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Why libraries should collect books

February 21, 2012

My post about why I no longer collect books demonstrated once again the significant cultural differences between the two nations I know best, namely the U.S. and Germany (still have a way to go with Canada). Describing my own relationship to the book, using my work in library gift processing as a central formative illustration, created barely a ripple on the western shore of the Atlantic. From conversations with readers over here, it is clear that nothing I wrote upset anyone terribly. Not so from the German side. A notoriously dyspeptic German blogger flamed me, slapping the book burner label on me, even going so far as to wish that there might be a special hell for such heretical librarians. More thoughtful German readers wrote with varying degrees of support or disagreement, but my description of mass book disposal clearly touched a sensitized German nerve. For those who kann, here are some of those responses (one, two, and three).

What I did not address in that post, but will do here, is describe my views on the obligations of libraries to collect books, or, as I commented on one of those German blogs, nearly all books. My view is that this is a collective obligation of libraries, an obligation that transcends both borders and library type. In other words, major research libraries do not bear this burden alone, since even with their broad reach there will be myriad titles that never land in their collections. In nations that have the capital and technical means to build and maintain libraries, there are collectively hundreds of thousands of libraries, ranging from a Canadian prairie town public library to the Harvards of the world. There are special libraries with highly specialized profiles collecting items that the rest of us would find mind-numbingly uninteresting. All of this is good.

Where I agree with the German writers and commenters is that libraries have something of an obligation to manage the books that land in their possession. This starts with having a clear collection policy, a document that should permit a library to block a gift before it ever comes in the door. For example, no academic library I’ve worked for would consider collecting mass-market paperbacks, or only in rare circumstances, so having a policy that such gifts will not be accepted only makes sense. Mass-market paperbacks should go to a used-book dealer, or be put on the shelf at the bed and breakfast for people to take, etc. Fiction generally finds a home.

Once a gift has been accepted, however, it’s incumbent upon the library to process the gift carefully, as I outlined in my previous post. This entails both having procedures and actually following them, something that turns out to be harder to do than one would suppose. In particular, before discarding any book, they should pass through at least several levels of consideration: adding to the collection, selling to used-book dealers, selling to the public, giving them to another appropriate library (appropriate being the operative word, not blindly dumping them on some library too unwise to say no), or as many have suggested, just giving them away to anyone who wants them. One does, as I outlined as well, have to exercise sensible judgment. Given the mass that can accumulate, wasting time finding homes for books such as, say, math textbooks from the 1960s or for a cheap edition of a novel that practically every library owns, is simply not a luxury most can afford. Disposal must remain an option.

Several jobs after the job I had at Washington University where we tossed books in the trash (n.b.- this happens at all libraries, whether they admit it or not), I served as a subject librarian at Yale University tasked with managing their already fabulous German language and literature collections. We had both the financial and human resources to add books at a very granular level, and working in a library such as that, one quickly moves from thinking purely in local terms (i.e.- does this university need this book, does it fit the curriculum?) to thinking in international terms, as in, does anyone, anywhere have this book. Yale and libraries of its level have collections of international significance, built over generations. (Sadly, that’s slipping at many of them, but that’s another story.)

At Yale we had an approval plan (dt.) with Harrassowitz that provided a steady stream of current literature, both primary and secondary, so my task was to expend my generous collection funds on more niche and specialized items. After scanning and studying the collection, it became clear that there were some clear gaps in the collection, and I set about filling them. Academic libraries traditionally did not collect children’s literature nor so-called trivial or popular literature, since both were deemed unworthy of critical attention. Needless to say, the canon wars (as well as the entrance of feminism and other -isms into the debate) put an end to that thinking, such that there is now clear demand for both types of works. Beyond that, while the Yale library had a solid collection of titles from the defunct German Democratic Republic, there were significant gaps in that collection for several reasons. Some of the titles had been deemed out of scope according to level/audience as I just described. Others were not exported by the GDR for political reasons, such as those published by the very few religious publishers that existed, while still others simply never landed in the library, likely because there was a less-than-smooth path between GDR publishers and American libraries for the usual geopolitical reasons.

For any librarian who has never done this work–building narrowly scoped collections backed by solid financial resources–I can only highly recommend it. Buying books with someone else’s money is a joy. I took the job in part because I sensed the rareness of the opportunity, and perhaps because I could already see the writing on the wall that the book era could not go on forever, i.e.- even wealthy libraries would be crushed financially by their collecting commitments, as has in fact occurred. While my own personal commitment to book collecting was enjoying its final years, I’ve never lost my faith in the textual value of books, and hunting down and acquiring titles to fill gaps in a fabulous collection and by extension fill gaps in the global library collection is interesting and rewarding work.

The time at Yale was full of some epic book-buying adventures. On one trip to Germany for a conference, I took a trip to the Buchdorf (book village) in Mühlbeck/Friedersdorf, which was founded in the 1990s and had a collection of dealers who specialized in East German imprints. Similar trips took me to dealers in Berlin and Leipzig, among other locales, even to book auctions in Leipzig, which are great fun if a bit stressful. I bought thousands of titles via dealer catalogues. One particularly fun project involved working with a professor of comparative literature to expand Yale’s holdings in children’s literature. One dealer, when I told her I was leaving Yale, lamented that she was losing one of her best customers. These are a few titles from those days:

While I said in the previous piece that I have no particular affection for the book as object, texts do have great value for me. It’s likely utopian to hope that even all of the libraries of one nation–even one as large/wealthy as the United States–could hold a copy of every book every published or at least make such available in digital form, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try when and where they can. That mission is what has driven conversations for decades about collaborative collection development. The high water mark was the Farmington Plan, which regrettably died out. Nowadays, when libraries speak of collaborative collection development, they do so mainly hoping to save money by cutting monograph acquisitions and relying on interlibrary loan. The sad truth of academic libraries is that they have numbingly homogenous collections because they are increasingly built on autopilot using approval plans. With respect to German books, since Harrassowitz has supplied virtually every German-language book acquired by North American libraries for decades, it should not be surprising that everyone has a copy of the same books, while thousands of others fell by the wayside. Sure, some were perhaps dreck–vanity publications, pulp, etc.–and one has to be realistic about boundaries, but a lot of worthwhile titles never found their way to North America.

This isn’t meant as an indictment of Harrassowitz or other approval vendors. If you have qualified staff doing acquisitions, an approval plan is a godsend since it eliminates redundant work in many libraries. What the library community needs, however, is a solid core of libraries who collect deeply in niche areas to the benefit of all others. That’s what still existed when I worked at Yale less than a decade ago, but in the meantime that system has begun to crack and disintegrate. Yale has cut their monograph collection funds and activities, as has Harvard and many others, and while I was hired at Yale specifically for my German language skills, they now no longer have a qualified German speaker to look after that massive and deep collection built over a century. This story has repeated itself at school after school in North America. Anyone working in acquisitions reading this is surely nodding their head.

One might be tempted to argue that the arrival of ebooks will solve the whole puzzle, but that’s a naive supposition. For one, many nations are not nearly as ebook willing or able as others, so books will continue to appear–inconveniently for the modern academic library–on dead trees for decades. Beyond that, the ephemeral nature of the ebook, and the myriad copyright issues that impinge on a library’s ability to own and lend one, will mean that collections will be far more fluid and unpredictable, perhaps serving immediate needs well, but no longer meeting the imperative that libraries long had at the core of their mission: to collect and preserve the human record. While I will not shed tears over books in dumpsters no matter who calls me callous, I do deeply lament the collective abdication of this role.

  1. February 24, 2012 10:34

    Thanks for your article. I agree that libraries should collect books. If they don’t do this, who is going to step up? There have been thousands of great books written and I think it is important to keep the tangible, written book and not in an ebook format. There is nothing like feel and texture and immersing yourself in a real book!

    • March 1, 2012 09:44

      Thanks for your comment. My feelings differ on the value of the physical object, but preserving the texts (or, more broadly, the record of what has been written) is paramount. I thought five or six years ago that I would be one of those people who would really prefer to read books on paper rather than on a device, but I’ve come around. That said, I still read mostly analog books, but that has more to do with the silliness around rights management and how devices tie one to a subset of available books than anything else. Were those problems solved in a real and permanent way, I’d likely read e-only.

  2. Huifang permalink
    February 25, 2012 02:12

    When I saw the title, I just remembered my library director’ sentence:“my library should go to no paper library”。I did not really understand his meaning, but my library described e journals instead of the Chinese printed journals of adjacent years for considering easily accessible and limited budget factors. Some of my colleague really opposite it in the opinion that it challenged long term preserve. I know National library do should assume the collection deputy, as research library, I have no clear idea. In my opinion, The British Library UKRR project which combine collection and provide remote discovery and delivery services give me the answer.
    When I saw the title, I was catch up. Because I am so sleepy and limited English, I cannot completely understand the author’ meaning, the above described is just what I think of and perhaps it is not really correct.

    • March 1, 2012 09:40

      Thanks for the comment, Huifang. How libraries should ensure longterm access to journal literature is another topic, I think, one about which I am far less pessimistic. There are, relative to books, very few truly obscure journals, so there is less chance of things slipping through the cracks. Plus, between Portico and CLOCKSS, there are two viable and high profile projects aimed at making journals available beyond the publisher’s scope. There have been few so-called trigger events with either system, but when they’ve occurred, they’ve performed well and provided access as they should.

  3. February 15, 2013 09:25

    Reblogged this on Stephanie L. Gross, MSLIS and commented:
    Still thinking this over….


  1. Why I no longer collect books « The Bibliobrary

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