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 I’ve knocked off some low hanging fruit, like multi-volume outdated reference books in foreign languages, but more difficult decisions loom.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.