You mean I can’t throw these out?

James Cortada, a historian of computing who works for IBM, has a nice screed (Save the Books!) over at the American Historical Association that heaps a bit of anger on us lil’ old academic librarians.

Fresh from reading Nicholson Baker and full of Google digitization anxiety, Cortada charges that a new spectre is haunting libraries: heartless librarians ruthlessly discarding old PC-DOS manuals. (Wah! I had to scrounge second hand bookstores to write my 3 volume history of computing! Bad librarians! Them not book people!) Apparently no one told Cortada that when librarians discard books it’s called deselection, and we have rigorous protocols in place for that kind of thing.

Kidding aside, I agree with much of what Cortada has written and don’t think librarians and historians are as far apart on the issue as he claims. The future of print collections in light of the Google digitization project is a serious issue that is seeing ongoing discussion by librarians. In New Jersey, academic librarians gathered at Fairleigh Dickinson University for a one day symposium on the Future of Print in the Academic Library that included suggestions for collaborative solutions. Obviously, all libraries can’t and shouldn’t be holding on to everything, therefore choices must be made as to who saves what.

IUPUI Library Dean David Lewis demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the issues in his recent “Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century.” In his section on “retire legacy print collections” Lewis talks about regional collection management and the use of OCLC’s WorldCat as a tool for this purpose. He writes perceptively:

Whether it will be possible to build a national consensus and to implement a concerted program of action or whether a laissez-faire approach will be adequate is unclear. Until one approach or the other is proven to work, individual libraries will either have to delay decisions or make them on faith. Neither choice will be attractive to tradition-minded librarians who do not wish to antagonize faculty who value proximity to “their” books.

That sounds familiar, as I’ve been purposely procrastinating on a project of sending more of our history collection to remote storage for a while now. I’ve knocked off some low hanging fruit, like multi-volume outdated reference books in foreign languages, but more difficult decisions loom. Historians do tend to feel that the library should buy everything and hold on to it forever. Cortada’s piece can be a jumping off point for communication between librarians and historians. If librarians can understand more about the importance of holding on to ephemera (and non ephemera) for future historical writing, historians can understand more about the realities and economics of space planning. Beginning the conversation early is better than doing the evil mad laugh while running from the dumpster.

3 thoughts on “You mean I can’t throw these out?

  1. Cortada seems to fail to recognize the difference between libraries and archives. Not, mind, that archives are much better off when it comes to monetary and especially space issues, but it’s nigh unto insulting to think that librarians would save these items if they /only understood/. Although archives and libraries have a link and sometimes exist in the same building or organization, they aren’t actually the same thing. Librarians weed not only because we have to, but because saving is not actually a part of the mission of most libraries. It is the mission of archives. And archivists are sure as heck concerned about issues like saving ‘ephemera’ and how on earth they are going to maintain information stored on old computer systems – or information that’s gone completely digital.

    He misses the point when he advocates that historians and the ALA should help librarians ‘appreciate the value’ and ‘lobby for the preservation of’ – what historians and the ALA should first do is speak to some actual librarians, who might them point them toward some archivists, who might /then/ explain why it is that not everything gets saved and some of the things we might do to help be certain that our past – including those computer books – is saved for our future. And odds seem pretty good that what it’s going to come down to is funding, for staff, for space, for purchase of materials.

  2. The issue of what to save is not one just for academic libraries. I am a retired reference library and now volunteer at my public library. I am involved with the sale of used books by Friends of the Library and see some of what I consider to be the results of errors in “weeding” of the library collection. Some librarians make decisions based on very narrow criteria of circulation and age only They do not consider the future needs of a community that is maturing economically and reaching a higher educational level. We are no longer a farm-based little town with relatively simple needs. Let’s hope that the move into a large, new facility will inspire these librarians to look beyond having enough copies of popular fiction and to recognize the need to keep more of old treasures in the collection.

  3. I agree, Joyce, that the issue of “to save or not to save” is not the province of academia alone. Nor is it, I’m sorry to contradict you Nicole, the province of archives only. Academic and public libraries as well as public and private archives all the responsibility of information preservation as we all collect different types of information. Much of that information will have value to historicially minded readers whether they be professors, “average citizens” or business people.

    That we see so very little of this large-scale, regionally coordinated preservation happening in our public libraries is a violation of the public trust. Librarians fail to serve future generations by caring so little about past generations.

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