Sunday, October 27, 2013

Deselecting for the library of the future

The library at RU is in the early stages of a significant renovation, and right now we're in the midst of the "deselection" process--a/k/a "weeding" a/k/a "getting rid of books."

Aspects of this have been handled badly--I'll leave it to you to imagine how--but the reality is that our collections haven't been weeded in decades, and they're overdue. In many fields it's actually irresponsible to keep older material on the shelves (older = outdated, superseded, erroneous), and although that isn't true in the humanities, there are still plenty of titles that should go; there's usually no reason to keep a whole bunch of random, midcentury editions of the works of a given Renaissance poet if we also have more recent editions that are more rigorously edited and with better scholarly apparatus.

Faculty are being given the chance to review the list of deselected titles in their disciplines (and any other areas of interest), and click a button to recommend those we should keep; to the best of my understanding, everything we recommend keeping will be kept.

This sounds great, and it's certainly better than the alternative, but it's proven unexpectedly challenging. To start, there are 8,500 titles on the deselection list in English/American literature alone, and there are other disciplines I want to look at after that. In order to make headway, I've chosen to focus only on titles in my subfield--someone else can worry about James Joyce and Frances Burney--which means I'm able to get through 500-1000 titles at a go before my eyes glaze over.

Even within my subfield, though, I'm struggling with the task. Right now I'm the only faculty member in a field that spans 130 years, give or take, and that includes maybe a hundred significant authors working in a range of genres. I haven't read most of their primary works, much less the scholarship on those works. I have no idea which edition of George Chapman is authoritative, or whether an older edition might have virtues not replicated by a newer one. I don't know whether a 1965 book on Herbert is regarded as foundational. . . or a bit of belletristic bloviating. Even in the case of Milton and Donne scholarship, I know some works that I'd lie across the train-tracks to save, but certainly not all of them. That title. . . it rings a bell. . . but why? Is it actually important, or just a spine that sat in an eye-catching spot in the bookstacks in grad school?

Age isn't a clear-cut guide, and neither is press; if I have a high opinion of something by a given scholar, I usually vote to keep anything else he wrote, but the fact that I've never heard of a dude doesn't mean much, especially in subspecializations far from my own. Titles can often be a clue ("Shakespeare: A Study in Genius" and "12 Moral Archetypes in Renaissance Lyric" can almost certainly be tossed to everyone's benefit), but not always. I'm erring on the side of saving books, of course, but it's vexing to think that I'm probably keeping a certain amount of crap, including crap that may eventually make its way into my students' papers.

The real problem is that I don't know what my future colleagues will want, or my future students; hell, beyond the next two or three years, I can't even predict my own scholarly trajectory with assurance. A library collection can't just be targeted to its present users' near-term needs, and in ordering books for the library over the past eight years I've always ordered widely, focusing on topics and subjects that I know to be important even when I can't imagine needing those books myself. Even if no one at RU ever needs the book, it's available through inter-library loan, and so serves an even larger community (and performs a minor bit of advertising: whenever I get a book from ILL, I note where it's from, and I have a distinctly positive impression of certain small-college libraries as a result).

There are subject areas that currently have no specialists to review them. RU has no Germanists, and no tenure-line Italianists. Our history department is strong, but with some big period and area gaps. English is hiring for two positions this year--will we wind up getting rid of books those new hires might have fought for?

I know this needs to be done. I'm glad I can participate. But it's anxiety-producing all the same.


Janice said...

Wow! I mean, I'm envious that you're getting some faculty input in the whole deaccessioning program (ask me about how OUR library packed up everything in the T, U and Z ranges, then bundled them off to long-term storage without a word or sign!). But I can see how this would be overwhelming. Is there anyway you can circulate some of the listings to the hive mind of your colleagues beyond the college wall? Harvest the power of the interweb a little, in other words? Good luck in any case.

Flavia said...


Well, we'll see! I'm choosing to be guardedly optimistic--two different colleagues have served on the advisory committee, and fought hard to see that faculty concerns are heard and addressed--but it's hard for everyone's blood pressure not to rise when they hear that books are getting tossed.

In a perfect world, it would be great to get the input of a larger community. In practice, it's a headache even to do it internally, and probably unworkable to get & collate feedback from others on a relatively short timeline. (I'm occasionally asking my spouse's opinion about early modern drama, though, since that's his area of specialty.)

I get the arguments for a smaller and more tailored collection, especially at a teaching school; if no one is teaching or researching within German literature, why have those books taking up space? And if no one has checked out a given title in fifteen years, and there are 30 other copies statewide, isn't it more sensible to get rid of our copy secure in the knowledge that it's always available via ILL in the unlikely event someone ever needs it?

I get it. But I resist this idea, though I see its logic, and though to some degree I participate in it: we actually have a pretty solid library collection in my field, but after years of mostly needing really weird and specialized stuff, I'm now so accustomed to using ILL that I'm sometimes put out when I realize I actually have to GO UPSTAIRS and FIND THE BOOK MYSELF rather than just parking in the loading zone for five minutes with my hazards on and running in to collect my ILL books from circulation. I've also gotten accustomed to buying my own books--because I like to write in them; because I like to have them at hand; because I believe in supporting academic publishing--so sometimes the reason a book hasn't been checked out is because I ordered a copy for the library while also buying one myself.

In other words, I guess I'm part of the problem, though I hate to admit it.

i said...

Just want to point out that the rationale you're using is fine for new research on primary sources. However, if someone comes along who wants to do meta-work on the history of a work's interpretation, or on the history of a particular field, you've just cut out the most interesting, and hardest to find, exemplars. The books that maintain their relevance and continue to be cited are easier to get via ILL, it's precisely the obscure ones no one agrees with anymore that are valuable on the shelf.

Re: editions, are you at least keeping older scholarly editions, even if out of date? Again, anyone doing a word study or editing a text or even looking to question a new ed can use the older editions -- at least I do, in my own work.

You're right about the blood boiling. I'm a bit sick of how eager many librarians are to toss out their collections, often in favour of creating some kind of gargantuan computer hub where students can facebook and look things up on sparknotes and wikipedia instead of cracking open a goddamn book. Tell them you want to spend 50K on half of a database that maybe two people on campus will use, and that the library might not even own, and they get a spark in their eye. Tell them you'd like them to devote resources to keeping books they have already bought, and suddenly you're not hip to the future of libraries.

Flavia said...


I'm not talking about editions per se in my second paragraph--that is, something that purports to be a Complete Works, or that is intended to be more or less scholarly (whatever that meant for the era). I'm talking about random student- or general-reader oriented volumes of a given author's work or selected works. (i.e., the equivalent of today's paperback Penguin or Signet or Oxford World Classics volume of a play or a group of poems--but without notes, and maybe just a biographical essay as an intro.) As you'll see, in paragraph 5, I talk about the potential value of "outdated" editions of the kind I think you mean.

In any case, I only mean that there's a reasonable case to be made against keeping, say, six 1920s-1950s editions of Sidney's poems on the shelves in an-open stack library with limited shelving that's geared toward serving undergraduates and M.A. students. Not that they have no imaginable research value to anyone ever.

But as for your last para: totally agreed--though I find administrators, people in student-support services, and sometimes faculty in professional fields (who have entirely different information-research needs) to be the prime movers. Alas, though, librarians aren't exempt from thinking this way.

Withywindle said...

In my librarian hat: indeed, I think you do often have faculty insisting on each and every database too. Then, there really is the question of space: you're supposed to acquire new books steadily, but getting more space for a library is a difficult administrative project, competing with every other financial priority. So deaccessioning really is a priority. Offsite (nearby caves with shelving) and InterLibrary Loan really are essential options--although the cost of shuttling books to and fro to the on-campus library is also considerable, and not every institution can readily afford it. (Indeed, if you're concerned about the environment, Offsite and ILL may be the most harmful alternatives.) Yes, there are librarians with technobees in the digital bonnets, but I do think most are simply trying to make choices with limited resources.

Frankly, I would say the greatest problem is 1) the copyright laws; and 2) the lack of open-access journals. Fix those, and some vast amount of what's needed will be freely available on a million computers, and the library bottleneck disappears. But of course those won't be fixed any time soon, so problems we have.

(I'm making this argument telegraphically, on the theory the essentials are generally known. I can expand if necessary.)

Flavia said...


Thanks for this. I think most if not all of my colleagues recognize that we can't do everything and that shelf space is limited--every library collection has to be an edited one, and some more edited than others!

But the devil is, as always, in the details. For our collection, twenty books on Milton would be inadequate, but there's some figure that's too many--given our particular needs, shelf space, and other exigencies. Maybe for us 150 is too many. But how do you decide which books?

There are two temptations, each irresponsible: one is to set out to keep only the titles that everyone in the field at the present moment more or less agrees are the most important, influential, etc. That means a smaller collection, but some would argue a purer one. The other is to say that we can't possibly judge and are prone to our own biases--and keep damn near everything.

That's what I find hard, I guess, and that's what this post is about: that it's a messy, imperfect process, and that I hate knowing I'm bound to err and second-guess myself no matter what.

Contingent Cassandra said...

In marginal cases, checking whether a book is available on Google Books might be comforting.

But I'm not 100% sure I trust Google Books to be there in the long run (though I very much hope it will be).

And I worry about the loss of marginalia and other marks. Some of my favorite books are classic works in my field that were once owned either by their authors, or by other well-known names in the field (bought at the local AAUW book sale in the years after the death or household downsizing of the scholars or their wives -- they're all from an era when, at least at my grad school, scholars were male). Even student marks can be interesting (though admittedly less so). I know we can't save every copy of every work, but. . . . .

Flavia said...


I hear you about marginalia. And deaccessioning in the present really makes one realize what we've lost from the past--sure, we have ONE reader's interesting marginalia on a given work. . . but how representative of responses, reading practices, etc., is it?

[Also, correction: I just went to the library's deselection page and realized that it's 8,500 titles in British literature alone--American literature has some 7,000 candidates of its own.]

Servetus said...

This puts me in mind of one of Nicholson Baker's anecdotes, back when he was writing about library destruction in the New Yorker, to the effect that he went to the Athenaeum to get a particular edition of a work by a less than famous American author, and when the book was delivered, the pages were still uncut. He asked if he could cut them, and they said yes, and he said, jokingly, I wonder who you bought *this* for, and they said to him, seriously: we bought it for you.

Renaissance Girl said...

Servetus! Good to read your voice! Hope you're well.

Servetus said...

Hope the same for you, Renaissance Girl!

RLB said...

I'm late to this discussion, but oh, is this a big headache for librarians as well. As one myself, I'd like to say that it is almost always higher-level administrators at the college or university who want to convert the library to a giant study hall/technology center, at least at my institution (and they are doing their worst here, for sure). My colleagues and I are constantly lamenting the demands from above that we weed again, cancel more subscriptions, etc., because of "space concerns."

As for your remark that "A library collection can't just be targeted to its present users' near-term needs" -- ha, if only! You'd like to think so, wouldn't you? And yet we are being asked to do more and more of our collection development as "patron-driven acquisition" in the form of e-books -- that is, you put listings in your catalog for a whole bunch of available e-books, but you don't buy any of them unless they are "used" a certain number of times -- people clicking through into the text counts as a "use", and a purchase is automatically triggered after 3 uses, or 5, or whatever the criteria are set at. So it's *entirely* a set of purchasing decisions made based on present users' near-term needs. It's incredibly frustrating, but there's this mandate to switch from "just in case" collections like the one Servetus describes (awesome anecdote, by the way), to "just in time" collections where we provide the item a person needs in the moment when they need it, but nothing beyond that. It makes me want to cry sometimes.