Saturday, January 24, 2015

Library privatization

Over the past week I spent a few hundred dollars on books. That's a lot of money, but the expenditure itself isn't so remarkable; I might easily spend two hundred at a conference or at a used bookstore in a town I pass through only seasonally. What's giving me a bit of a twinge this time is that the books I bought are substitutes for things that in another life I might have expected to be held by my university library: one is a major Miltonic reference work and two are facsimile editions of early Donne volumes.

Now, I'm not complaining about my college library; we have a decent acquisitions budget and everything I've ever asked for has been acquired, including pricey multi-volume sets. It's possible that if I'd asked for these--all long since out of print but available on the used market--the library staff might have been able to acquire them. (Though they certainly couldn't have acquired original copies of the Donne volumes, which run more than $50,0000.)

And maybe I'd have wanted these books even if RU had copies of its own; in grad school, I splurged on some complete sets and reference works even though I lived a ten-minute walk from one of the greatest research libraries in the country. I'm not as much of a bibliomane as some people, but I'm definitely on the acquisitive end of the readerly spectrum: cost permitting, I buy just about every book I read and every book I come across that seems like it might be useful in the future. Apart from the pleasure of ownership and the efficiency of having everything I want in a single location, I also like feeling I'm doing my small part to prop up the academic publishing economy--one $95 book at a time.

But though I don't regret the money I spend on books, in light of the limitations of my institutional library (and the similar, if not greater, limitations at the library of my future employer), building a private scholarly library sometimes feels like hoarding treasure for my personal use--or at least like a retreat from a commitment to institutional libraries as the cornerstone of the intellectual community.

And yes, I know that building a private library needn't mean neglecting institutional ones: in the nine years that I've been at RU, I've helped build up our early modern collection to the tune of a few hundred volumes and many thousands of dollars. I've ordered copies of things I already own, things too expensive for me to buy, things I don't need for my own research but that I imagine as valuable for future faculty and students. But knowing what I now know about acquisitions and deaccessioning policies, I realize that if I don't use a book I ordered, it's possible that no one else will--and in five years it could be gone.

So it's hard not to feel that building my personal library is, in fact, a hedge against disaster: not just a compensation for all the things I don't have access to now, but a preemptive move against the further destruction and degradation of whatever libraries I'll be associated with in the future. Straitened acquisitions budgets, deaccessioning, the move to more-easily-stored-but-less-easily-used digital formats, and the decision to warehouse books off-site (in order to turn libraries into student lounges, computer workspaces, or similar) all mean that I can't be sure I'll ever again have the same library experience I had in college or grad school. Ergo, the private library.

I like tending my own garden, and it makes me happy to be able to share it with my students and colleagues. But it's no substitute for those that are open and available to all.


Susan said...

I am always ordering books for the library. Fortunately, because we're a research library, I can argue for the standard editions of X (Middleton, Donne, Milton, etc.) because that's what we should have. Our library loves ebooks, but then subscriptions run out. So I've tried to identify some books that we really need as *books*.

I do not buy as many books for myself any more -- just ones I'll use in teaching, or use intensively in writing. There are space constraints! And I resent the $95 book.

One of my colleagues has so many books that Facilities has told him his office is a fire hazard -- but he buys the books and runs a secondary library for his students.

Flavia said...


I'm sure I'll see my book purchasing habits change over time--right now I'm in the sweet spot of finally having enough disposable income *and* enough space!

(And I've never actually paid full price for a $95 book--I wait for the last day of the conference and scoop things up on sale. Still, even at sale prices, new academic books don't come cheap.)

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Isn't all that shizz being digitized? Over time every book published will eventually get digitized, right?

Withywindle said...

Probably, but "digitized" does not equal "free".

And as Flavia noted, digital formats aren't necessarily easy to use or conducive to proper study.

I've had to purge my own library from time to time, due to space limitations. Agonizing, but there is some spiritual satisfaction of letting go.

However! I am now taking photos of all the pages in the books I deaccession from my own shelves (=piles by the wall), turning them into PDFs, and have "instant book" on computer, until such time as the data fails, unless I remember to back up in time, yeah right. I wish I could have done that years ago.

Flavia said...


What Withy said!

Digitization is great when it increases access--which is to say, when people who formerly had no access get it, as is the case with the digitization of rare books and manuscripts, which exist in anywhere from one to just a handful of copies in the world. Allowing access to those items to people who can't travel, or who can't travel often, is a real leveler.

But digitization is almost always inferior to having access to a physical copy. It's hard to compare multiple editions, it's hard to flip and skim, and there are some features of a text that simply cannot be rendered digitally.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sadly, our librarians seem to regard their mission in life as defending the library against the roving hordes of students (and, in some cases, faculty -- nobody, faculty or students, is allowed into special collections), so I've had very little choice but to build up my own collection of books and lend them out freely.