|by puddy77 on Flickr|
An interesting trio of articles came through the old Google Reader today. First, from Cracked.com, S. Peter Davis’s list of “6 Reasons We’re in another Book-Burning Period in History” is a somewhat irreverent attempt at explaining an ugly little truth of libraries: we get rid of books all the time. Second, on NPR’s Monkey See blog, Linda Holmes decided to fact-check the Davis article in her aptly titled “Hard Choices: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?” She finds that, yeah, we do get rid of books all the time, but we’re very careful about it. Finally, via Steven Bell, it seems that students at the University of Denver have been actively fighting against plans to remove 800,000 books from their library in order to make room for collaborative, social spaces and “learning commons.” All three articles are worth reading, so please check them out. I’ll still be here if you want to come back…
If you’re a librarian, it isn’t shocking to find that libraries routinely discard books. Call it “collection review”. Call it “deaccession”. Call it “weeding”. Call it what you want, we do it all the time and finding out can be quite a shock for non-librarians. I know first hand because I just finished reviewing the entire Philosophy, Religion, and Business-related collections here at UTC, one book at a time. From duplicate copies to abridged titles to outdated editions, the books I flagged for secondary review were mostly crap by any reasonable standard. Still, the protests in the faculty senate were nothing short of hysterical. Apparently, getting rid of an extra copy of Walter McFarland’s Concepts for Management Accounting is morally equivalent to kicking the baby Jesus in the balls. Seriously. It even smelled like cat urine! Why would you want the library to hold on to it if it smells like cat pee? I should probably clarify that I mean the book, not Jesus. Reliable sources confirm that Jesus was litter-trained.
Pictured: My reliable source.
by norbet on Flickr
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about all of the safeguards against discarding valuable books, the alternatives to pulping them, or the simple fact that disposing of State-owned property is not something librarians do all willy-nilly. These are other posts, to be written at a later date. Instead, I just want to point out that, in many more situations than we realize, there’s a tension between the value librarians see in their collections and the role that society has bestowed upon us.
As Davis asks in the Cracked article, what happens “when thousands of turn-of-the-last-century books and newspapers become landfill because the library wants to install a coffee shop?” On NPR, Holmes writes that “when you need more space for group work, you can’t pack every inch of your library with more shelves just to avoid getting rid of books.” It’s an important distinction. Not having enough room for more books is one thing. Not having enough room for the books you have, because the new coffeeshop needs 1,500 square feet, is something quite different.
“Here’s a Moby Dick reference that’ll totes make up for it!”
by 5-0_og on Flickr
You see, one of the more prevalent ideas going around the library world is that a commitment to collecting, organizing, and making information accessible is a relic of 20th Century librarianship (notice that I said “information”, not “books”). Prominent library administrators, library school faculty, and independent technology enthusiasts are vocal about their vision for the future of the library. The books we collect for our communities, the articles to which we provide access, in sum, the knowledge we share…none of it is as important as it once was. Instead, libraries should divest themselves of their hallowed stacks of dusty, old books and make room for collaborative learning spaces. We should trade ownership for ebook licenses and trade the reference desk for tech support. In the traditional model, we provide access to as much quality information as our budgets allow, in order to facilitate self-directed learning while preserving the cultural and intellectual record. Patrons come to us because we manage the world of information. In the new paradigm, we don’t need to provide any information at all…just wi-fi, coffee, and collaborative spaces. Patrons will come to us because we provide whiteboards and big tables. And if those books are getting in the way of building a new media lab…then the books have to go. They’re irrelevant to librarianship; a “bookless library” is not an oxymoron, it’s a virtue.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about encouraging collaborative spaces in the library. Our new building will be chock full of group study rooms, media labs, cutting-edge technology, even a Starbucks. But we’ll also have even more shelf space than we currently have. In a similar vein, when I worked at Oakland University, they moved the government documents to make room for a very popular information commons, but they didn’t weed the collection for that purpose. They weeded books for the “regular” reasons; the information commons was a separate issue all together. Again, I’m all for making the library the go-to place for studying, collaborating, and accessing information. All I’m pointing out is that it makes me uncomfortable when I think of libraries discarding massive swaths of their collections solely because they need to make room for collaborative spaces or cafes, while ignoring that the students and faculty want books and coffee. It’s fine if a library wants to combine their collections with new learning spaces. Sure, it’s tough to find the room, but we need to listen to the students. If building that cafe will require us to cull the collection, that needs to be an open conversation. (You’d be surprised how much relaxing your food and beverage policy can help.) The trend towards replacing traditional collections of information with the blank slates of collaborative spaces is worrisome. I mean, what is a reference librarian to do? “Oh, you need articles about Voltaire’s role in creating the first encyclopedia…go over to that media-station by the espresso machine and figure it out with some friends…we’re a library, after all.”