Someone should write this history of librarianship: the longstanding tension between “give them what they want” and “teach them what to want.” Both have been with us almost from the very moment of birth of professional librarianship. Both have elements of nobility. Both have elements of condescension.
“Give them what they want” grants agency and, hey, even intelligence to library users. “Teach them what to want” is aspirational. We all can learn something new and keep on learning throughout our lives. Let’s look away for now from the nasty verso that each bears about the worthiness of library users–that what they want is of dubious quality–one says, “so what,” the other says, “this must be remedied.”
“Teach them what to want” had the upper hand in this fight for a long while, but “give them what they want” has made some serious inroads lately. Ah, but maybe it’s all a false dichotomy. Maybe we really can do both, even though it seems like they are diametrically opposed. Maybe we can add anything to the collection that someone wants but continue to teach skills about finding something better. No conflict there, eh?
The 2012 Ithaka Faculty Survey of information behaviors hit the street this week. I’m not sure there are any great surprises in the report. The progression towards use of electronic materials continues at about the same pace. The disciplinary differences between humanities, social sciences, and sciences seem about the same as previous years. They are all shifting in their behaviors in the same direction.
What is fairly constant as well, is that most faculty continue to think that the most important activity of the library is to acquire or provide access to scholarly material. “The library pays for resources I need…” is uniformly the highest response in several questions about the role of the library. (See pages 63-76.) Of course, anyone who has looked at Libqual data will know this as well.
Contrast this with responses from library directors, especially regarding the development of library support services for scholars, and you begin to see a disconnect between scholar desires (or knowledge of library services, at least). On some issues there is almost a 40% difference in response rate between faculty and library directors. “The library supports and facilitates my teaching activities,” for example, or, “The library provides active support that helps to increase the productivity of my research and scholarship,” are both questions to show a wide gap between faculty and library directors.
Library collections continue to be very important for scholars. We need to continue thinking about the best ways to serve those scholarly information needs.
All collection development librarians have found themselves facing the acceptance of materials into the collection that they know will be under-utilized and we’ve also all been in the position of having to turn down material gifts. Donated gift materials are such a fine line for all of us. We want to make sure we do not pass on something that could be a significant addition to our collections but at the same time we’re trying desperately to not be saddled with materials that will have little to no use and end up in storage or potentially being weeded within a decade. Apply the three “w” rule to gift acceptance to give yourself the wriggle room for making your library material gift acceptance or denial.
First off and probably most importantly, WHO wants to make the donation/receive the donation? If the person making the donation is a well known public official either within your organization or within your local environment, accept the gift materials graciously. Even when you have twenty other copies lurking in various places within your library, accept these materials. Annotate the notes on the records for the copies currently available or replace current copies available with the donated titles and make it clear these material were provided by distinguished person X. It is not unheard of for a long time distinguished donor of library materials to follow up with a monetary donation and or bequeath to your library. At academic institutions this situation can be applied to prominent and distinguished faculty and administrators. There is also a corollary to this type of library material gift acceptance. If a prominent and distinguished faculty, administrator, or public official wants your library to accept a particular material gift, then accept it. acceptance does not have to mean retaining in the collection. You can still make your local decisions regarding the condition of the material received and/or number of copies held locally or within your consortium. For the material that shows up unannounced and unsolicited, feel free to reject readily. You are under no obligation to add library material just because someone has taken the time to send it in your direction.
Secondly, consider WHAT is being donated as potential library material. Sometimes that quirky phone call you receive from the timid voice on the other end of the phone line is worth following up on and investigating. If possible, ask all cold call donors to provide you with a list of material they are considering donating. People with material worth personal interest will take the time to do this and you can avoid accepting the gift at this point if a list is not provided. People not willing to make lists have already boxed up the material and have made a mental break with it and just want to move it out of their space now. Seven out of ten times, the person will make you a basic list, author title of what they want to donate in part because they feel a connection to these resources and want them to go to a good home. The list gives you the ability to either spot check and/or go through the entire collection in a remote way to see how much you would want to accept. If the person calling with the library material donation sounds particularly frail but the person has an interesting story to tell of their collection or due to a connection to a particular department or professor, offer to go to them to review the material being offered. Yes, this takes some time but this is where the treasure is found and how special collections get built. Again, the unsolicited library material donations that show up at your desk for the most part are not things you will want to add. However, every now and again, there are things of interest that appear this way so always open up these packages to give a cursory review.
Lastly, consider WHERE the library material gift is located. Is it a departmental library that is being abandoned on your campus or within your local government? If so, taking a cursory look at what is there is not difficult or too terribly time consuming. A good rule of thumb is the fifty mile radius. Is this material gift located within fifty miles of your library; usually, then it is not a probably of retrieval or acceptance. For gifts residing more than fifty miles away, the decisions regarding WHO and WHAT may over-ride the location or need to pay for shipping. In which case, you work out how best to delivery the material to your processing units. Most call-in donors are willing to delivery their collections to you and it is always best to state upfront that you do not have a policy for picking up gift material early in your conversation.
One last caveat, it is also good to relate to any given donor that since their library material donation was unexpected and potentially of a large size, that the material will not be processed or added to the collection immediately upon acceptance. This allows you any extra time to review duplicate copies for retention, determine the best location for the material, and work into processing queues or quotas in a thoughtful and strategic way.
There’s been quite a bit of library news over the past five years about libraries stopping the acceptance of library material donations but we all know that it is impossible to not accept some library material donations. In all honestly, the best any library can do is to minimize the amount of effort that goes into accepting library material donations. By applying the three “w’s” of ready evaluation to each donation call, you can readily speed up both the decision making process and material donation process.
There is a dysfunctional and codependent relationship going on in libraryland. (No! Not ebooks!) I’m looking at you, print books! We’ve shacked up with print books for so long, everybody thinks it’s a common law marriage. And still we won’t admit that this is a “books who hate librarians and the librarians who love them” relationship. Denial.
Let’s look at this crazy relationship:
First of all, our lover turns out to be a hoarder. A&E show got nothing on this loony. Did you ever think maybe there are enough books? How about throwing something way? It’s bad enough that the collection grows like a cancer with what you’ve forced us to buy, but then you get your lunatic relatives to call us up as well: “I’ve got a garage full of textbooks on accounting from the 1950s and 60s. I’d like the library to have them.” Uh uh, Jack. Then, the whole family is trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody who suggests that something has to go. OMG! What about the cultural record!
Secondly, what we do have won’t stand up to a good reading. Oh, sure, try to preserve this stuff that starts falling apart after 3 uses. I think HarperCollins was being generous with 26! No chance replacing it because the stupid thing has gone out of print. OUT OF PRINT! What the hell is that? You end up borrowing another copy and tipping in a bunch of tacky looking photocopied pages. Hey book! Why don’t you just send all your pages in a box?
Then there’s the lack of standard format. Try organizing a library with all the wildly different sizes that Mr. Print Book comes in. Sometimes we end up with the “over there in the BIG area for no good reason” collection. Don’t even talk to me about those 6-foot tall book nutcases. Sometimes we just say, “screw it!” and cram stuff on the shelf any which way…fore edge down–ripping the cover right off at the spine. Whatever. Who cares? We have not even addressed the question of language. It’s like everybody has a different word for EVERYTHING! How are we supposed to be able to read all this stuff? Some books are even right to left. Back to front.
Here’s a good one. You’ve spent $700 on book and then he says, 9 months later, “there’s a new edition. Everything in the old edition is out of date.” Here’s the thing though. You checked. There are a total of 11 word changes and 7 punctuation changes. RIIIIGHT. New edition. $900 this time. This has a variation too: something that looks like a new book altogether, different title, different ISBN, different author even…turns out to be EXACTLY like a book you already have. Word for word.
But with all these crazy rantings, don’t even dare bring up separation. He starts screaming and wailing. “No, baby. Please. Don’t leave me! I’ll be better. I promise.” But it’s just the same old story over and over again. Whole bloody family ought to go in for therapy. That’s all I’m saying. Or maybe it’s time to think about saving yourself. Get out of this relationship altogether. He’s never going to change.
[Oh lord! Have I become like THAT library columnist?]
There is a remarkable artistic meme happening all over the world in recent years which involves using books as the material for constructing works of art. This technique is probably not new at all, but its occurrence has definitely exploded in recent years. So much so, that I’ve started maintaining a Pinterest board that I call “Books that aren’t books.” These works run the gamut from minute and intimate sculptures carved from the pages of books to massive and menacing art installations.
In the later category, Spanish artist Alicia Martin excels. Some of her huge installations involve thousands of books wired to mesh infrastructures inhabiting various urban spaces, some giving the sense of the books spewing (being vomited almost or worse) from buildings.
Others have a smaller but no less menacing aspect, like so many books reproducing uncontrollably behind walls to the point of over-population, putting one in mind of Star Trek tribbles.
On a smaller but more mysterious scale, in the past year in Edinburgh, Scotland, an anonymous artist began to secretly leave tiny, book-scarved sculptures in various libraries of the city. Each was accompanied by a card with words of praise for libraries and readers: “A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…” The identity of the artist was never revealed.
Other notable artists of both the carved book and installation form include:
Even libraries are getting in on the act, creating Christmas trees out of volumes of the National Union Catalog, and reference desks from stacked books. At my own university, an art student constructed an installation right outside our art library of books he got from the public library – skewered on metal cables.
The artworks themselves are beautiful and intriguing, but I am more fascinated by the sociology of the phenomenon. What does it all mean? Why is it happening now? Two things I think it suggests. One is a perceived and an actual surplus of books. None of these works could be created without access to large numbers of otherwise unwanted books. The one case I know of, the books came from a library surplus that was headed for the recycling bin. I’m sure many of the other artists got their materials from libraries or book dealers. Public libraries weed their collections regularly to maintain a current and circulating stock. Many large academic libraries, which have heretofore maintained collections seemingly in perpetuity, have begun to draw down their print collections to rely on shared print repositories or digital surrogates.
A second explanation, I think, is that people feel guilty about that surplus. Why are we throwing away books? Aren’t books a sacred commodity? Faced with that sense of guilt, those with an artistic inclination want to make something else useful out of these objects, if they aren’t going to function as books any longer. Sometimes, it’s as though the art is commenting on that duel relationship of surplus and guilt. Books carved into coffins! Books pinned onto cables. Books ejected through a window! These are interesting times we live in. The time of the Internet. The time of the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. Is there still a place for the physical book? We don’t know. And some of us are a little disturbed by the uncertainty.
Information is a dreadful word – stuck somewhere between the cold mathematics of Shannon and Weaver and the commercial commodification of even worse words like “content” and “product.” But how else do we describe the “content” of a library? “Knowledge” and “data” have special sorts of meaning that don’t always apply to what a library provides. Information is what libraries do. Without information, there isn’t a library.
That is going to strike many in the library profession as an old fashioned, even reactionary view. In recent years, we’ve come to think of libraries and librarianship as a suite of services and activities that cannot be reduced to a dictionary definition about a collection of materials or the location in which the collection is housed. We put up quite a hullabaloo when OCLC published Perceptions of Libraries in 2010, which suggested that when people thought about libraries they thought, “books.” ARRRRRRRGH would generally describe the librarian response in the blogosphere. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the sum of all information in a collection. We’re more than that!
I think there are several explanations for the development of this reaction against “the library as collection.” First, of course, is that the library is largely virtual. It doesn’t exist in a place the way it once did. The fact that the information of a library exists less and less in a physical container suggests that the actions required to access and use information are more important now than the physical embodiment of the information. Then, since information is disembodied, as it were, it is everywhere. People don’t have to come to libraries to get information. It is floating in the air. They can find it on their phone. Our declining circulation numbers attest to this and at the same time give us a sense of doom about continuing to pin our star to “the library as information.”
Of course, libraries have always been a combination of things and actions. We acquire books. We organize and describe materials. We help people find information. We teach people to navigate a sea of data. Sometimes a single person provides all those services. Sometimes there is a division of labor. Sometimes there is conflict and disagreement between one division and another. Each group thinks of itself as the “heart” of the library enterprise.
There seems to be a growing belief that the actions of libraries are more important than the things. A library isn’t information–it is the ability to find information. It is a place that will teach you how to find information. It is a service that enables the provision of information. Maybe it is even a place where people gather to create information. Yes, all of those are true. I embrace all of those visions of a library. But here’s the thing: information is the object of all those actions. They are sentences that are incomplete without “information.” Even in a world where we don’t own or physically hold the information, where all of our actions are directed away from a local collection, information is still the reason we exist. If a library isn’t information or the means to access information, then all of our actions could as easily be ascribed to or performed by schools, businesses, consultants, or other entities. We don’t need libraries in that case.
Because libraries are a constellation of actions that point towards information, we need to continue thinking of information as central to our mission. Otherwise, we are doing something other than librarianship.
Here is an interesting workshop for those in K-12 being offered by ALA Techsource:
“Choosing an E-Book Platform that Works for Your K12 Library”
being lead by Buffy J. Hamilton
Collaborative collection development has been on our lips for 30 years. It’s one of those topics that, to paraphrase Mark Twain (or whoever), everybody talks about but nobody does anything. I exaggerate. There have been a lot of what I’ll call prospective collection collaboration: shared subscriptions, buying clubs, cooperative approval plans. But retrospective collaboration is a tough nut. “Retrospective collaboration?” you say. What to do about managing existing collections, especially monograph collections, in a collaborative fashion? How to weed our monograph collections in an extensive fashion (creating spaces for other activities), while still preserving the greatest diversity of the scholarly and cultural record? Now THAT is on my lips all the time these days.
And its on the lips of several great presenters for ALCTS. See this ALCTS virtual preconference to learn a lot more about this kind of collaboration:
Local Collections, Collective Context: Managing Print Collections in the Age of Collaboration
June 4-6: there are three sessions, 90 minutes each, beginning at: 11am Pacific, noon Mountain, 1pm Central, 2pm Eastern
Sign up now! I’ll see you there.
I had tea yesterday with a long-time Medieval Studies/English Literature faculty member here. She has always been a heavy user of the library and a real supporter of everything we do. She’s actually retired but still doing a lot of things in the English Department on a part-time basis. Yesterday, she turned to me and asked earnestly, “why is the library going so electronic in everything it does?”
How would you answer that question?
All I’m thinking about today are legal issues. Is this what library collection development has come to? And are they teaching students about this in library school? There are, of course, the usual license agreements for subscriptions and electronic resources, but I have some other more specific issues on my mind:
- Hathi Trust: we’ve been thinking about joining this collaborative organization. I think they are doing important work to ensure the preservation of digital collections. They started with a base of materials digitized by Google from libraries in the Big 10 (and some others), but Hathi is managing these digitized materials with more of the librarian’s concern about preservation, more than Google, certainly. But now there is the sword of Damocles, in the form of a lawsuit from the Authors Guild, hanging over Hathi’s head. I don’t really know all of the ramifications of the suit, or how much it might affect the benefits of joining the organization. But it gives one pause.
- WEST: this is another collaborative organization that my library HAS joined. The organization is working to create a distributed print repository of print journal holdings. The idea is to ensure at least one print copy of selected journal titles exists within the member libraries of the organization. In order to make the print holdings as complete as possible, some libraries will ask others to contribute journal volumes to fill out a complete run. Here is where the legal issues come in. My state has specific laws about disposing of state property (including library collections of state universities). Can I convince our legal counsel that sharing some volumes from our journal holdings with another library in another state is legal and in our best interest? If we can’t contribute toward the collective holdings of the organization, are we even valuable members?
- Costco v. Omega: who would have thought that a lawsuit between a mega-store buying club and a Swiss watchmaker would have any impact on an Academic library? This issue came up because someone donated a 6-volume British publication to my library. I mentioned it online and someone suggested that Costco v. Omega may come in to play, especially for a donated book. You see, the Supreme Court ruling (or none-ruling) in this case upholds a lower court ruling (at least in the Ninth Circuit Court) that libraries do not have the protection of the right of first sale regarding materials not manufactured in the United States. What that means is that libraries may not even have the right to circulate foreign publications. Sheesh! Some legal beagles are saying not to worry. There are other protections the cover library activities (beagle1.pdf and beagle2.html). Some of the protections suggest that if you bought the material in a legitimate way, there is a presumption that permission to do library stuff with it is understood. That also presumes, however, that you can demonstrate how you purchased the material. Because of the vagaries of our ILS, we do not even maintain purchase orders for books in our system for more than 2 years. We still have copies of the invoices. But how would we match a particular book purchased 5 years ago with its corresponding invoice? We also do not have title-by-title records for most donations. Extra Sheesh! I wonder what libraries in the Ninth Circuit are doing.
Thus, I spend the day worrying about the law and not thinking about how to build a good library collection. Maybe I should go to law school.