What’s the Most Read Serial at the Boston Athenæum? The Answer May Surprise You.

Is it the New Yorker, that weekly badge of validation for the intelligentsia or Country Life, the glossy pages of which propagate the morbund mythology of the British landed gentry? Perhaps Cook’s Illustrated tops the list with its excruciatingly detailed backstory of every recipe for the Type-A culinary set. 

Before we reveal our findings, we’d like to explain the “why” and “how” of our methodology. The “why” originated with a question that had been plaguing us for some time: namely, do we have too many serial subscriptions? (NB: Library Land broadly defines serials (or periodicals, journals, magazines, etc.) as publications, containing a variety of short works, usually issued at regular intervals, without prior decision as to when the final issue will appear.)  An informal survey of our peer institutions confirmed our suspicions. Our bloated list of subscriptions dwarfed those of some of our counterparts by as many as 200 titles. 

While the answer to our question was a resounding yes, another factor beyond a lengthy subscription list lurked behind the need for reassessment. The Athenæum, like almost every library, faces a daunting space crunch. This is especially apparent every time boxes of bound serials returned from the bindery, the contents of which consume shelf space by the foot. But “how” to address these problems of size and space? We looked to online aggregators such as JSTOR and Project Muse to help solve the space crunch. If back issues of a serial were available online and reasonably current, we might cease to bind it. Through this exercise, we whittled down the titles that we bound. It bears noting that the majority of titles we chose not to bind skewed towards text-heavy publications, whereas those with significant illustrative matter, such as art journals, we continue to bind. 

Cutting down the number of serial subscriptions proved more difficult. How were we to gauge what titles were read and what were ignored? A scan of the professional literature offered no solutions. Soliciting advice from other libraries yielded suggestions that were impractical (have an idle staffer (do they exist?) stalk the serials section for several days, noting which titles were read) or faulty (ask members to place the read serial on a designated table to form a usage calculation, a method that could not account for another member picking up the serial from the special table to peruse the publication).  After some deliberation, Technical and Reader Services came up with the now familiar sheets Athenæum members see stapled to the front of our serials. These little tally sheets ask members to mark a column with an “X” if they read a serial. We have been tabulating data from these sheets for almost four years, affording us the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding subscription renewals and cancellations. (Although, we hasten to add, our decisions are not based exclusively on popularity. In addition to providing recreational reading for our members, our serials also serve as secondary research material for our Special Collections. Therefore, we continue to subscribe to serial publications dedicated to literature, book arts, printing, publishing, and art history, despite a lack of broad readership among our members.)

Our top-ten list of the most read serials at the Boston Athenæum  emerged as an unintentional byproduct of our record-keeping. Which publication tops that list? Quelle surprise! It’s Paris Match! It’s common knowledge that the Athenæum counts a fair number of Anglophiles among its membership, but apparently, the allure of sunbathing royals on the Riviera and socialite intrigue in the “City of Light” brings out the Francophile in many of us. See the entire list below (Excludes daily newspapers).

  1. Paris Match
  2. New Yorker
  3. Country Life
  4. Economist
  5. Times Literary Supplement
  6. Spectator
  7. Cook’s Illustrated
  8. Science
  9. London Review of Books
  10. Boston Business Journal