Saturday, September 02, 2006

The library: an enemy to books?

From the Chronicle about Harold B. Schleifer, Dean of Libraries at Cal State Polytechnic in Pomona. This is the kind of thinking that I fear:

After getting an estimate of $240,000 to move and store up to 200,000 books, of the library's collection of about 700,000, Mr. Schleifer proposed to trim that figure by $80,000 by asking his staff to find 70,000 or more books the library could throw out. If a book hadn't been checked out in a decade, and if copies were available at nearby libraries, or if it was damaged, it could be pitched. (my emphasis).

The librarians were disturbed enough to write a strongly worded memorandum to Mr. Schleifer. The collection-management staff called the idea of discarding more than 70,000 books to save $80,000 "penny-wise but pound-foolish" and "antithetical to our professional values."

"If the decision is made to discard books at this level we will not be able to help you explain the decision to the campus community," the librarians wrote.


I know that the library's mission is changing toward digital media, and maybe that's all right for public libraries (though I really don't think so). But for a university library?

What about the faculty members who need the books, even if "they haven't been checked out in ten years"? I'd estimate that roughly a quarter of the books I check out haven't been checked out in twenty to forty years. (I've even been known to check out a few extra old books just to keep the library from exactly this sort of misguided lunacy.) That doesn't mean that they are useless books. It means that just maybe, they're books that need to be recovered or rediscovered; they're books that shed light on classics or are classics themselves. They're books that we'll never discover if the library, following current trends, decides that more coffee shops and computers are the answer to users' needs.

What about students who'll never know about these books or see them, if they're gone or at a nearby library?

And what counts as a "nearby library," anyway? Many students don't have cars; those that have enough interest to go down into compressed stacks to look for books may not have the transportation or the interest to go to a nearby library. The "order it and get it 24 hours later" model of keeping materials off-site may be necessary sometimes, but it's a pain in the neck and definitely a second-best choice regardless of whatever "strategic plan" rhetoric tries to justify it. Also, many libraries charge students for Interlibrary Loan materials (mine does: $2). Do we really want to put MORE impediments in the way of students having access to materials?

What about serendipity--finding something you'd never find if you weren't physically in the stacks looking for something? Sometimes you copy a journal article and discover some related materials that never come up in even the most careful database search. Also, it's sometimes faster to copy something or even skim through it on paper than to wait for those hefty .pdf files from JSTOR.

And about those digital resources? Guess what--they can, and do, go away. Library budgets get sliced all the time, and there's no guarantee that the archive that exists this week will be available a year from now. It's the same process: someone in administration decides that you don't need it, and so it's cut. Also, although I'm a huge fan of online resources, they aren't perfect. Sometimes the links don't work, or the journal isn't available as advertised. Or, as happened to me this summer when using microfilm, pages are just plain missing. It's clear that UMI is probably never going to go back and re-microfilm the last few missing pages of a newspaper issue from 1910. (This is apparently not a unique problem.) That's now the record of that publication, and if it's a flawed record, I guess we're supposed to say "so what?"

The heroes in all this are the librarians who wrote the "strongly worded memorandum" to Dean Schleifer. I'd like to raise a virtual toast to you all.

[Update (from the comments):

thought you might appreciate another update. I have an online petition up and running and have been using my lunch hour to give out information to students here at Cal Poly on the book dumping situation. Yesterday the campus police questioned me and about my activities.


go to the website to sign the Save Our Books petition ]


Professor Zero said...

Hear, hear. Key post. :-)

undine said...

Now if only the "get rid of the books" crowd would think about these issues.

Anonymous said...

I happened across you're response to the article on Book Dumping in the Chronicle. I'm the librarian featured in the article. It’s about to get a lot worse here at Cal Poly, Pomona. The 200,000 books in storage are going to be thrown away. The library is being converted into a book crematorium.

I attempted to get a resolution placing a moratorium on the throwing away books before our Academic Senate, but our University President, Michael Ortiz, personally intervened to block it from going to the senate floor.

Just thought you might like and update on the situation

Bruce Emerton

undine said...

Thanks for the update, but that is terrible news. I'm sorry that President Ortiz seems so bent on the destruction of the books. I don't suppose there's anything that those outside the California system can do, is there?

Anonymous said...

It's really weird - it seems people have forgotten what libraries are for? My university president refuses to fund books, insists that the library buy only subscriptions to online stuff. It is insane.

Anonymous said...

thought you might appreciate another update. I have an online petition up and running and have been using my lunch hour to give out information to students here at Cal Poly on the book dumping situation. Yesterday the campus police questioned me and about my activities.


go to the website to sign the Save Our Books petition

Bruce Emerton
Tenured Librarian
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Anonymous said...

don't libraries weed there material? I thought this was a normal practice?

undine said...

Thanks for the update; I will put that URL in the main post so that more people might see it.

About libraries weeding their material: yes, they may need to do this, but I think that there are better systems for doing so. For example, if a library has technical or scientific print materials from the 1950s, those materials (I'm guessing) would be used less and could be stored off-site, unless the institution had history-of-science courses where they need to be used. Libraries also might get rid of multiple copies of bestsellers (_Forever Amber_, the _DaVinci Code_ sensation of the 1940s, springs to mind). Mr. Emerton would have more information than I would, but the wholesale destruction of books mentioned in the article seems a spectacularly bad idea.

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