-review magazine. It's unlikely that the physicist and the librarians ever crossed paths, but as someone who has played a role in keeping that same magazine on deadline for the last quarter century, I like to imagine that Einstein and the founders of Booklist might once have gathered at an amiable pub and complimented themselves on having a damn good year back in ought 5.
From then till now
When Booklist made its debut in January 1905, it was a very different animal in every way from what it is today. Its design emphasized, shall we say, function before form; it was published eight times per year; and the annual subscription fee was 50 cents. The interest from a $100,000 Carnegie Foundation grant subsidized Booklist in the early years. The initial issue of Booklist was published in Boston, although its editor, Caroline Garland, continued her duties as librarian of the Dover (N.H.) Public Library. In 1913, the magazine was moved to ALA Headquarters in Chicago, and May Massee became the first on-staff editor (there have been only seven editors in Booklist's century-long history).
The most substantive difference in Booklist then and now, though, is in the interpretation of its mission. The 1905 version took its role as a selection tool very literally, defining the magazine as a "current buying list of recent books with brief notes designed to assist librarians in selection." Brief is the operative word here. Early Booklist reviews were 25-to-50-word summaries of a book's contents. A review as such would have been redundant in a sense, since simply being included on ALA's official list of recommended books was considered as bestowing authority to purchase. The final selection of titles to be listed in the magazine was made by the editors but not before an elaborate system of information gathering had been completed. Weekly lists of books to be considered for inclusion in Booklist were circulated to a group of school and public librarians around the country, who would reply with yea or nay votes on individual titles, all of which were dutifully compiled and factored into the final selection decisions.
The remnants of this system are still visible at Booklist, where a massive card catalog holds records tracking those early books' campaign trails across the country in search of endorsements. Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, for example, garnered yea votes from Los Angeles and Chicago public libraries but was scorned by Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston. The Booklist reviewer sided with the nay voters, turning the book down on the grounds that it was imitative of The Snake Pit and "not focused enough on the larger problems of mental illness." Hmm.
It's easy today to deride this seemingly cumbersome system for its slowness and its lack of personality, but it was the right method at the right time. America's librarians were committed, well into the mid-20th century, to the notion of housing only the "best" books, and Booklist set out to produce as objective a list as possible of just what those books were. The system developed by the early editors was complex and meticulously designed; were they alive today, Booklist's original planners would have made terrific--and uncommonly literate--software developers.
As times changed, however, and public library book selection philosophies changed, Booklist changed, too. I remember first hearing the "quality vs. demand" argument in terms of book selection when I was a young public librarian in Washington State in the 1970s, but the seeds of that debate had been slowly germinating in library soil for many years. As …