Faust and Collection Development

Many of you have, by now, read the editorial in the Wall Street Journal about the libraries who are ruthlessly weeding their collections of books that haven’t circulated in two years.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” may be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known books, but it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday’s Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren’t. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded–permanently. “We’re being very ruthless,” boasts library director Sam Clay.

OK. I understand having issues with find room for new books, and needing to weed the old ones. But aren’t some books just not weeded? The author, John Miller, goes on:

But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?

If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There’s a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

Right. There’s the crux of the matter. I agree that we should respond to patron wishes and stock our libraries with the books that our patrons want to read. However, I do not think this should be done to the exclusion of all else, for heaven’s sake. There are some books that libraries should have on their shelves.

Miller concludes with this wonderful insight (emphasis mine):

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn’t merely describe the words of a language–it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their “customers” want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

Yes. Amen. He notes, in closing, that you would have trouble determining what a Faustian bargain is at the Fairfax County Library, as Marlow’s play hasn’t circulated in over two years.

So…what are we? Are we the guardians and guides for information, knowledge, and literature? Or are we a repository for the lowest common denominator? I would dearly hope we’re the former. And if that’s the case, we need to consider our collection development carefully and with an eye to the future.

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1 Comment

Filed under Customer Service, Libraries and Librarianship

One response to “Faust and Collection Development

  1. However, if the classic literature collection is not updated or replaced, and its age and condition equal the copyright date, no wonder the books continue to rot away. More on http://www.designinginfo.com/multitypelibrarian/2007/01/classics-or-just-old.html

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