Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dysfunctional library post

      I've been meaning to do this post ever since last week when the Collection = Connection blog put up “Dysfunctional & Codependent” OK, I note that one of the tags is humor. Is this meant to be straight parody, or 'laugh to keep from crying'?, because as a humor piece I don't find it that funny. This is not 'how dare you make such levity about the serious business of our profession'/boxers in a bunch kind of not-funny, rather it's the it's not funny kind of not-funny. As a commentary on the state of print collection policies, the piece is hardly more than an unorganized group of rants about the problems of having a collection of books. Size, shape, durability are thrown together with frustrating publisher behavior, donations and books in foreign languages. In an effort to clarify without trying to be funny, let me address these issue in some semblance of order.

      Firstly, the post mentions physical problems of a book collection. Yes, books do not come in one standard size. This has been true since the invention of the printing press, and up until now, I've never heard a librarian seriously discuss this fact as though it were a problem. Maybe I still haven't. In our library we have most of the books in a robotic storage and retrieval system, where the storage bins are designed to accommodate the height of the book. The really large ones, which used to be on specially-spaced shelves in the Oversize collection, get their own bins where they lay flat. This is actually much better for the books, as in this position their spines are not stressed by the book's own weight. In libraries that do not utilize such storage systems, there are adjustable height shelves to make room for books of unusually large size.
      Wear and tear on books will happen, as the book gets used. This is only to be expected. A collection development policy should address the need to identify and replace worn books. It is possible to look at wear on a book as a positive sign, as it most often means that the book is coming off the shelf and being read. That's why we collect them, for them to be used. This is not a problem, it's the plan.

      Secondly, the post addresses what I'll call librarian attitude problems. The question of what to do with things that people donate to the library is a common one, common enough that it has been effectively answered. Any library that does not have a policy in place to address donations deserves to be buried under piles of out-of-date textbooks and old Harlequin romance novels. At my library, I'm the donations evaluator. We'll agree to take just about anything, but once the donor signs the form it's ours and we can do anything we choose with the books. This is made clear to the donor on the form. The policy gives me a lot of discretion in deciding the fate of donations. Do we have it already? If we don't need another copy, it goes to the book sale. Out of date material? Book Sale! In poor condition? Trash can or Book Sale! Book on a subject that has no relation to our academic programs? You get the idea.
      Yes, I know, librarians are stereotypically afraid of weeding. In an age of tight budgets and crowded shelves, however, weeding is a very practical matter. I happen to like weeding. If it helps, think of it in terms of the overall health of a collection, as if it were a fruit tree. A healthy collection is one that meets the needs of its user group, whether public or student or professional. Weeding prunes the tree, allowing it to grow in a healthy way. Our browsing shelves are no place for irrelevant, dated books. We do not serve our students by giving them what they want, or what we want, but what they need.

      Thirdly, the post talks about issues with publishers. First, the easy one. So you have books in your collection that are not in English? Find out if any of your user group reads that language (French majors, anyone?) and if they do, then the books make sense. If they don't see the bit above about weeding. Simple.
Next, books go out of print. Book publishing is a business, and we just have to accept the fact that publishers will do what is in their best interest. I see books at Amazon and Books in Print all the time that are noted as “out of print” but are still available. I don't really understand the point of including this issue in the post.
      On the subject of changing editions, may I please suggest that you check a little more carefully before deciding to buy the new 'edition'. As I suspect this refers to the publishers of textbooks, you could also take our approach. We don't buy textbooks. Period. If you're talking $700 books, likely it is a reference work like a specialized encyclopedia. With print reference taking such a drubbing from the e-book editions, I don't see many print works being revised that often, especially not at full price. Our e-book reference works get updated, but we only pay for the updates, not the whole work.

      In conclusion, while this post does speak to some real issues of print collection management, it is done in such a disorganized way and in such a whiny tone that any serious points are obscured by the presentation. From the opening paragraph it seems like the post I going to be about librarians' relationship to the books in their collections, but the post rapidly wanders off from this. The post opening is too harsh to be funny, and the post does not support the assertion well enough to be serious. I hope ALCTS can do better than this.

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